Category Archives: The Monastery

My interaction with St. Gertrude’s Monastery in Idaho.

Life Updates and Explanations

So, instead of posting directly on Facebook or texting everyone, I think this is the most fitting place to explain about the shift my life is about to take. I still feel a little odd talking so personally and directly about my family and my life online, but taking a page from St. Gertrude’s book (see my previous post), I figure that being open and honest can’t really hurt.

I’ve alluded to this throughout my blog so far, but here goes. My dad was recently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and his prognosis is approximately 6 months to 1-2 years (I mean, who knows, but that’s what statistics say). He just retired this summer and moved from Alaska down to the Seattle area, and that’s when his body finally caught up to him. He and my mom got divorced a couple years ago, and so he is living on his own in a rental house. The rest of his family lives in Texas and northern California.

I say all this to give background for my decision to leave the Monastery of St. Gertrude’s and move back to Seattle to live with and help my dad. I will probably be back near Seattle in early December, assuming I figure out a ride around that time.

It’s obviously a difficult situation. I love it here. I am going to miss the sisters a lot, and I feel pretty stinking guilty to be leaving the program before even the half-way mark. But, all the same, don’t go fretting that I’m making a huge sacrifice or something, please. I know perfectly well the reasons I’m going back, and I know they are good ones. It doesn’t make it easy, but I think it makes it worth it.

I haven’t really spent much time with my dad in the last four years–okay, maybe eight years–because I’ve been focused on school, friends, growing up, and all the stuff that normal teenage and young adults focus on. And I don’t regret that, but it’s become a fact that time is running out. if I want to have an adult relationship with my dad, it’s now or never. Literally.

it’s going to be very hard. I go back and forth between trying not to be a debbie-downer about it while also being realistic. Even now, I know it is definitely going to be the hardest thing I have ever done, and very possibly the hardest thing I ever will do. I’ll basically be helping my dad prepare for death, including sorting through all of his stuff, trying to make sure everything’s in order… (Okay, see, I don’t even know what has to happen! But I suppose it’s time to start learning.) And also hopefully making what time he has left as useful and comfortable as possible. But I just keep thinking of how some of the sisters here still have living parents, and I think about how this is just not supposed to be something you deal with when you’re twenty something. But, then, people do it, don’t they? And they come out stronger people on the other side.

Anyway, that’s what’s going on. So, when I suddenly text you to see if you’re free to hang out in December, maybe you won’t be as surprised.

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Privacy

When I came to St. Gertrude’s, I received cautionary notice that living in a community could be challenging. I’ll be honest, I didn’t take this too seriously. Sure, as with every group of people, personalities can clash, misunderstandings can cause conflict, and various styles of living, working, eating, etc. can annoy or frustrate others. But, as I have been living in community as a Resident Assistant and most recently in a house with four other women, I felt pretty prepared for the potential hazards of mood swings and unique needs. I am typically an accommodating person, and I have never had a huge problem getting along with all sorts of people. Plus, I knew that this situation was ultimately temporary. I can deal with a heck of a lot if I know it’s ending in nine months. All this being said, I have finally found a challenge.

Part of Benedict’s rule includes an emphasis on letting go of our possessions. We are not supposed to consider things ‘ours’ because that is a function of your own will, or your ego, which is an obstacle to succumbing to God’s will (or, if you’re like me, you might think of it more as a distraction from what actually matters in life). At St. Gertrude’s, this is taken with a grain of salt. Everyone has their own room, which is usually filled with each person’s own clothes, own books, own toiletries, and that sort of thing. In that way, I don’t feel much like I’ve had to give up ownership or share my things with the community. However, today, after being asked four or five times about whether I’d spoken to my dad recently, I began to see that there is another kind of sharing that is expected.

The first indication of this new standard was subtle, and it happened at the dinner table. There is no topic off limits at the dinner table. Death, health, politics, history, current events, all of it could come up. And the nonchalance with which I’ve heard sisters say someone died—I can’t say it doesn’t still surprise me at times. It also probably shouldn’t have surprised me, then, when my father became a topic of regular conversation as well. At the dinner table. While doing dishes. When I passed someone in the hall. “How’s your dad doing?” follows me everywhere.

