Every now and then I encounter somebody whose zest for life amazes me. It happened again last weekend, while I was visiting family and we went to Sunday Mass in North Dakota. Before Communion, my sister leaned towards me and pointed out that our first cousin, whom I hadn’t seen for over fifty years, was one of the eucharistic ministers.
After Mass, we stayed to chat for a few minutes. At age 84 she was still full of energy and enthusiasm as she said, “You’ll never guess what I did yesterday—I went sky diving!”
We were dumbfounded. “Weren’t you afraid,” I asked, “of stepping out of the plane, or doing the free fall, or landing?”
“No,” she answered. “God was there when I stepped out, and God was still there when I landed. I wasn’t afraid. I did it for the first time when I was 79, and I loved it. So I did it again yesterday with several of my children. It’s a wonderful experience!”
I was humbled by her trust in God—her awareness of God’s totally reliable presence -- and her zest for life.
There is a wonderful poem by Rumi that goes like this:
This being human is a guest-house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
I thought of this poem in a new way as I experienced both the monastery and myself as being a “guest house.” We welcome the Sisters of Saint Bede Monastery who this past Sunday truly became one with us in a profoundly moving ceremony. (For a photo album of the transfer ceremony and celebration that followed, click here.)
The president of the Federation of St. Benedict, Sister Susan Hutchens, said it well at the Sunday evening banquet. She stated that not only is our monastery a “receiving community,” but the Sisters of Saint Bede receive us as well. It is a mutual hospitality.
This was also true for the eight women who were with our community during the week of August 16—23. We welcomed five women to a week of the Benedictine Living Experience. They come from Michigan, Minneapolis, St. Joseph and Japan. At the same time, we welcomed the women in the Benedictine Women Service Corps for two weeks of training and formation in an exciting new venture with our monastery.
While the poet Rumi is talking about the many and ambivalent feelings that each human person hosts, I find great wisdom in the reality of being both guest and guest house to the persons who come into our lives. Yes, each has been sent as a guide from our good and gracious Host and they bring “a new awareness,” they are “clearing us out for some new delight.” We receive these women, and all our guests as a blessing and they give us the gift of receiving us as well. It is a mutual hospitality. We meet each other at the open door of our hearts.
Every year in late July we celebrate Heritage Day, giving thanks for Sisters who helped put down strong roots here in our monastery. A special part of the day is recalling Sisters who made their profession 100 years ago—who they were, what their lives were like. One of those professed in 1910 was Sister Ursuline Venne, a musician who was on mission in China between 1937 and 1948.
I spent weeks this spring reading the letters of the Sisters in China in preparation for a presentation, “In Their Own Words.” [for a podcast of a local radio program on these letters, click here.] In one of her letters, Sister Ursuline asks the prioress, “Do we still chant the Divine Office on G?” She said she blows G on the pitch pipe and one Sister starts chanting on a lower pitch and another on a higher. She asked to prioress to write right away and let her know “if we still chant on G.”
This hit me like a ton of bricks! Kaifeng, where the Sisters were, was under siege in the mid-1930s. The Japanese bombers came over regularly, destroying parts of the city. Refugees from the countryside were pouring into Kaifeng, seeking food and shelter. Wounded Chinese soldiers coming through the city on trains needed bandages changed. And Sister Ursuline wanted to know if the community still chanted the Divine Office on G.
The Divine Office, prayer in common, was without a doubt a significant part of the Sisters’ daily life in China. Our commitment to Liturgy of the Hours today is just as important in our daily lives. I think what Sister Ursuline was teaching me is that if the basic elements of our life in community are anchored, one need not sweat whatever else comes along. God is faithful. Pay attention to what is essential and God will help you face the rest.
Benedict puts it this way in Chapter 43 of the Rule: Nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God.
It’s back-to-school time. If the weather continues to rise into the warm and humid range, one can only imagine how elementary and high school teachers will need to stretch their creativity to keep students motivated to study and be attentive.
That challenge makes me think of our Sister Lois Wedl. While she was an assistant principal at Colegio San Antonio -- a Catholic high school in Humacao, Puerto Rico, in the early '70s, she recalls this “infusion of the Holy Spirit” when faced with a study hall full of high school students the period just before lunch. Here's how she told the story to me:
“The faculty person in charge was having a terrible time keeping any order in this 11 a.m. study hall. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I volunteered to take it over myself. The first day I walked in with my little pocket Bible in my hand and stood in front of the study hall students. I simply told them, ‘I am really busy all day long, and I only have this hour to do my reading and meditating on the Scriptures. And you, also, are all very busy, and this is your only time to get your studying done. Let’s help each other by being really quiet during this study period.’ And then I sat down and, almost miraculously, not a student opened his or her mouth the whole time during the rest of that semester. No 'outsider' ever did figure out how I got all those noisy students to stay so quiet!”
It’s amazing what a combination of a little respect and a little creativity can do to change the entire dynamic of a situation. May the Holy Spirit pour down upon all teachers and release their creative capacities as they begin this 2010-11 school year.
