“I’m not escaping,” I protested.
“You’re running away from your dad’s drinking,” she insisted, adding a dollop of butter. “You don’t like having a father you can't depend on.” I had to agree. What I did like was dangling my feet in the creek on a summer’s day. In my own world of dappled sunlight, bubbling water, and towering trees, I sat within shouting distance of our home but beyond the reach of dad’s drunkenness.
“The thing is, Honey, people’s lives get messy. That’s what being human’s all about. That’s what’s real. Life isn’t all sweetness and charm you know.”
Tears welled in my eyes.
“You retreat when things get bad. You go to that dream world of yours,” Mom commented, cutting the onions for the hamburgers.
“It’s safe there.”
What she said was true. I’d always wanted to live in a home where everything was hunky-dory. No drunken arguments. No knives that could end a life. No care boxes from family members who didn’t realize that dad’s drinking kept us poor.
Resisting reality, I refused my mother’s wisdom and entered the convent the next day. There I planned on immersing myself in prayer and forgetting those violent and explosive scenes that had punctuated my growing up.
As early as the third century, many Christians felt drawn to a life of prayer and asceticism. Some went out into the deserts of Palestine and Egypt, away from the hubbub of settlement. These hermits, be they men or women, sought the presence of God in solitude.
But beware. Within such a life lurks the crippling possibility of becoming self-absorbed, self-centered, and selfish. One can lose his or her willingness to engage in the give-and-take of human relationship.
Socialists tell us that humans are social creatures. Rubbing up against one another’s messiness helps us become whole. The interplay of resolving communal differences promotes emotional growth. That community may be a committed couple, a family with children, an extended family, a monthly book club, a town, a city, a nation.
Out of the many, one group forms.
Those within each group must contend with one another’s foibles and faults. Letting go of our own will and compromising with these flaws is hard. Benedict was not speaking only of physical labor when he stressed the motto “Ora et Labora.” Building community takes work.
I entered the convent unaware of this. I didn’t enter because I wanted to be part of community—which is what monasticism is all about. Instead, I entered solely to praise God. I was a loner.
I knew I’d be praying with a group of women, but I thought we'd just pray together and then go our separate ways. Of course, those women and myself weren't always in the choir chapel. We had to interact. I was not prepared for that. So naïve. So immature. So idealistic. So dumb!
I found the serenity I sought when praying the Divine Office. But in the daily life of the convent I met the reality of over six hundred women living together. Think of any small or large group of people—a platoon, a law office, a free clinic for the inner city poor, a union of construction workers, a fraternal order of like-minded philanthropists, a state legislature, a troop of scouts, a band of mountain climbers.
Now consider trying to make a community out of that group. Community grows out of shared vision and the willingness to compromise and let go of self-absorption. What is asked of each community member is the willingness to place the good of the whole before the doggedness of any one member of the group.
Yet each member of that group is an individual with mood swings, needs, and dreams that differ from those of others. Some members are mean-spirited; some, abrasive; some see only good; some see only fault; some judge others and find them wanting; some—like myself—seek an unrealistic peace.
At age twenty-three I sought solitude, not community. From the beginning I misunderstood the intent of monasticism. I was reluctant to embrace the rough lion’s paw of communal living.
I did not fully realize this until I read “Prologos” and recognized myself in the lines “My love is like a stairway in the soul—but ever and forever I am only in myself.” Could I will myself to choose communal living over solitude? Could I choose others over myself? The questions buffeted the self I’d brought to the convent. In my seven-day vow retreat I fought a battle between idealism and realism.
(Continued on Saturday . . .)
PS: On October 30, 2009, a PBS reporter interviewed the present prioress of the monastery I entered. To see and hear the ten-minute interview click here. The video provides wonderful background on monasticism. In it, you’ll see the choir chapel where I prayed and the hallways I walked in silence as well as other features and buildings that were part of my life.
All photos from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net
Stream by prozac1/ruin by Evgeni Dinev/community by Savit Keawtavee