At first, this was a little bothersome. Of course, I knew full well that the intentions were incredibly pure and loving, and I also knew that I could always say I didn’t want to talk about it without getting reprimanded or losing any esteem in their eyes. But all the same, I wondered why it was that I couldn’t expect to go through a day without anyone calling attention to a delicate personal matter in front of or in the proximity of several other people. It felt like an invasion of privacy.

Today, it dawned on me that this is part of what makes the community at St. Gertrude’s different from my other communities—and it’s also what makes it harder, and what makes it better. Your ‘private, personal matters’ are not so private or personal here because your mental and emotional wellbeing is essentially a part of the larger community. Difficult matters are shared because the community wants to help carry the burden. But even more, at the core of this community of sisters, there is an understanding that everything is discussed, everything is on the table, because none of it is so bad that we stop loving God (or whatever you imagine God to be). There’s a sort of underlying acceptance of all tragedy, all good and bad stuff that happens to any of us or to anyone. And I have to say, it’s amazingly freeing.

And to take it a step further into the practical, how can we care deeply for others or for God if we aren’t being honest and open about our own state of being? If I am zoning out all day and decide not to tell anyone why, I am not doing anyone any favors, including myself. But if I accept the difficulty of being vulnerable in a community, I can at least allow others understanding of my journey and potentially let them help me along.

Being For Others

There’s something a lot of people talk about doing, especially here in the monastery and in my Jesuit school, but also very frequently in the “real” world that might require a little more examination. The way my school put it, “we want to be men and women for others.” A lot of people say it another way: we want to make the world a better place; we want to live God’s word; we want to do service; we want to go out and do good.

I once referred to my experience at the monastery as one of the most selfish things I’ve done—not in a negative sense, but in a practical, “this is really going to mostly benefit me” sort of way. Being here, I temporarily forgot about that realization until tonight. In evening prayer, I found myself combing through my day and trying to think of ways that I had helped other people, little ways I had made the world a better place. To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t think of anything. Sure, I helped with dishes. I worked on projects to help promote the Monastic Immersion Program. And if I really wanted to stretch it: I smiled at people and said thank you.

But none of those really felt like they counted. I didn’t go out of my way to do them. They’re things that I kind of feel are obligations to living in a community, and most of them are technically assigned tasks. And did I really do anything to make the world better? Or did I just help the world continue on its normal track?

My days at the monastery often revolve around trying to find time to do things for me. I do my work quickly and plan time so I can pray, work out, have coffee, write, read, call friends, or send letters. I am constantly wondering when I’ll have time to sneak back to my room and write a few more sentences or do some more push-ups. No matter how I spin it, I can’t help feeling pretty sure that all of those things are not really helping anyone besides me.
What have I done for others besides loving and appreciating them as people—which may be a challenge sometimes, but I feel maybe ought to be the bare minimum?

And in thinking all of this, I began to look back at the last ten years (since I was 12 and slightly more aware of the world as an entity much bigger than me or my family) and ask the same kinds of questions. To my slight discomfort, overall, I don’t feel like I’ve done that much; I have consistently been pretty self-focused. I’ve focused on my own education, relationships, growth, work, and personal needs pretty exclusively, with volunteering thrown in every so often when I had some extra time.

I’m not ashamed of this. It’s not as though I think I’ve been a terrible person. It’s important for us to grow and learn in order to become the people who are informed and skilled enough to participate in positive change and to really be of service to others. It’s probably good that our early adulthood is driven by self-understanding and self-betterment. But, it does make me think.

What happens now? How can I truly be a woman for others now that I’m temporarily done with formal education? Most of the lives I’ve thus far imagined for myself don’t really seem quite up to that standard.

