Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Becoming Benedictine

Monsters are taking over the monastery. Monster cookies, that is. I am the victim here. I sit down after lunch and find myself next to the coffee and cookie duo—the new Sonny and Cher of my life. I blame their latest attack on the group of youngsters who have come to the island to work for the day. “A group is coming to work today. There’s lasagna and meatloaf in the cooler and a bag of cookies,” Mother Hildegard says. “Please make sure to take care of them.”

Though the other visitors have left, I remain the veteran. The house mother. (The m is decidedly lower case, thanks.) House mother has been doing the laundry all morning, setting the table and putting the food in the oven while also being a farm mother, feeding the cattle and pulling up weeds taller than herself, and while also posing as a Benedictine Mother, going to prayers and masses, pretending like she knows the Latin, when to sit and when to stand. I guess I’m becoming Benedictine aren’t I? There’s room each day for different personas, different “habits” if you will. Luckily, mine is neither black nor denim.

That’s what’s so great about the Benedictines, their inclusion of diversity in their lives and the moderation with which they do things. It’s not all work. It’s not all prayer. It’s not all play. Kathleen Norris explains this concept in The Cloister Walk. “The monastic perspective welcomes time as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used up by it…The Benedictines, more than any other people I know, insist that there is time in each day for prayers, for work, for study, and for play.” I concur. But little did I know I would be adopting it so easily, slipping into the rhythm like the words of the Latin chants.

We all know this adaptability. It’s how we survive. We’re students, we’re friends, we’re leaders, we’re children, we’re parents, we’re workers, we’re teachers—we’re anything depending on where we are and who we’re with. It’s completely natural. The Benedictines simply take this already natural phenomenon and give it deeper meaning by recognizing it and by shifting their own habits accordingly (both literally and figuratively), all in order to glorify and be present to God. It is a very reasonable, logical lifestyle.

The notion began to crystallize today at Vespers. I knew it was a feast day, the Transfiguration, and that the service would change accordingly. I began to poke around in the book when Mother Ruth hobbled over, cleared her throat, and licked her fingers fumbling for the right pages. “Here’s the antiphon of the day,” she said in a Southern rasp. She flipped around twice more. “Here are the psalms. Here are the hymns.” I nodded, passed out a book of the Divine Office to every other group member, and the service began. I sang the antiphon, reverted back to the psalms, antiphon, psalm, back and forth, like a conductor orchestrating through the pages. I helped the others. I knew what I was doing.  

Maybe there’s a bit of Benedictine in all of us…