Community and Keys

I had one of those days this afternoon.  I was at the Sheil Catholic Center for Cheap Lunch ($3.00 for chips, a burger, salad, dessert and a soda!) and to talk to a few people about upcoming events. Since I wasn’t certain how long I was going to be there, I decided I would use one of my parking permits, which allow me to park on the street near Northwestern for more than two hours.  After eating lunch and stopping by a few offices, I headed back to my car and realized I’d lost my keys.  Panic ensued as I retraced my steps and enlisted about half the Sheil staff to help me look for my keys.


The parking permit appropriately displayed in the windshield of my car.  The cause of the panic and one of the things that alleviated it somewhat.

I was unable to find them at Sheil and finally headed back to my car, thinking I would pay attention to see if I had dropped them along the way, but if not, I’d take the el home and get my spare set to pick up the car.  “At least,” I observed to the women who had been helping me, “I hung the permit in my windshield so I’m not worried about getting a ticket.”

About half a block from Sheil, I may have actually slapped my forehead as I realized, “I locked my keys in my car.”  After I parked, I started filling out the parking permit, and took the keys out of the ignition, put them down, and locked the car door when I got out.  And, indeed, when I got back to the car, there the keys were, on the seat of the car.  With my panic at having missing keys gone, I called Sr. Jane and asked her to come pick me up, so I could come home, find my extra key and head back up to Evanston.  She pointed out that there are spare car keys in the subprioress’s office and, after I phoned Sr. Patti, Jane got the keys to my car and headed to Evanston to rescue me.


My key.  Exactly where I left it.  On the front seat of my locked car. 

While I don’t want to lose my keys again, the afternoon was a wonderful demonstration for me of the many ways I am supported by community and how much I need community to get through my daily life.  No one made me feel stupid or helpless for having lost my keys.  Everyone I encountered offered to help in some way–from looking through offices and across the grass to actually finding a spare key and driving up to deliver it to me.  While I was nervous about having lost the key, I knew that, in the end, it would be alright and that I would wind up home with the car and in one piece.  It’s easy to think that I can do it all alone.  This afternoon was a reminder how much I am dependent on–and grateful for–community

Reflections on the Sunday Readings

1 Kings 19:9A, 11-13A

Matthew 14:22-33

When I first read today’s readings, what stood out for me was not so much the action of God, but rather the ways in which the people recognize and respond to the actions of God in their lives.  Both Peter and Elijah, falter–or at least hesitate–in their attempt but not in their desire to follow God.  Both the first reading and the Gospel this week, in fact, center on our encounter with and recognition of God, even amid storms and our–occasionally faltering or fearful–response to that encounter; a response that seems to resonate even more deeply in light of this past week’s current events.

We all know the story contained in this week’ Gospel.  It must have been quite a surprise to Peter and the other disciples when Jesus caught up to them, after they had been on the water for most of the night.  And an even bigger surprise to see him walking on the water.  Yes, they had just seen him feed the 5000 with five loaves and two fishes (a reading we missed this year because we celebrated the Transfiguration last week).  They were fishermen, they were used to waves and wind, but a God who walks on water?  So maybe it’s no surprise that the disciples don’t recognize him at first.

After some reassurance though, Peter’s recognition of Jesus enboldens him to tell Jesus that he too wants to walk on water–that he wants to be like Jesus.  I find this statement of Peter’s curious and somewhat out of character.  Wouldn’t the impulsive Peter simply have jumped out of the boat and ASSUME he could walk on water?  Instead, Peter asks Jesus to give him the command:  he makes it very clear what he wants to do, but waits for Jesus assent.

Despite Jesus’ yes to Peter’s request, though, once Peter is out of the boat, the situation does not seem to live up to his expectations.  Whether the waves were bigger or the wind was stronger than he expected, his fear leads him to falter–though even in that faltering his impulse is to reach out to Jesus for help.  THIS seems much more like the ordinary Peter–recognizing God, making an honest attempt to do or say what God wants of him, being assailed by doubts, starting to falter, and then out of fear turning back to God.

Because the first reading this morning is taken out of context, Elijah seems to be doing better in recognizing and responding to God than Peter does.  He recognizes God even in the tiny whispering sound which follows the storms and earthquakes and fires which so often seem to be part of our daily lives.  Put back in context, though, Elijah is pretty much in the same boat as Peter (pun intended).  He has fled to this cave on Mt. Horeb because he, in his own words, “has been zealous for the Lord” and is afraid that the Israelites want to kill him (and justifiably so, since Jezebel has threatened him).  He is either running away from what God has asked him to do, or he’s taking a long break (it took him 40 days to get there) to discern God’s will.  In either case, he recognizes God, and, when, despite his fear, he is sent right back to Israel, he goes.