In our culture, we are trained to think that survival is really hard. Getting a good salary is really hard, finishing your projects on time is really hard, living a healthy lifestyle is really hard—we just don’t have the time to work for the good of others because we barely have time to take care of ourselves. How many times have I complained that I don’t have time to eat, or read for fun, or relax? (Quick note: I’m speaking specifically from an upper middle-class, white perspective, and I fully acknowledge that for many other people in our country, even simple survival can be incredibly more complicated and difficult than it has been for me.)

If we don’t think we’re taking care of ourselves, we feel fully justified in not doing things for others. Put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. I don’t think that mentality is wrong. After all, it is true that we can’t really love others without loving ourselves; if we’re sinking, we probably won’t help someone else stay afloat. But I think we are too caught up in how hard it is to take care of ourselves; the oxygen mask bands need to fit perfectly around our head, and the oxygen has to be flowing at just the right level, and we have to make sure the color matches our outfit before we can even consider helping the person next to us. In real world terms, it ends up being about accomplishing a certain weight loss goal, getting above a certain income level, having a house, actually managing to take up yoga, meeting the right person, making peace with our parents… How many things do you want to make better in your life that you’d prioritize over spending a few hours a week volunteering?

I sincerely don’t want to call others’ lives into question. I don’t think anyone is less honorable for living life primarily for themselves and their happiness. I personally believe that the more happy people there are, the better the world will be. So by all means, please practice yoga and learn to love your mother and take that extra business class that will earn you a promotion. But for me, I think I may need a little more. They say that the call of a monk is to ‘seek God above all else.’ If you think of God as peace and love in the world, then I want to be a monk. I have a body that works, skills to rely on, and a whole network of people who would be willing to help me if I needed it. With all that, I’d say my struggle to survive isn’t too hard to start spending a bit more time on something greater than my own needs. And if I have the time and the resources, I don’t think I’d feel right not living for others.

 Of course, figuring out just what that might look like for me is an entirely separate issue and definitely another blog post.

Spooky Stuff

In honor of Halloween, I’d like to take a moment to talk about something that came up briefly in class the other day–clairvoyance, intuition, spirits, and all that heebie-jeebie, potentially spooky stuff.

Most of the experience here at St. Gertrude’s isn’t focused on honing those skills, probably due to the fact that a large number of people discredit these sorts of things. But, I think it’s all fascinating, and I can certainly see why someone who is incredibly in touch with God (or the divine or the energy of the universe) wouldn’t have a certain extra level of perception. In fact, I almost feel that it’d be inevitable. I think of it this way: when I learned about typography, I couldn’t stop myself from noticing tiny typographical victories (or mishaps) in my everyday life. People often don’t think twice about tiny things like typography because we tend to see the broad, practical purpose rather than the underlying, essential ‘why’ of how things affect us. But because I understand why typography works the way it does, I can better predict whether an advertisement will get read, what program it was made in, and what audience the creator was targeting. Physics is much the same way. Once you understand physics on a deeper level, you would be much more equipped to figure out what the results of a motion will be.

But to get back to clairvoyance.

Today I had the oddest thought while I sat in chapel. I thought about hard-boiled eggs. Now, there are plenty of reasons I could have thought about hard-boiled eggs. Usually, I’d assume I was hungry or that I was craving eggs. However, neither of those things was particularly true. The thought came and passed, fleeting and inconsequential, and I went on to think about other things, namely the people I love and how I want good things for them.

The only reason this makes an interesting story is because tonight for dinner we’re having deviled eggs. First of all, this makes me happy because I do really like deviled eggs. But second, when I found this out, I couldn’t help remembering my random thought. The logical explanation could be that somewhere my nose detected a tiny trace scent of eggs. Or maybe we want to get spooky and say that my intuition is being heightened, and somehow I tapped briefly into the happenings of the kitchen a couple floors away. Either my ‘real’ senses were bringing in extra information, or my ‘spooky’ senses were. Either way, I think it’s kind of cool.

Now, this is a silly experience and makes no real difference in my life. But, I like to think that we can work to hone our ability to perceive the world, the people, the energy around us by being more mindful and aware. Why would we want to do that? Well, I suppose that might depend on each person’s beliefs. But since I think the universe often works in the favor of the good and peaceful, I’d rather be more in touch with it so I know when I’m on the right track. I think listening to that deeper essential part of life can only lead you to a better place.

