Meetings

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.

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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.

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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.

Hacinebi

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.

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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.

 

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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….

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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?

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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

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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.

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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!

Acting

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.

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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.

Still Listening

Although it has been awhile since my last blog post, I am still thinking about listening.  I would like to think of myself as a good listener, but lately I’ve realized that description is somewhat limited.  I enjoy one-on-one interactions and can usually manage to be present, as long as things are going smoothly.  In large groups, however, or in conversations where I disagree, I am far more uncomfortable and tend to disengage, or walk away, if only mentally.  I recently was taking part in a group discussion about listening and one Sister spoke of “listening to each other and letting the Holy Spirit in.”  I realized that this is exactly the kind of listening I need to work on, in order to remain open to God in my life.

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One of the primary ways I learn to listen for the spirit through other people is in Liturgy of the Hours.  I realized this again in a conversation with someone who noted how different our prayers are from other monasteries she had visited.  “They speak so softly,” she noted.  Many monasteries adopt this practice because it allows them to hear the voices of the Sisters around them, disposing them to attentive listening.  Our community also practices this type of listening, but we do so while speaking in our usual voices.  I have always felt that this allows us to practice listening to others in a world that is rarely quiet.  It also teaches us to speak our own truths:  to speak up when necessary and to disagree respectfully, while still hearing the other point of view.

In the past few weeks, I have had several conversations that have not been easy; both in groups and with individuals.  In some of these, I have remembered what I practice daily in liturgy and while the conversation was still uncomfortable, I was willing to stay with it.  While I’m not sure in every instance what the Holy Spirit is trying to tell me, I am working at remaining more open to her presence in other people.

Listening

It begins with a simple question, “What do I do now?”  For me, these days, the answer isn’t always easy.  Is my desire to speak up self-serving?  Is my tendency to remain silent wishy-washy?  The larger question is, how do I see God in any given set of circumstances and how do I respond out of love?

These questions seem as though they may be prompted by the larger political situation in the United States.  And sometimes they are.  Many times, however, they are prompted by life in community and the demands of ministry.  How do I respond out of love to the daily needs of my Sisters?  How do I balance those needs with a desire to be of service in the wider world?

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Community provides comfort as well as challenge in asking these questions and listening for the answers. 

The more time I spend in community, the more I understand that asking these questions on a daily basis can help transform my response in the wider world.  If I am not willing to consider the needs of the Sister who sits near me in prayer every day, how can I weigh the needs of the student who is asking for help, and how can I even begin to understand the needs of someone I have never met?  If I can’t bring myself to be helpful to someone I see every day, can I really claim to want to help anyone else?

At the moment, I feel as though I have more questions than answers.  For the time being, however, I’m going to try to focus these questions on the people I encounter daily.  My hope is that as I begin to recognize the answers on the small scale, larger answers–or at least a clearer direction–will be revealed.

The hard work of lectio

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Although I prefer a hard copy of a book, most of the time I use my tablet for lectio, since it makes it easier to pick up where I left off, especially if I’m not in the same place. 

I have been working lately at my practice of lectio divina.  This traditionally Benedictine method of prayer involves close reading of, and meditation on, the scriptures  While it seems simple enough to sit down every day with the scriptures and listen for the voice of God, I find that many days, the prayer does not go as well as I’d like.  Regardless of how I feel on any given day, however, I am beginning to realize that the daily practice does make a difference in my relationship with God and, hopefully, with other people.

Some days, I find it almost impossible to sit with the scripture for even five or ten minutes.  Even a close reading can be difficult. My mind jumps from one thought to the next, “Oh I know this passage.”  “Must remember to do…..”  “It’s very warm in here and my leg is falling asleep.”

When I do manage to read a passage all the way through with close attention, it is still hard to focus my thought on God’s voice in that passage.  I get distracted by the footnotes, or an historical question.  I wonder why or how this passage came to be included in the Gospel.

Even on days when I do manage to concentrate, lectio is not necessarily a peaceful experience.  Some passages confront me with images of myself that I would rather not see.  I find myself frustrated and arguing with a God who seems to ask more of me than I want–and sometimes feel able–to give.

But, even on days when I finish prayer feeling as though I haven’t concentrated at all–I find that words or phrases from that morning’s passage return to me throughout the day.  These can be comforting or challenging, but never fail to remind me that God is with me.  It is my hope that continued practice of lectio will make me ever more aware of that presence.