So the men in both the first reading and the Gospel today encounter God.  Despite the unexpected nature and the storms that surround this encounter, they both are able to recognize God, and despite some–probably quite justifiable in both cases–faltering, they are able to respond to what God has asked them to do.

But what does this all mean for us today? Right now?  How are we to see and recognize god in the context of the storms that are saber-rattling between North Korea and the US, racism and violence in Charlottesville or the more mundane storms of our daily lives together?  How are we to respond to the presence of God?

For this question, I find Peter much more helpful than Elijah.  Elijah receives explicit instructions and then simply goes out and follows them–not something that happens often in my life.  Peter’s response is quite different–he sees Jesus walking on water and immediately he wants to do what Jesus does.  He doesn’t seem to stop and ask himself WHY Jesus is walking on water, or what good it will do anyone if he walks on water.  He simply wants to follow Jesus in all ways.

I still haven’t figured out what my response to all of today’s storms will be.  But, seeking to follow Jesus–a response which Sister Mary Pellegrino, CSJ described in her presidential address to Leadership Conference of Women Religious described as “embracing the paschal narrative of communion” seems like a good place to start.

For the past few days, I have been puttering around with some community records.  Specifically, I have been looking at the ages of the Sisters when they took first vows and when they died.  Most of this is found in the community necrology book, along a brief obituary about each Sister.  I always find the stories about the Sisters’ lives fascinating, but I was unexpectedly intrigued by the dates as well.  These dates tell a story about the community in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that differs from the narrative that dominates the community today.  The understanding that the community was different in the past gives me hope for the ways the community can change as we move in the future.


The book of obituaries is on a table in the community room.  Someone turns the page every day so we can read about the Sister who died on that day in the past.

In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, it was the norm for women to enter immediately out of high school (many attended one of our high schools or had our Sisters in grammar school or both).  Most of the Sisters who entered at that time took first vows at nineteen or twenty years old.  One of them who had attended college for a year before entering, which made her 21 when she took first vows, still remembers being referred to as a “delayed vocation.”  Since this group makes up considerably more than half the current community, it seems as though this was always the case, The pattern of women entering later in the lives, which began in the 1970s is seen as a recent development; and until recently was viewed as a problem to be addressed


The community necrology hangs on the wall on the way into St. Scholastica Chapel

The data, however, suggest an entirely different pattern.  Certainly some of the Sisters entering in the nineteenth and twentieth century entered when they were teenagers.  One even took first vows at fourteen years old!  Many others, however, entered considerably later–including one Sister who entered at age fifty-three in 1885!  The ages of Sisters taking first vows suggests that the pattern of women entering immediately after high school did not emerge until the 1930s–in no small part probably due to the lack of access to high school education for many women!  The recognition of differences in community organization even in the relatively short history of our community (I am an archaeologist; 150 years seems short to me!) allows me to dream about the ways in which the community can change again to meet the challenges of the twenty first century.


In the past two weeks, I found myself at two different meetings of Sisters, both focused on addressing the future of religious life.  The first was a national convention for Giving Voice–women religious under the age of fifty.  The second was a three-day meeting of my community.  Both meetings, each in their own way, rooted me more firmly in my understanding of what it means to be a Benedictine Sister of Chicago and allowed me an opportunity to dream about what the future of religious life will look like and how I can work to continue to shape it.


Giving Voice Sisters

Nearly seventy women religious gathered at Giving Voice from over forty communities and nearly twenty countries.  We did not get an age breakdown, but the ages seemed to range from twenty eight to forty eight or forty nine.  It was one of the few gatherings of religious women in which I was among the “elders.”  Our days consisted of various structured discussions about issues which are facing women religious at this time and how, as younger sisters, we are being called to step forward and help our communities address these issues.

As I returned to my own community meetings, these issues became very concrete as we discussed our future together.  While we have not made many decisions about what that future will be, our discussions allow us to imagine how we want to live together, given our current reality.  We can identify pieces of that future that we need to begin living now.


It’s harder at home to remember to take photos, but we spent a lot of time in circles at both meetings!

