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.