Friday, October 10, 2008

Why a Nun?

In response to that last post, someone asked me: "Do you get a sense Rosemary would have done something different with her life if she'd been asked that question earlier? Or that there's something else she would have liked to have done with her life if she'd had the chance?"

I don't know why, but it makes perfect sense to me that Sister Rosemary greeted the question with utter perplexity. And looking at her, it was obvious that given the choice, she'd choose the same life she had.

I haven’t yet met any nuns over the age of 60 who regret their choice to become a nun (I have met a few monks in their 50s and 60s, though, who were in the process of leaving the monastery or desperately sad that they felt they couldn't leave). I'm sure they exist, but I haven't had that conversation yet. In fact, Sister Elaine, one of my favorite Sisters who works in the liturgy office, came outside one nice day in August and joined me at a picnic table for lunch. We were talking about people widening their horizons by being exposed to different people and experiences.

She said, “Boy, when I think of what my life would have been like if I’d stayed home and married that fellow who was chasing after me… how limited and narrow. I just can’t believe how many experiences I’ve had and people I’ve gotten to know and things I’ve gotten to think about here.” This is no cloister. The Sisters are out there in the middle of things. For the younger nuns it’s much harder— they have less community their own age, less a sense of their role in the larger world, and I wonder if it feels like a demanding career that you live at sometimes-- and over which you have no control. As Sister Miriam said to me once, "I didn't come to the monastery to be a Major Gifts Planner. I came to pray and live in community." The work is assigned and out of obedience they do what is needed to support the monastery and its ministries. And usually until they're 80 or older or can no longer physically work.

The younger women have more options in general, which is one reason there are so many fewer of them. But for these many women who came in off the farms, from families of 8-17 children (my boss S. Gen was at the end of the first dozen in her family of 17 children), and were able to live in community and be nurses and teachers and administrators and really engaged with the world around them—and built a hospital during the Depression and a college and a high school and retirement centers and hospices and on and on, well, it’s not hard to see why they’re happy with their life decision.

In a way, I have the best of both worlds. I have my life out on the farm, with the family I've joined, which is a smaller, more manageable community than and I've chosen my roommates, and I have my work with the Sisters, and prayer with them and liturgy when I want to join in. I can think about and talk about a lot of the same things they do, and participate in some of the life of the monastery, without surrendering my whole life to it. And as their numbers become fewer and fewer, my association is likely to become more of the model. Religious communities all over the United States are exploring these kinds of more intense relationships with lay people. For many it's called "associates" programs. For the Benedictines, it is through Oblates . I have been involved with oblate programs as long as I've been involved with monasteries, since 1998, when I started attending the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago for Mass on Sundays and going to their oblate education program after Mass and on occasional retreats. But I never committed to that community, and in 2001 I moved with my first husband to Reno, Nevada for a year, and then to Southern California. In May 2007, after a year of discernment and writing essays on topics related to the Rule of Benedict as an oblate candidate, I made a promise to live more fully a life committed to Benedictine values, "to follow the Rule of Benedict as far as I am able in my station in life," and attached myself formally as an oblate at Saint John's Abbey, the men's monastery up the road where I'd been living and working.

I can transfer my oblation to this community, but I'm not ready to do that yet.... Having the oblate director down the hall from me might be a little too close. I would feel an obligation to attend their pogramming and events, and it would be difficult to manage my dual identity there-- am I the communications director or the oblate? I even experienced this recently at the volunteer appreciation dinner. I was invited because before I got my job here I did a little (very minimal) volunteering to help Sisters who needed it with computer work. But I went to the event because I was there working and I wanted to get some photographs of the event. Still, they did come to me and slap a nametag on me and "my class"-- the year I started volunteering. If I was an oblate, it would be more tricky. It would tip my balance at this point between life and work. I do find that I can have too much church. Working for a monastery, I start to feel like my life is all church sometimes. And after all, I'm not a member of the community. It's all, as Benedict himself pointed out, about conversatio, mini conversions as we move gradually on that way.

But also, I do love my community of monks up the road. For two years I went to noon prayer at the abbey church a couple times a week or more. I got to know the abbot, and dear Brother Dietrich, about whom more later. I knew some of their struggles-- in ways that brought tears to my eyes more than once. I enjoyed the strong personalities of some of the monks, the talents, the relationships they share. I was "formed" as an oblate with that community. It would be wrong to wipe the slate clean, transfer not only my house and work, but also my affiliation, over here from there. One thing at a time. (Maybe I should plan a retreat over there!)

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