A few weeks ago, I took my goddaughters to the beach, hoping to teach them to float. This proved to be harder than I’d expected. They had never seemed afraid of the lake on any of our previous trips, but as soon as I’d get them to stretch out on the surface of the water and tilt their heads back, they’d start thrashing their arms and legs, frightened that they’d sink, making themselves more afraid as they struggled. It was one thing for them to splash and jump around, sending the ripples and waves in every direction, but much more difficult to be still and relax. They didn’t trust the water to hold them.
There’s so much I want these children to know, and so much in this world that I wish I could protect them from. I have to recognize that most of that is way beyond my power. But one small, manageable gift I can give them is the knowledge of how to be safe and confident in the water. So I didn’t want to give up on our floating lesson.
Luckily, they were willing to experiment with different methods and we kept trying. Finally, we had a breakthrough—we developed a system where I would float with my legs mostly above the surface, and one at a time, each girl would place her head on my knees and float, trusting that my body would keep their faces from slipping underwater. Once they were comfortable in the right position, I would drift just a few inches away, leaving them floating independently, knowing with their bodies and their minds that the water is big enough, predictable enough, to trust.
Trust isn’t an easy thing for any of us, but it sure is beautiful: it was breathtaking to watch their solemn little faces glow in the sun, getting brighter as they came to believe in my ability to keep them safe, and then even brighter still as they discovered their own capability in the lake.
For the past week, I’ve been on a road trip with three sisters, out to Minnesota and back, staying in four Benedictine monasteries and praying in a total of five. I spent a lot of time on that trip thinking about trust, thinking about what it’s like to relax in the knowledge that you are both capable and supported. Monastics are at least as human as anyone else, imperfect, fallible. But I realized, as we stayed in guest room after guest room, as we sat down to pray in chapel after chapel, that I’ve learned more about trust from my experiences with Benedictine life than in any other period in my life.
Some of that is just the simple kind of trust, a matter of predictability and routine. The laws of physics say that the lake will hold your resting body. The Rule says that we will pray with the psalms and words that Jesus taught us, that guests will be welcomed, that we will bow for the Doxology. And so I never worried that Sisters would be cold toward us, and I knew that each time we sat down in a new chapel, someone would, without fail, show us how to navigate the intricacies of their unique psalter.
And in a community that has any degree of health, there’s a level of trust that goes much deeper than that. There’s a connectedness, a sense of shared responsibility for each other. One night at evening prayer, the monk who was reading from Scripture at the ambo began to sway and shake, experiencing the onset of some kind of illness. Before I’d even realized that he really needed help, two brothers had jumped up to guide him to a wheelchair, and another monk had taken his place at the ambo, continuing the reading seamlessly.
Isn’t that what community is for: the knowledge that someone will be there to uphold you in your unsteadiness? And don’t I experience some degree of that upholding already? Just today, when I got a flat bike tire, I knew I had friends–other young women who are being formed by their relationships to the Sisters—who would offer me dinner, try to repair my bike and, when that didn’t work, drive me home. How fortunate am I?
It’s not a secret that I’m discerning a vocation to monastic life. I used to worry a lot about what that would mean for my future, living–as we do–in a time when not many people are entering religious communities. Many of the sisters and oblates in this community have big dreams, big plans for what we might do in the years to come, but whenever I thought about it, I had fewer ambitions than anxieties. My visions were rarely of inventive housing arrangements and ministries, but instead usually featured me, in my dotage, aimlessly clattering around the empty monastery, surrounded by ghosts. Lately, though, I’ve hardly thought about the future of the community at all, except that I’m increasingly sure that I want to play a part in it.
Yesterday, I heard myself tell one of the sisters, “I really trust that we have capable women here, with wisdom and creativity. And I trust that God isn’t done with us, with our work. So I’m not that worried about what will happen––we’ll have each other and we’ll do the right thing.” Ah. That’s new for me, that degree of trust.
That’s far too romantic and naive, I know. You can be sure that we’ll hurt each other too, and we’ll make mistakes, and we’ll disagree about important matters, and we’ll aggravate each other with our habits and idiosyncrasies. That’s human nature, and that’s what communities do. But we’ll have each other: this is what I’m learning. So maybe we can relax, a little bit, in that trust, in the knowledge that we, like those children out on the lake, are moving through life both capable and supported.
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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.