I was just stepping out of my room to head to the hermitage where I would start my pre-novitiate retreat, when one of the Sisters who I live with whispered sharply from down the hall, "Don't slam the door like that!"
I apologized quietly and meekly, and felt good about myself for only rolling my eyes in my heart.
I thought, "First of all, I didn't slam it."
I thought, "Who cares how loud the door closes? It's not like I'm setting off fireworks in here."
I thought, "In the 'real world,' outside the monastery, you don't get to comment on every little thing you don't like other people to do."
And then I went out to the woods, reassured of my own righteousness over this Sister, who really has always been kind and patient with me, who had said exactly what I would have said if someone had gone slamming a door a few feet away from me while I was doing my spiritual reading.
We have three days of personal retreat before the novitiate starts, to try to get ourselves settled and open to the year of intense discernment and study that lies ahead of us. As you can tell, I went into it with kind of a bad attitude. There is so much I like––not just like but really treasure––about my life as a postulant: the ministry I've had for the last few years, my freedom to come and go to see my godchildren, my "young people friends," and my Sisters who live in the city. Being a novice and spending almost all my time in the monastery is a real shift––a necessary one and a good one, but also a painful one, at least at the start.
So I went out to the hermitage and sat down on the bed and cried and was miserable for the whole first night.
I kept thinking, What am I doing? This world is falling apart and I'm locking myself away for a year of spiritual growth? How self-indulgent, how self-important, can I be? Shouldn't Christians be volunteering to make sure that our elections happen safely and peacefully? Shouldn't Christians be playing with poor children, telling them they're special, checking their homework for errors? Shouldn't Christians be cherishing every moment of our short lives with the people who love and who drive us to do good in the world? Why is this sacred novice year spent inside, where little petty issues can swell to major importance, where all I'll do is help out with chores and do my reading and try to say my prayers with greater sincerity? Of course I want inner peace, of course I want spiritual maturity, of course I want to discern my vocation and learn to live more authentically––but I don't want to treat monastic life like it's a self-improvement program. I don't want to think that my prayer life is about me, about how holy and calm and reflective and good I feel I am.
From there, the retreat went on to be riddled with tragicomedy. On day 2, I noticed that the water wasn't draining in the shower, and as I watched to see if it would start to go down, I heard ominous gurgling and bubbling from the (totally clean and empty) toilet. One little experimental flush to see if something was lodged in the pipes led to an absolute geyser erupting, with water flowing from the bowl and the tank. I managed to turn the water off pretty fast, but still needed about 4 towels to mop up the bathroom. The maintenance staff came out and investigated and came back with a grim discovery: tree roots growing into the septic system. So my director trooped out to the woods and helped me carry everything I'd brought with me to another hermitage, in the middle of a driving rainstorm. In the midst of all this, I got the good news that Mary Lou would be trying another treatment, that there was some promise for more time and less suffering than we'd feared. So the inconvenience of a flooded bathroom and a short move didn't really dint the joy of that.
But as we stepped into the cabin, my director made a totally innocent remark, something to the effect of, "This cabin used to be really nice, back when it had a little potbelly stove for heating. I used to come out here a lot then. Now that we got rid of that, it's not so nice." I nodded along, but seethed a little bit inside, completely misinterpreting what she said. Somehow I extrapolated from that comment that there was no heat at all in the cabin now (as though that would be a real option for my director! As if anyone here would think that was fine! So much for my trust in the community.) Telling myself not to be a baby, I didn't say anything like, "Can't I just go home?" or "Don't you think it's a little cold for me to be out here?" There was frost forecasted that weekend, and I hadn't even packed socks. That night I laid in bed wearing about four sweaters, having tied the ankles of my pajama bottoms together over my toes, seriously questioning everything that had brought me to this point.
