Monday, February 11, 2008

The schedule of things

This post has been mostly ready to go for some time now, but due to some technical difficulties and a fuller schedule these days, . . . Well, excuses, excuses.

The community’s daily worship schedule provides the main framework of my days. During the week, we pray the Liturgy of the Hours together at 7:00 a.m., 11:30 a.m., and 7:00 p.m. Each of these typically lasts just under 30 minutes. We also have daily mass at 5:00 p.m. The particularities of the rest of the day look something like this for me right now:

- wake up and totter to the shower and get dressed for the day
- eat breakfast
- morning prayer
- (sometimes eat breakfast after prayers since I’m a reluctant riser)
- preferably stay in the oratory for some meditative reading or centering prayer
- go off to one of my jobs (in an office, or the bakery, or a weekly class on the basic tenets of Benedictine life for us postulants)
- noon prayer (except the two days when I’m still at an off-campus office job at that time)
- lunch in the monastic dining room
- work some more (typically massage-related tasks or blogging or preparing for class)
- move my body – in these days when darkness falls upon the northern latitudes rather early, I like to go for a walk or snowshoe while I can still see and be seen. Or, when I’m too wimpy to face the cold, I ride one of our indoor bikes.
- celebrate Eucharist – and on Mondays I go early to do the sacristy work and prepare the space for our worship
- eat supper – three nights a week, my housemates and I cook at home and eat together there. The other four evenings, we eat in the main dining room. Each living group has its own rhythm of when they eat where, except that everyone eats at home on Saturday evenings, when the staff in the main dining room gets the night off.
- enjoy a little break – often part of the time is spent in the community center where I can chat with whoever is there playing cards or fitting puzzle pieces together, and see if there’s mail on my shelf, and read the prayer requests and news items on our big bulletin board, or I might go early to the oratory to sit quietly, or some people watch the news or read the newspaper.
- evening prayer
- relax – regular evening stuff like watching TV or a movie with housemates, reading, playing games, doing crafts, putzing in one's bedroom, going to a concert or lecture, etc.

Of course, there are deviations from this neat little schedule, but that is the basic flow of my days here at St. Ben’s. Weekends bring a different prayer schedule—morning prayer isn’t until 8:15, so a person can sleep in a bit if she so desires. Saturday is a day for errands and cleaning and napping and walking and laundry and whatever else gets scheduled on a Saturday. Each of us has a house “charge,” meaning an area we’re responsible for cleaning (e.g., I vacuum the stairs and the long hallway upstairs), and much of this takes place sometime on Saturday. Then we have Eucharist at 11:30, lunch (often a smorgasbord of leftovers from the week), whatever the afternoon brings, evening prayer at 5:00, supper with our living groups, return to the oratory for Vigils at 7:00, and then whatever the evening brings. Sunday’s schedule is similar to Saturday’s, except that mass is at 10:30 (choir rehearsal at 10:00), and supper is in the main dining room.

So, we pray. And we work. And we do pretty much all of the normal, standard stuff that normal, standard you do. We don’t have one main type of work that we all do, as in some orders that center around teaching or nursing or social work. The Benedictine life is not so much about what we do, but what we are and how we are.

The standard question asked upon meeting a new acquaintance is, “What do you do?” meaning, “What is your job?” Benedict challenges us to be counter-cultural, to remember that we are human beings, not human doings. The important, life-sustaining thing we do in the monastery is to seek God. Of course, this happens in all of life. That’s our real job, as monastics, as human beings. The rest of our jobs flow from that, and right back into it.

Perhaps if we took “What do you do?” to mean “How do you contribute to our world?” we would all be a little better off for this shift in attitude. We all contribute something. And how we do it is possibly more important than what we do. I strive to be aware of God, and bring into being more of God’s presence, in the thousand ordinary parts of my life each day.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Still here in the new year

It’s been a while, eh? Sometimes I haven’t been sure what to write about; sometimes I felt like there was so much to write about I didn’t know where to begin; sometimes there were things to process, but this wasn’t the best forum. Sometimes life was just plain busy.

