Tag Archives: prayer

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.

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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.

Daily Life

So, I kind of mentioned that the sisters do more than just lock themselves in their towers all day, but I wanted to elaborate a little on what daily life here at the Monastery is like. Of course, this is coming from an outsider perspective, and I actually don’t know most of what goes on, but I’ll do my best.

5:00 AM – Apparently this is when 80% of people here wake up. They often can be found roaming the halls, drinking tea or coffee, and disappearing to do who knows what. Perhaps getting a jump start on their daily work, maybe doing personal contemplation… But the fun part of this is that no one can ask because the monastery holds silence between 9 PM and 9 AM.

7:00 AM – The sisters can begin to eat breakfast. In silence.

7:30 AM – The volunteers can begin to eat breakfast. In silence.
7:45 ish – I usually try to go for a short walk or a run. Though it’s reeeeally chilly outside.

8:30 AM – Morning Praise, consisting of lots of scratchy singing (because no one has spoken yet!) and reading psalms in unison. You’ll have to figure out if you’re part of Chorus 1 or Chorus 2, but that’s not too hard. It switches weekly.

9:00 – 11:30 AM – Work time, mostly. For me, it usually involves scrambling around trying to figure out if there’s someone who needs help somewhere, which almost always lands me in a cleaning project. A lot of sisters do their own work, either planning retreats or events, cleaning up from breakfast, taking care of the sisters in the infirmary, running errands in town, gardening, working in the museum, gift shop, inn, etc.

11:30 AM – Eucharist, almost always punctuated by a strange buzzing sound that you’ll eventually realize is the wireless earphones that the hard of hearing wear to hear the homilies. On weekends, I get to see some community members in their flannel and large belt buckles. We are definitely on the prairie.

12:10 PM – Dinner (Not lunch.)
12:40 – Dishes. I do ‘light’ dishes half the week and ‘dark’ dishes the other half. Which really just means I either put away lots of plates and cups or I put away a billion pots and lids.

1:00-5:00 PM – More work time! I generally spend this time either helping catalog for the museum, making cards for the gift shop to sell, changing sheets at the Inn, or again, looking around for work to be done. Sometimes I hide away and read or write for a while.

5:00 PM Evening Praise

5:30 PM – Supper (note the difference between supper and dinner)
6:00 PM –  Dishes. I have been helping with dishes almost every night, even though I’m not technically scheduled to. I’m not sure how this works.

7:00 PM – Tuesday nights, I’ll have my Benedictine spirituality class at this time. Sometimes there are historical talks or community night events, which I try to go to, since it’s nice to talk to people when you’re not working. The sisters generally watch the news (and sometimes sports) and play games or knit. One night, I learned how to play 5-card pinochle, which is not very similar to regular pinochle… If there isn’t something going on, I enjoy an evening doing my own thing.

9:00 PM – Quiet time. AKA, time when I usually try to write. I am not sure what the sisters do. It’s likely that they read and/or study. If you take a shower, you’ll be asked to ‘squeegee’ the shower once you’re finished. I have not yet mastered this skill.

10:30 PM – This is when I try very hard to fall sleep! My brain hasn’t quite gotten into this routine yet. I generally end up lying awake for a long time. I also suspect it has a little to do with the fact that I, for the first time in my life, have been trying to sleep on my right side. It’s very odd that this makes a difference, but it truly does.

So there you have it. I’ve found that for me, at least, it’s a huge contrast between scheduled time and flexibility. I know exactly when and where I’ll be praying, but my work could change almost any second. It’s bizarre not knowing what to expect. But It is also nice to have time to do my own projects and to be alone.

Ultimately, I’m still getting into the swing of everything. We’re only just getting started with classes, and my work ‘schedule’ was only just sort of decided. So, who knows how things will progress. But for now, this might give you some idea of what my life has been like in Cottonwood.