In both of these gatherings, I noticed that we always gather in circles in order to have our discussions. It allows us to face one another and speak from our truth, while also listening to the wisdom of one another. St. Benedict calls us to listen “with the ear of your heart” and these circles help us to do just that. It is in the listening and responding that, over time, we are able to fashion a communal response to whatever questions stand in front of us.

While I don’t know what the future of religious life will look like, I do know that it will be fashioned not by one or two voices, but by the wisdom that arises out of communal reflection and the bonds of community.

Endings…and beginnings

As of July first, I am officially no longer employed to write up the ceramic site report for Hacinebi, a fourth millennium site on the Euphrates River in Turkey, on which I have been working for more than 20 years.  Although this did not come as a surprise (I have completed a first and second draft of the data portions of the book and the research money has dwindled), it still feels like something of a loss.  While I will still be doing some work helping shepherd the book through the publication process, I am for the most part done with working with material from the site. Hacinebi has been one of the long-term constants in my life and having it suddenly not taking up many of my waking hours seems odd.


I first began working at Hacinebi, as an excavator in the summer of 1995.  A few years later, I honestly don’t remember the date, but sometime in the late nineties, I began to work on compiling the data from the analysis of the Chalcolithic-era ceramics and eventually to write up the ceramics for publication.  I have also worked on the faunal material from both the Chalcolithic and the Hellenistic periods.  I took periods of time off for various reasons, including my novitiate year as I was starting my journey to become a Benedictine Sister. None of these projects were ever full time work, nor did I think of them as my own research, but Hacinebi has been part of my life for the better part of twenty years and now it will occupy at best a peripheral position.  – It is definitely a loss, but it is also opening up new doors for me.


Not having a list of tasks related to Hacinebi which need to be completed, frees up quite of a bit of time in my week.  Finishing this work has allowed me to think about how I want to shape my future.  What kinds of work do I want to undertake?  What dreams have I had that I have felt unable to pursue because of the time and energy I have spent on the Hacinebi ceramics?  I have a few ideas percolating and I’m excited (if admittedly somewhat nervous) to see what beginnings come out of this ending.

Comings and Goings

Most days, I work in what is known as the laundry building behind the main monastery.  My commute consists of a one minute walk across the yard.  The upside of this is that I am rarely stressed by traffic or delayed trains; the downside is, I have very little time to leave whatever happened in the morning at home behind as I head to work; or leave what happened at work as I head home. Happily, a small group of people who greet me morning and evening often remove my stress.

Almost every weekday morning, as I walk into the laundry, I am greeted by a chorus of “Good morning.”  The woman who does our laundry has three children who attend the charter school next to the monastery, ranging in age from kindergarten to a senior in high school.  Each of them greets me, and we sometimes share news about our lives–lost teeth, college acceptances, or monastery happenings.  About 3:30 when they’re headed home after school, the six year old often waves goodbye to me through the window, as I sit at my computer in my office on the second floor.

As I head over to the monastery for 5:15 prayers, I pass the St. Joseph Court Dining Room, where the residents of St. Joseph Court are usually  eating dinner after early prayers.  As I walk past the window, many of the Sisters greet me with a smile or a wave–I’ve begun to think of this as my parade of one.

While these are small gestures, they go far to brighten my days and make work seem less tense or home problems less pressing.  At compline–night prayer–we pray, “May the Lord watch over my comings and goings…..” For me, these people are the ways that God does that.



I went on my first dig, to Tell Safut Jordan, at seventeen! 

I was thrilled to be a guest blogger for A Nun’s Life ministry this month. I shared the story of how I have always known I wanted to be an archaeologist…but it look longer for me to recognize my call to become a Sister. Have there been moments in your life when the people around you recognized a gift or call in your life before you? That is definitely what happened to me.  I invite you to read the full story here at A Nun’s Life.


I was delighted by the support that my post gathered–not only from women religious, but also from the many archaeologists with whom I am friends.  That support, from both facets of my life has been one of the ways that I am able to continue to pursue both of these callings.


They just lived their lives….


Nepomucene Ludwig took vows in St. Mary’s, PA in 1857; but from 1859-1862 lived in Newark, NJ and from 1862-1866 was the superior of our fledgling community in Chicago.  She died (and was buried) in St. Mary’s in 1921

I was in North Dakota last week, primarily to talk with their novice–and whoever else wanted to come hear–about the early history of Benedictine women in the United States.  I enjoyed the week, not only because it was a break from my usual routine and because I got a chance to spend time with a community of women I enjoy, but also because it gave me an opportunity to think in a concentrated way about the changes and challenges that faced Benedictine women as they planted this kind of religious life in a different cultural milieu.  I find that, since we also live in a time of great change and challenge, their stories help me understand how to move forward and live this life the best that I can.