I was with my family in Montana for a very relaxing Christmas and a much-needed break, but made a point of coming back before the dawn of this new year. This was the first time I’d seen my family since we pedaled here in August, and it was harder to leave them than it usually is. It was also harder to come back to the monastery than I thought it would be, but am I ever glad I did. St. Ben’s celebrated its sesquicentennial year (150th anniversary) in 2007. It opened on Dec. 31, 2006, with a ritual that included reading the names of the sisters that have gone before us—all 1,085 of them. With 14 intervening celebrations of various sorts, the year closed on Dec. 30, 2007, with a ritual that included the prioress reading the names of all of the current members of the community—289 professed sisters, 2 novices, and 2 postulants, plus 9 more who have passed on this year.

We walked into the chapel in statio. (That’s a solemn way of processing into the chapel that the community reserves for special occasions like funerals and really big feast days. We walk in two-by-two, and bow together in front of the cross. Then as we step aside, the pair behind us steps up to the cross. As they bow to the cross, we turn and simultaneously bow toward them. It’s a beautiful symbol of solidarity on this journey and recognizing the divinity in all of us.) We normally line up in any order, but for this event we processed in rank—from the sister who’s been in the community the longest, all the way down to me, who hasn’t yet made vows.

During the closing ritual, after the prioress said the name of each living member, that person said, “I promise to be faithful.” What a powerful experience to hear sister after sister recommit herself. And, though I haven’t made monastic vows, I still promised to be faithful to this journey, wherever it leads. I think we were all promising to be faithful to the same basic quest, regardless of the formal level of commitment one has made.

After this celebration, we moved down to the dining room for a festive dinner—served by our wonderful volunteers and oblates. And after dinner there was a program, during which we reviewed the year and expressed thanks to the many, many people who had some part in making this year so special. Near the end—but before the flaming dessert!—members of the planning committee folded and presented two of the logoed outdoor banners that have flown on days of special sesquicentennial celebrations—one to S. Nancy, our prioress, and one to S. Suzanne, the senior member of our community who was present. S. Suzanne then turned around and handed her flag on to me, the youngest and newest member, in a tear-jerkingly rich symbol of unity and movement for the community. What a way to close these 150 years! And move into the next!

Sometimes we have big to-dos like those above, but mostly we live ordinary, day-to-day lives here in the monastery. It’s the daily stuff that I hope to share more about on this corner of the web in the coming weeks and months—and more regularly than I have of late! I recently shared some of my story with two fabulous sections of a class on “Women’s Theological Perspectives” at the college associated with the monastery. Those students just about blew me away with the great questions they asked, which helped flesh out the real daily life that happens inside the monastery. There’s still a shroud of mystery and holiness around places like this, but it’s really just home for 293 women who live remarkably ordinary lives. Among other great questions, the students asked things like:
Can you go on vacation?
What about your school loans and other debt?
Do you have a car?
What does the schedule of a normal day look like for you?
Do you have your own bedroom?

If you have particular things you’re curious about, just let me know.

Wishing you a Christmas season full of light and a year full of growth,


Monday, October 29, 2007

What is it you seek?

I seek to listen.

I seek to know myself, others, and God-with-us more fully, and to recognize ever more the divine at the center of all, calling us toward love.

I seek to be grounded in a place, and from that foundation allow my heart to be opened to the world.

I seek to live a life rooted in the wisdom of our Christian tradition, and to live more fully into the Benedictine monastic way of life as this community expresses it day by day.

These are the hopes and longings I shared with the monastic community during the ritual of formal acceptance into the postulancy. Several times each year, the entire community gathers for “Chapter,” a day-long meeting to come together around what we as a community need to discuss, discern, flesh out—community finances, visioning for the future, recognition of achievements, updating on and recapping of events, voting on certain issues, etc., etc.