And that may be kind of superstitious, and it may be kind of spooky, but it works for me.

I guess that’s why I like Halloween!

 

Praying for Rain

Prayers are, as I may have mentioned before, not exactly my forte. I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of praying for something specific, like getting a job, clear skies, or some other particular outcome. It seems to me like prayer is not supposed to be about asking God for something specific to happen or not happen. That sounds simple enough, until you realize… What exactly do you pray for?

For instance, my personal qualms at the moment stem from my dad’s health. As much as I would love for my dad to not be going through what he is, and as much as I don’t want his life to be shortened, I can’t bring myself to pray for those things. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe it’s because I don’t see God as a master planner who can change the course of events at will. And, as counter-religious as it may sound, I don’t think of God as a ‘he’ who ‘answers prayers.’ Results-oriented prayer doesn’t seem too logical if you don’t think the force you’re praying to has direct control over results. So who am I asking? And what do I really expect to get from my asking?

Well, the best way I can explain it, I think, is in terms of the Spirit. I pray to the spirit, or the force, or God, that exists in and around all of us. So, in a way, when I’m at my most prayerful, I’m really asking myself for help–my innermost, intuitive, inherently natural and good self. When I ask for peace, I somehow know that I already have that peace within me. When I ask for love, I am tapping into the deep capacity I have for love as a spiritual being. And when I pray for other people… I suppose most of all I am hoping that they will be able to find the peace and love inside themselves that will make them happier and healthier individuals.

I believe prayer is really about being a better person and cultivating peace and love. That may sound hokey. But I do believe that energy is a powerful force and that the Spirit (or God) thrives on positive energy. And since I want to feed the good of the world and the good in me, I pray.

I don’t know what most people do. I am actually very curious about it, since most people don’t say their most personal prayers out loud. Plus, most people at the monastery have been praying their whole lives. It’s kind of assumed that everyone already does it. Admittedly, I don’t know how much my prayer style has in common with the Sisters’. Maybe soon I’ll pluck up the nerve to ask.

We are One

Today at mid-day praise, the idea of ‘one-ness’ came up a lot. I couldn’t help but think of this song after all the mentioning of the word ‘one.’ It may seem a little silly, but actually, the Lion King has a lot to do with how I think about the world. This is kind of what God is to me. Oneness with all of the earth and the cosmos… All of life and energy.

“We are one, you and I,
We are like the earth and sky,
One family under the sun.
All the wisdom to lead,
All the courage that you need,
You will find when you see
We are one.”

The Monastery has been Invaded

It’s called the invasion of the slow-walkers.

I sincerely wish I’d come up with that name, but I can’t take any credit. These beautiful old women coined that term a long time ago when the first Mindfulness retreat came to the Spirit Center.

Thanks to this particular retreat, the monastery grounds are teeming with near-statues of people. My first experience with them was in the dining hall, where all of our meals are now being held in silence so the retreatants can be uber-aware of how and what they are feeling and thinking while they dine.

Now, there’s something very interesting about these people, not because they are moving so slowly, and not because they’ve chosen to go on a retreat, but because they are mixing into a pre-existing community and altering the environment. I am not a part of the retreat this time around, but when I’m around them, I immediately enter a more mindful state. (How can you avoid it? No one is looking at you or talking to you or anything…) For instance, at dinner (lunch), I noticed that even though I have been eating more slowly lately, I still often take another bite of food just before I’ve finished chewing the last. Before you go, ‘eeew,’ try paying attention to how you eat. While walking back from my work at the museum this afternoon, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw one of the women crouched in the grass just behind a bush. But, I tell you what, it made me remember to walk slower and look around.

So, as odd as it is having half-zombies slowly wandering around each corner ready to startle you, it’s kind of great, too. Because they serve as a living (though at remarkably slow pace) reminder to be present to your surroundings. And really, with such beautiful surroundings we have here on the Camas Prairie, it would be shameful to do anything less.