It’s “back to school time”. If the weather continues to rise into the warm and humid range, one can only imagine how elementary and high school teachers will need to stretch their creativity to keep students motivated to study and be attentive. That challenge makes me think of S. Lois Wedl. While she was an assistant principal at Colegio San Antonio –a Catholic High School in Humacao, Puerto Rico in the early 70s, she recalls this “infusion of the Holy Spirit” when faced with a study hall full of high school students the period just before lunch.
“The faculty person in charge was having a terrible time keeping any order in this 11:00 a.m. study hall. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, I volunteered to take it over myself. The first day I walked in with my little pocket Bible in my hand and stood in front of the study hall students. I simply told them, ‘I am really busy all day long, and I only have this hour to do my reading and meditating on the Scriptures. And you also, are all very busy, and this is your only time to get your studying done. Let’s help each other by being really quiet during this study period.’ And then she sat down and almost miraculously, not a student opened his/her mouth the whole time during the rest of that semester. No “outsider” ever did figure out how I got all those noisy students to stay so quiet!”
It’s amazing what a combination of a little respect and a little creativity can do to change the entire dynamic of a situation. May the Holy Spirit pour down upon all teachers and release their creative capacities as they begin this 2010-2011 school year.
[Picture: Before Eucharist on Sunday, July 18, 2010, Wimborne, England]
This past June I wrote a posting about a French monk by the name of Henri le Saux who went to India in 1948 and remained there for the rest of his life. He died in December 1973 without ever returning to France. Because he became a sannyasi, a person who renounces all, he changed his name to Abhishiktananda.
In July I attended a retreat in a very quiet corner of the south west of Englad to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of this extraordinary man. During the weekend we heard talks by two women, one of whom knew him very well and the other who was his biographer, and one man, who spoke on his interpretation of the conflict that Abhishiktananda experienced between his deep Christian faith and his experience of the Hindu spirituality of "advaita" or non-duality. Abhishiktananda truly believed in the need to create a bridge between Christianity and Hinduism but his single-minded purposeful seeking caused him a great deal of pain, and, I believe, an early death at the age of 63.
About 80 people came from all over England and Scotland, as well as a handful from Canada, the United States, France and Germany. Several things stand out for me about the four-day retreat, but two in particular I want to mention. The first one is the "at-homeness" I felt among so many strangers. Culturally we were literally an ocean apart, but it was evident that in this situation the communion of spirit and heart was a much stronger bond than language or culture. Our conversations never stayed on the surface for more than a few minutes; we would easily move into sharing our great desire for God. The second piece that I found helpful in integrating the teaching of Abhishiktananda were the snippets of readings we had from his writings and those of other mystics at the beginning of our meditation periods or during the prayer periods. They reminded us over and over of the need for silence, both interior and exterior, solitude and going into the cave of our heart to encounter the Presence.
Praying is simply believing that we are living in the mystery of God,
that we are plunged into and immersed in it, that the mystery of God in its
fullness is both inside and outside us, like the air which surrounds us
and penetrates the tiniest hollows of our lungs.
Abhishiktananda on Prayer
For more on Abhishiktananda, the conference, and the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, click here.
Perhaps next month I will write on my visit to Montreal, Canada, which followed my time in England!
On Sunday, August 15, we welcome our first three CSB grads who will be volunteering for nine months at two different Benedictine Monasteries. We are so proud of these first three women who have made a very serious commitment and fulfilled the dream of many grads who went before them. For quite a number of years, Bennie grads have asked the Sisters to sponsor a program for volunteers. So, finally, in 2010, we are beginning our program with the following adventurous women:
Megan Sinner, an English major from Renville, Minnesota, will be living and working with the Sisters at St. Placid Priory in Lacey, Washington. Megan will spend much of her time working with Sisters from Tanzania as they complete their Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and become competent in the English language. She will work with Sister Redempta Ndungura from St. Agnes, Chipole Benedictine Sisters in Tanzania, as she begins work on her dissertation for her Master’s degree in School Administration. Megan will also work with Sister Anna Maria who will be doing her student teaching in pre-K through grade 2during the fall semester.
Daisy Nevarez, a management major from Herford, Texas, will be joining Ashley at Monasterio Santa Escolastica in Puerto Rico. Daisy will assist students primarily in the areas of computer education. Daisy will no doubt assist in some areas of the Theatre program established in the elementary school.
Ashley Zartner, an English major from Bell, California, will be living with the Sisters in Monasterio Santa Escolastica, Puerto Rico, and serving in their elementary school. She will assist students in the areas of reading, writing and language arts. She will be working primarily in Kindergarten and the lower elementary grades. Her primary task will be to teach them English.
Now that we are beginning our program for volunteers, let us pray for its success, that these women find fulfillment in serving the little children of Puerto Rico and the Tanzanian adults in Lacey, WA.