Well, the third day it wasn't so bad. Sunny, and the trees were bright and glowing with yellow leaves. I snuck back into the house to get some socks. And I took a walk on our property and spotted a young maple tree that had been bent by a fallen tree, its thin trunk stretched into an upside-down U with its leaves and branches pinned in the creek, and I was able to tug on it and wiggle it to freedom. It shot up from under the log and its leaves all shook themselves dry, gleaming against the blue October sky. I thought, I have that same desire to be free and alive that that tree had––and if this novitiate, this monastic life, doesn't lead me to freedom and aliveness, I'll just pull myself out of it. But I'll give it a shot first.
Back at the cabin that afternoon, chilly but managing okay, I read some Thomas Merton, and was struck by a line in which he said that he could tell that Thich Nhat Hanh was "an authentic monk," by the way he opened and closed doors. I later went and found Nhat Hanh's writing on this idea in his Zen Keys. He writes:
"The master can see if the student is or is not 'awake.' If, for example, a student shuts the door noisily or carelessly, [s]he is demonstrating a lack of mindfulness. Closing the door gently is not in itself a virtuous act, but awareness of the fact that you are closing the door is an expression of real practice. In this case, the master simply reminds the student to close the door gently, to be mindful. The master does this not only to respect the quiet of the monastery, but to point out to the student that [s]he was not practicing mindfulness, that [her] actions were not majestic or subtle."
He also says that in his monastery, novices can't begin to learn meditation til they can open and close doors properly!
I couldn't help but laugh, reading all this. On one level, there's always a temptation to take things like that as a sign, as a little wink from above. And on a more realistic level, there's the realization that your problems, your aggravations, your tendencies are not unique at all, not special at all––and so, not worth the attention you give them. I let go of my defensiveness about the door slam at the beginning of my retreat––the defensiveness I hadn't even realized I was still feeling. So I need to learn to be more careful, to pay attention to what I'm doing. Everyone does! What could be more common than carelessness?
Maybe this year will lead me to greater mindfulness, greater reverence. I want it to. Not so much so that I can be a better nun, a better monastic, but so that there will be one more thoughtful, reverent person in the world. We certainly need more of them.
Or, as this poem, "Opening and Closing Doors: Lessons for Novices," by Nancy Corson Carter says:
When Thomas Merton asked Thich Nhat Hanh
what he had learned in his first year in the monastery,
he replied, "How to open and close doors quietly."
Test each door you encounter,
its latches and hinges,
look for lurches and lags as
it sways in and out.
Each door is a teacher
as you quietly attend.
Imagine opening or closing
to rising water or to a sunset,
to sirens or to laughter.
Imagine what you'd do if
a beggar crouched there,
shriveled with hunger.
Imagine not imagining,
not noticing the door,
your hands, the air.
To open and close quietly?
Neither slam against fear
nor bar the unknown?
Welcome guests you'd
never have invited?
Re-learn each day how
to open what is?
Opening and closing quietly,
you practice deep intention
to make a place in the world
for the Buddha and the Christ.
One more thing of note happened on this retreat. The third and final night, I was really, really cold. Desperate, I turned on the shower at the highest heat, to try to steam up the bathroom and make a little sauna for myself to warm up in. Curled up, sitting on the floor of the bathroom, I suddenly realized that there was baseboard heating that I was leaning against. And the baseboard heating wasn't, of course, just in the bathroom–– it was in every room. There were thermostats on the wall in every single room, and I hadn't seen them. I don't mean I thought they wouldn't work, I mean I literally didn't even see them, because I'd gotten it into my mind that there was no heat and I just had to deal with being cold. I'd told myself a story and it blinded me to the opportunity to be warm.
Seems like there might be a little lesson in there for me. Maybe for you, too, I don't know.
I have 51 weeks left of my novice year. I'm going to try to keep my eyes open, and I'm going to try to find more positive stories to tell myself about the novitiate. Because I think I'll find whatever I tell myself is available to me this year. And it doesn't have to be self-centeredness or piety. It might be reverence, patience, or even a little humility.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.