Taking Ownership

So, here’s an interesting thought that I stumbled upon the other day: the best way to maintain habits that you are trying to cultivate (i.e. working out, giving thanks, meditating, not procrastinating) is to alter your own perspective about your identity.

What this article argued was that by thinking of ourselves as the type of person who eats healthily, or the type of person who writes letters every week, we have a much easier time fulfilling those goals. It makes a lot of sense to me. Imagine having a goal to learn French. If you consistently tell yourself and others that you are the kind of person who is bad at learning languages, you’re automatically setting yourself up to accept failure. Success in that area is fundamentally ‘not you,’ and therefore much harder to achieve.

So where does this fit into my life here at the Monastery? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of person I want to be for the rest of my life–going to a liberal arts college tends to do that to you. Being here at the monastery is not only a chance for me to start over in a new setting, it is also an opportunity to be around people who are more like I want to be.

What I’ve learned, even in the first two weeks, is just how intelligent and traveled these women are. Benedictine sisters aren’t trapped in their isolated towers their whole lives, though I think some people hold that misconception. I’ve talked to women who taught for thirty years in five or six different cities. I’ve had dinner with women who are fluent in three languages (every Tuesday night there is a Spanish-language-only table). I’ve met women who studied art and Greek classics, women who had a career and then returned to school to pursue nursing, women who played three or four instruments and composed beautiful pieces. Most of them have been to another country. A lot of them have been to Europe. And they talk about politics, the news, canning, soap making, and all the people they know from all over the country.

These women inspire me. They continue to teach me new kinds of love, new kinds of gratitude, and plenty of new ways to wash the dishes.

So, what kind of person am I?

I’m the kind of person who listens and learns from others. I’m the kind of person who embraces every day. I’m the kind of person who takes care of herself so she can take care of others. I’m the kind of person who is so very grateful for the opportunities, big and small, that life provides. I’m the kind of person who will loves experiencing new places, new cultures, and new people. I’m the kind of person who finds beauty in everything and everyone. And I’m also the kind of person who writes, prays, sings, reads, thinks, and breathes deeply. (And it’s only the second week..)

The whole point is that I have to believe I am (or at the very least, can be) the type of person I want to be. Because that’s the kind of goal that is lived out every day, without guilt or pressure or shame.

So it’s time for you to decide. What kind of person are you?

Filling the Silence

Being a relatively non-religious person most of my life, I have never exactly established a personal relationship with prayer. Prayers were something my friends’ families said before dinner—a time when I’d bow my head and feel self conscious about not knowing the words. Any time I attended a Catholic mass, I found myself doing strange mumble-mouthing in an attempt to hide my ignorance. I much preferred the kind of prayer I found later, mostly on college retreats, that consisted of silence and personal reflection. But even that silence can be difficult.

Silence is a close friend of mine. I’m incredibly comfortable with silence. The reason the silence in prayer is difficult has a lot more to do with what fills my inner silence—my thoughts. After a few days of regular periods of silence (we have prayer service 3 times a day), I began to notice my focus drifting. No, not drifting. More like sprinting in four directions at once.

Prayer and meditation are similar for me, since ultimately I see them as ways to open your soul to forces within and outside your body. Personally, I tend to feel most connected with those forces when I feel strong emotions—or, maybe I feel strong emotions when I feel connected to those forces. Either way, based on this, I’ve taken up a new habit in my times of silent prayer and mediation that has been surprisingly successful for me: gratitude.

While I imagine the sisters’ silently listing off all the friends and family they are praying for, I run through memories. I see faces of loved ones, briefly relive times of struggle and sadness and conflict, recall joyous moments and all manner of tears. And over these images I can only think, “Thank you.”

My new method might seem a little self-centered, particularly given the number of people who I’d like to direct my positive energy toward. But since I have yet to figure out exactly how I feel comfortable doing that, for now I feel okay with simply appreciating. Ultimately, I can’t see any greater display of love and respect for the workings of life than to express gratitude for every piece of it. And isn’t love what it’s all about anyway?