I returned last night from a wonderful gathering of Benedictine women who were taking up the question of vocation ministry. I was asked to serve as a member of a round table discussion that would stimulate thought/reflection as well as engage in dialogue with this particular Benedictine community of women. The time spent in preparation with the other vocation directors, as well as the conversation with the community, touched in me a genuine love for Benedictine monastic life. There is a desire to find ways to not only invite but also engage and companion women into the multiple layers of discernment that would give greater clarity in responding to God’s call.
As I was reflecting, I kept returning to a DVD I saw this summer called The Drummer. Here is the piece that came back to me (there is much more to the story). A young man who by profession is a member of a rock band ends up in hiding in Taiwan. He misses his drumming. One day he and his uncle are climbing the mountain terrain when the young man hears a faint sound. He follows the sound to a group of Zen drummers. For some time this young man simply watches from a distance. Eventually, he approaches the group and introduces himself as a drummer and expresses his desire to drum with this group. He shows the community his skill and they smile politely. The sound and music of the drum is what they have in common. If the young man is to join this group of Zen drummers, he needs to adopt a new way of being, a discipline essential to the Zen way. The discipline is a means of discovery of one’s true self. This seemingly burdensome way frees the young man to bring his whole being into the drumming and in relationship to the other Zen drummers. Again I want to say there is much more to this story.
So, how might these two experiences dialogue around abiding truths? First, I see in the Benedictine way of life, as in the Zen way, a long heritage of meaning and intentionality. Discipline gifts the student of life with a greater freedom to learn the more of oneself and one's relationship to the other and all things. Discipline is the unifying experience of the community. The seeker is often one who for a time peers into the life from a safe distance. The seeker observes and listens to the dynamic exchange of the group. It is the longing that is deep within the human spirit that prods one to risk entrance into this way of being. The way into this life takes time and there are no shortcuts. The cost is a surrender of the clutter that fills our space, externally and internally, so that in the emptiness and silence one can be filled with one’s original blessing, one’s original call to holiness.
This past week I have experienced quite a bit of grief and sadness as I gave my two-week notice and began the process of saying good-bye to my Starbucks colleagues. I am transitioning to a full-time position in our Vocations ministry at the monastery.
It’s turned out for the best; my barista skills are lacking due to my less-than-detail-oriented personality. All or most of my colleagues chuckle when something goes awry and I say, "Hey, I gave it my best shot." They demonstrated a lot of patience and grace as I muddled through my midlife transition job with my inadequate multi-tasking skills. Actually, I thought I was a good multi-tasker before I encountered this crew of young adults. I am a generation behind when it comes to multi-tasking. There might be a reason that middle-aged women are not working this kind of job.
I love my colleagues and their acceptance of me. I remember one said to me, “Thanks for being one of us.” I took it as a compliment that they appreciated my willingness to be flexible, help them out and believe in them. They are a great crew, and the manager is wonderful as he works with the baristas and with his customers. I know that even though I never quite got all the details of calling the names or marking the cups down, he valued me as part of the team. Sometimes in life we do our best and have to leave it as is.
I have a new respect for baristas and other service industry employees. At times I used to throw my leftover change into the tip cup, but never again. I will tip a barista well, because I have been there.
I think St. Benedict got humility right in chapter 7 of the Rule. If you want to ascend in life, you must descend. We need more descenders on this earth to bring humility and grace to each other, so that all may be one and respected. If you want to be great in the Kingdom of God, be the servant of all.
We have entered the high season for harvesting in our gardens. This includes the Sisters' vegetable and flower gardens. Here are a few highlights:
The gladioli (yes, that's the Dictionary advice on the plural) are in bloom two weeks early and being gathered by the bucketload. Sister Elizabeth Theis brought around a cartload yesterday and now they grace all of our office spaces.
What impresses me more, however, is the ingenuity of Sister Ruth Ann Schneider in flower arrangement. In the Gathering Place we have had this gorgeous vase full of dill and lavender. It would never occur to me to turn that into a centerpiece!
Sister Elaine Schroeder has already canned 44 quarts of pickles and is passing along the abundant cucumbers to Sister Josue Behnen to pickle. Here she shows the right size cucumber for pickles!
Sister Benet Frandrup pointed out that the corn is way more than knee high-- it's already over her head!
Volunteer gardeners make the difference at this time of year-- here enjoying a break with Sister Theresa Lodermeier. Those are some dirty knees, S. Theresa!
Common Ground gardeners got help from the Saint John's Arboretum student workers last Thursday to haul in the bounty for that week's subscriptions. They also are continuing meetings for a new initiative that will make dedicated garden space available for cultivation of produce expressly for donation to local food shelves.
This blog is maintained by a group of Sisters at Saint Benedict's Monastery in St. Joseph, Minnesota. We try to post weekly and often succeed at that.
The opinions on this blog belong to individual writers and do not reflect any official position of the monastery. Please feel free to comment on any of the entries-- comments are moderated, but we'll publish any reasonable comment.