One of the topics that we focused on this week was the question of monastic stability–one of the vows we take as Benedictine women.  What did it mean in the mid-to-late nineteenth century for a Sister to take a vow of stability and then live in two or three cities as new communities branched off from existing groups?  What did they imagine community to mean in a time when communities were growing rapidly and women moved between communities as new groups were founded?  What does it mean to take a vow of stability in the first decades of the twenty-first century as communities merge and reconfigure in new ways. What do we imagine community to mean as our communities have fewer women and our peers in religious life (both in age and in time in community) are spread throughout the United States?


Sisters from a few Benedictine communities–as well as other orders–were present at my final vows. 

I don’t have the answers to any of those questions.  I suspect few of the Sisters who lived in the early days of Benedictine women in the United States would have felt that they had the answers either.  They simply lived their lives–as one of the Bismark Sisters observed–as faith-filled women, trying to listen to the voice of God and trusting in the future. For me, reflecting on these questions while visiting another community and building relationships there brings me hope.  We don’t know what the future will bring, but we too are living in faith that God’s voice is calling us to the future.

Laughter in the monastery


In old photos, religious Sisters always look so solemn.  Even in my community, among Sisters I know, the image persists of Sisters in habits looking holy, always being on time for prayers, and never, ever laughing.  This Saturday at lunch, I was reminded that we are all human beings and that the Sisters (and the students they taught) had moments of foolishness and fun.

I don’t remember how the conversation began, but one of the first stories was about a long-gone sacristan using full boxes of Easter Vigil tapers to support a nativity set on the floor of a church which had radiant heating.  When the Sister telling the story was sent over to help clean up, the wax was melted solid in the boxes and stuck to the floor.  The superior, also no longer with us, had no idea why it took several days to take down the nativity set, but apparently never found out about the minor disaster, and those of us at the table were left to wonder how Easter Vigil proceeded later in the year minus several boxes of tapers!

Melting wax led naturally to stories about high school seniors attempting to burn their uniforms on the last day of school–the uniforms being polyester, they melted rather than burning.  Other stories about disposing of school uniforms included mounting them on the flag pole. Some of the Sisters were teaching or in administration, but others at the table seem to have participated in them–happily not at the same time as far as I could tell.  The final story of the meal was about a group of Sisters who hid a candy Easter chick in the bottom of a crate of eggs to be discovered by the superior several weeks later.  She was not amused, but the other Sisters in the house were.


In the Rule, Benedict inveighs against laughter, which some commentators have suggested prohibits not joking at the expense of others.  These stories were told with great humor and no malice–except possibly toward the school uniforms. While the current community is not always solemn and serious, we are not given to practical jokes and pranks.  This Saturday, though, I laughed so hard at lunch that my face hurt!


I have been thinking–and writing–a lot about listening lately.  As I look back over my last two blog posts, while I was willing to listen for the voice of God, it seems that I expected to be asked to do big things or thought I would hear clear answers to my questions.  I expected an obvious path to open in front of me so that I would know what exactly what to do.  This week, I realized that is not always the case..  I discovered that when my actions, like my listening, are focused on the small, every day things, they will get me exactly where I need to go.


The dining room is one of the places where we as community, daily encounter one another’s needs. 

It’s often the small things that are the most difficult for me to do.  Greeting and smiling to the Sister who I felt slighted me the day before often seems impossible.  Since most of our common life centers on liturgy and shared meals, these are most often the places where these small gestures are necessary.  I frequently find myself helping to carry trays, stepping in to lead prayers, or fetching things for Sisters.  I realized last week that it is only when I do these things freely and with love that they are truly helpful.

This became very clear to me when someone stopped me last week with a question, “Do you have a minute?  Can you help me with….?”  The request came from someone I see regularly.  Not someone I consider a close friend, but someone I greet and smile to when I see her.  Someone to whom I lend a hand when I can (as she does for me).  These regular interactions led her to trust me, which led to this conversation.  I’m not sure that I answered any of her questions, but I think my presence helped her.  Nothing I did was large or grandiose, but my daily actions led me to where I needed to be to be helpful.