During morning prayer, our prioress asked Karen and I, “What is it you seek?” We each looked out into the assembled community and shared our responses. We were then given copies of the books the community uses when we pray the Liturgy of the Hours, as a symbol of this step further into the community. Of course, we’ve been praying with the community these two months, but this was the first time that the community has been assembled to confirm our acceptance into this next phase, and it somehow feels more substantive now that we’ve had time to work through the craziness of the initial settling-in process.

As I was preparing the statement above, I realized that I also hope for some magic from a framework, some effortless shaping toward sanctity and serenity. But inherent in this frame is the daily work of being present and allowing myself to be molded, day after day after day after day. It is the accumulation of micro-movements that, over time, shift us toward our center, toward the God we long for. It’s fidelity to things that seem insignificant on their own.

(“Since I’m on such a roll, I’m going to keep working instead of going to noon prayer." “I’ll just skip my reading time this one day because I have so much else to do.” “I don’t have the energy to engage with Sister X, so I’ll go around the long way to avoid her.” “I can keep going without a rest, even though that means my presence in the community will only be bodily.”)

Certainly, life happens, but in the long run, I hope I remember and trust that the daily stuff I do—or don’t do—really does add up. I may want to be as rounded and balanced and whole as some of the older sisters, but I can’t just jump straight there. They’ve filled their baskets with the delicate flakes of that “magic” faithfully over years of conversation at table, struggle in their assigned work, presence to guests, sharing their resources, calling on each other’s gifts, making time to foster their relationship with God, processing and confronting the stuff of life in between. I have my basket. Have I added to it today?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Quieting down

For months and months before I came as a postulant, I told the vocation director that I just wanted this setting and lifestyle to be normal, that I wanted to be a normal part of this place. Now that I’ve been here 7 weeks, I feel more like a part of the everyday scenery of the place—I don’t draw quite as much attention as a brand-brand new arrival. People are still thoughtful and helpful concerning particularities that a newcomer might not know about, which I appreciate; but enough of the fresh excitement has worn off that I feel like I can blend in a bit more. Things are settling down, little by little. With less of the spotlight in my eyes, it’s easier to look outside of myself, to recognize the needs of others and take appropriate action—with daily things like clearing dishes or moving a chair.

Yet, the dailyness and ordinariness aren’t somehow quite what I expected. There are a hundred things that squirm around and make that difference difficult to pin down. Some part of it has to do with quiet, reflective, listening time. I’m finding less time for it in my days thus far than I thought I would. At first, I told myself that this was just part of the transition, that I needed to establish more of a rhythm for my days, let the elements of my day settle and shift about. And I think that was true.

It’s also true that there are a plethora of things to keep one constantly busy here—planned events, spur-of-the-moment invitations, concerts and other ways of appreciating the arts, inspiring lectures, conversations en route to check one’s mail shelf, etc., etc. It can be difficult to fit in quiet time around all the rest of the opportunities here. It’s reminiscent of my first semester of college as I began to negotiate a balance among the dozens of exciting opportunities on campus, the demands of coursework, the necessity of friendships, and, especially crucial for introverts like myself, quiet time to rejuvenate from all of that stimulation. I may be at a monastery, but that certainly doesn’t mean life is quiet. In fact, one of the things I’ve admired since I first started to get to know these women is how involved and engaged they are with the world around themselves. Yet, there’s only so much a person can do; internal recharging is just as necessary as exterior engagement, and the latter is unsustainable without the former.

By “quiet time,” I mean several things: time alone to just be with myself and my thoughts; time in contemplative prayer, perhaps holding a word or phrase to draw me back to center; time to just be; time to putz around in my room and do whatever I need to do; time to slowly read and meditate on how scripture or other “holy reading” is speaking to me today.

