Friday, February 22, 2008

RB 67: Sisters Sent on a Journey

Chapter 67 of the Rule of Benedict discusses the procedure for sending a monastic outside the confines of the cloister and into "the world." We have learned that this happened rarely in Saint Benedict's monastery - most often when the monks had to sell what they made at market. Longer trips were even less frequent and determined necessary by the abbot alone.

The first half of the chapter focuses on the sending out and the second half on the return. What interests me most about this chapter is the centrality of community prayer. Saint Benedict directs the monk to ask the prayers of the community before he leaves. While he is away, the community is instructed to pray for him at the end of each of the hours of the Divine Office. And when the monk returns from the journey, he is to ask the prayers of the community again - this time, as an ablution. He prostrates himself in the oratory and humbly seeks forgiveness for what he might have seen or done beyond the walls of the monastery.

Isn't this wonderful? Prayer strengthens the monk for his journey. Prayer protects him while he is away. And, prayer cleanses him from the moral dirt and grime of travel. At this point in the lecture, my head was swirling with thoughts. I was returned to Bristow, VA on the evening before our departure for Rome...standing in the center of our oratory and receiving the blessing of the prioress and entire community. The blessing was written especially for us by our liturgist (who is also our prioress) and copied so that we could take the prayer with us on our journey. This blessing has hung over my my desk at the Casa for seven weeks now. I can't tell you how many times I've reread it and felt the love and care of home. And, in every letter and e-mail, we have been assured the continued prayers of our sisters. At the end of the Morning Prayer, Midday Prayer and Evening Prayer, the sister leading prayer says, "May the Divine Assistance remain always with us." And the community replies, "And with our absent sisters and brothers. AMEN." Benedict built this love and care right into the Liturgy of the Hours. Positively brilliant!

The prayer upon return is an interesting phenomenon. As we examined Benedict's procedure for bringing the traveler back into the fold, I imagined the astronauts returning from space in late 1960's and early 1970's. I remember being fascinated as a child by the BIG silver trailer that the astronauts had to be sealed up in until they could be "detoxed" from any dangerous, mysterious space-germs that they brought home inadvertently. It was for every one's good, but, to a child, seemed an ungrateful greeting for men who had risked their lives to go to the moon. Maybe, Saint Benedict had a similar concern for the health of his community. Maybe, he wanted traveling monks to realize when they arrived home, that travel has its graces and its dangers. And the first and best thing a monk can do, is humble himself in the presence of those who have been more faithful in their monastic observance than the one "on the road." It probably helped the traveler to have some perspective about the experience and renew their commitment to the bonds of love in community.

I don't think we have a similar prayer ritual for coming home. Sister Anne Marie ALWAYS thanks GOD for the safe return of sisters who have been on a journey (just as Sister Henry Marie FAITHFULLY prays for travelers.) I do know that we'll be hugged and kissed (all weekend probably :) and the blessing of all that love is really all I need. Perhaps, though, Benedict's third ritual will inspire me to pray my homecoming - to renew my own commitment to the monastic life and to my sisters - and to find a way to articulate the deep gratitude I feel for the gift of this experience.

Love to you all...

- Sister Vicki