Being a person who loves to make to-do lists, I added “quiet time” to my list some weeks back, and keep transferring it over to new lists as a way to keep that intention always before me. It strikes me, however, that what I said above about trying to fit in quiet time around the rest of life’s activities is going to continue to be exceedingly difficult to accomplish, especially on any sort of consistent basis. If quiet is truly a priority for me, let it be one of the key elements of my day around which the multitude of possibilities has to fit. It won’t just happen.

Well, that being said, perhaps I’ll go sit in the oratory for a few moments of centering. --Before moving on to the next activity. Or, rather, so I can move on to the next part of the day recharged and with my fuller self.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

At long last!

So, it’s been a month since I arrived at St. Ben’s. I’ve started a couple of posts in that time, but have been focusing my energies more toward settling in than sharing with you-all. Thanks for your patience. I won’t “recap” per se--what needs to be said will come up in other posts, I trust.

Part of my hesitation about posting involves the delicate balance between my personal reflections and the lives of those I live with. I continue to see this as a forum for processing my experience and ponderings; but I’m also keenly aware that what I’m going through is inextricably bound up with the wider community and my particular living group. I will strive to remain true to my lived experience while maintaining the confidence of my community.

I’m sure that I will also use part or all of some posts to explain terminology and practices (to the best of my understanding). I’ve been hanging around with these women for 9 years now, since I came to college, so some of the terms may slip under my radar as “normal” or “everyday.” If you catch phrases in anything I write that you’d like explained further, just post a reply and let me know. Also, if you have other things you’re curious or unsure about, let me know and I’ll keep a list and address topics as time allows.

As I said, I'm still very much settling in. The first week here seemed the easiest, and since then I've noticed the tiny shifts and adjustments much more. When it's time to gather for common prayer, it's sometimes difficult to put down what I'm doing and just go, or to use well a small pocket of time between the end of one engagement and the time to head to prayers. But that's part of the point. It's not necessarily easy to drop my agenda, to stop multitasking, to rest for a little while in God's word. But once I get to the oratory--or on my way there--I'm invited to open myself to God's presence, to remember that God is always and everywhere with us, to pray with and for the whole universal church that God's "will be done on earth as it is in heaven"--and to notice what that might be calling me to do.

Lest this get too lofty, I'll sign off now and prepare for S. Kristin's funeral--perhaps more on that soon.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Sometimes it's risky business mentioning specific people, for fear of leaving someone out, but I'd like to thank those without whom this pilgrimage simply would not have been possible.

My mom and sister, for having the openness, stamina, and bravery to prepare for and pedal all those miles, to share of themselves out there in the open spaces, to support and encourage and be patient with one another, pedal stroke by pedal stroke.

My dad, who did all the rest of the work--laundry, grocery shopping, dishes, house cleaning, trail scouting, informal local publicity, press secretary, bike securing, tire fixing, camper set-up and tear-down, scrupulous Meriwether Lewis-like journaling of our progress, and much more, with nary a complaint.

Those who took interest in our story along the way, and especially those who befriended us and made our journey a little easier--Allen, Deb & Dary, Steve, Margie, Tina & Uncle Lloyd, the family at the farmers' market in Lemmon, the couple driving from Wisconsin to Montana, the couple from Bismarck that we met in Starbuck, everyone who read and responded to the blog.

Folks who took care of the pets back home--my brother and the Wolff gang.

All of our friends and family who were thinking of us, praying for us, checking in on us.

My dear sisters at St. Benedict's Monastery, who prayed us home safely.

And, of course, the One whose creation we marveled at daily, who was our source of consolation in the difficult stretches, who was and continues to be with us, guiding us all home.

Monday, August 27, 2007


Here are links to articles I know of regarding this pilgrimage.

Catholic News Service 8/27/2007

St. Cloud Times 8/24/2007

The Catholic Spirit 8/15/2007

St. Joseph Newsleader 8/31/2007

CSB/SJU Alumnae/i and Friends page 8/15/2007

Bristol News Journal 8/24/2007

Since the CNS picked this up, there are more and more articles out in diocesan papers, etc. And a special thanks to other bloggers who mentioned this blog.