Saturday, February 23, 2008

Making Community: The Monastic Genome

I was 9 in the summer of 1973 when my dream of going to summer camp became a reality. "Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Camp for Girls" in the Catskill Mountains of New York- not exactly roughing it, but it passed my Mother's very strict requirements for my safety and spiritual well-being. The preparations for going were detailed and very exciting. We bought a small orange trunk for my belongings. My Mother and my aunts sewed my name into every article of clothing that was on "the list". My parents drove me and we stopped at Howard Johnson's for lunch on the way. Somewhere between lunch and the entrance to the camp, the reality of leaving my parents began to set in. "A whole month..." I thought, "...what if they forget to come back and get me?" "Long walk from New York to New Jersey..."

I lasted two weeks. My parents came for visiting day half-way through the program and the attack of cling-on, homesickness was so bad, my Mother couldn't leave me there. I actually even had a little list of things prepared to tell her about camp that I KNEW would get me sprung. It was a little embarrassing coming home early - a "big baby". But, the joy of being back home was greater than my humiliation. MUCH greater!

Sister Veronica and I have been in Rome for seven weeks. Now, I certainly think my capacity for enduring homesickness has improved drastically in 35 years - one would certainly hope! But, I'm thinking there is something deeper at work in this extended stay - our longest absence from the monastery in almost 6 years - something, that speaks about the monastic life itself. I think monastics make community wherever they go. I think there is something in us - the fruits of a good formation, a grace from GOD, a spiritual gene that wires us for the common life.

When we arrived here seven weeks ago, we were a motley crew. Among the initial difficulties were adjusting to the daily schedule of another house, learning to sing a new office with multiple psalm tones, even working the food line in the dining room was an source of stress in the beginning (more like monastic bumper-cars!) Add to these the challenge of worship in seven languages: English, Italian, German, Korean, Portuguese, Swahili and Latin. Yet, somehow, in the course of seven weeks, we have become a community - a healthy, happy, highly-functioning little monastery. We've learned how to run the dishwasher, wipe down the dining room and where to put all the utensils. We've made some wonderful friendships across cultures and languages, the fruits of which, will be mutual prayer until GOD brings us together again. And, we can sing! Our choir sounds pretty good now. It's rare that we stumble with an antiphon or mode. If GOD can do all this in seven weeks, imagine what GOD can do if we persevere in our home communities for the rest of our lives? That will be my prayer for these new friends...perseverance. Saint Benedict does not describe an easy life in The Rule. But, for those who have been called, it leads to the inexpressible delight of love (RB Prol. 49).

Anyone who has read this little travel-blog knows that I miss Saint Benedict Monastery in Bristow, VA. I miss home. But, it's good to know that the monastic heart is capable of making home wherever it goes - cultivating community for the love of Christ. Isn't GOD good? (And this time, no labels in my underwear!)

Blessings and love to you all...

- Sister Vicki

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

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Desert Wisdom from Oregon...

Today we have a guest lecturer - Father Jeremy Driscoll, OSB - a monk of Mt. Angel Abbey, Oregon, and professor at both Mt. Angel Seminary and Sant' Anselmo in Rome. Father Jeremy specializes in the desert fathers and Evagrius Ponticus, but lectures and writes on liturgy as well as monastic studies. He is a dynamic teacher - passionate about the the WORD present and active in the wisdom of the desert abbas.

His topic this morning was the Sayings of the Desert Fathers - an alphabetical codex of monastic wisdom from the middle of the fifth century. (We have been listening to this collection aloud at dinner every night since we arrived in Rome. It's been only two days since we finished the book and have begun another equally intriguing work: The Lives of the Desert Fathers. I found the "sayings" rather difficult to digest with our main meal (pun intended.) Some were quite accessible offering the hearer a clear and profound message. Others were nearly unintelligible - absurdly humorous to most of us because their deeper meaning seemed obscure to a 21st century monastic ear.)

In his lively lecture, Father Jeremy condensed a decade of research into two and a half hours. Moving from how to approach the text in three different ways - scientific, existential and theological - to the primary text itself, Father Jeremy taught us to use the lens of Sacred Scripture to decode the sayings. His emphasis throughout was on the monastic as a seeker of "what to do" and the Scripture as the abbas' answer. If the Nike corporation made bibles instead of running shoes, "JUST DO IT" would take on a whole new meaning.

We have a short siesta today and begin again at 3:00 PM. I am very glad to be spending the whole day with Father Jeremy. Next, we examine The Life of Antony - a monastic classic. And with Father Jeremy as my guide, I'm looking forward to the desert trek.

Blessings and love to you all...

- Sister Vicki

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

CIB: Benedictine Women Making Connections

1968: Given the Vatican II mandate to reclaim and renew religious life according to the spirit of its founders, Benedictine communities, all over the world, began the arduous yet deeply gratifying work of unearthing and embracing our unique charism - or gift. For most American houses that meant years of study, often painful discussion related to the habit, the renewal of the monastic liturgy and a gradual appropriation of the texts and tradition that are the birthright of Benedict's children. (See: Climb Along the Cutting Edge: an Analysis of Change in Religious Life (Paperback)by J. Chittister, et al.) In the midst of this all-consuming work, an important conversation began about the need to connect Benedictine communities of women on a global level. The Benedictine Confederation of Monastic Congregations (of men) was a well-established entity and monasteries of women were free to affiliate with this structure though not in a way that would offer full participation. (For more on the Confederation see yesterday's blog.) This desire for global conversation and alliance which began in the wake of the aggiornamento, came to flower over twenty years later.
1987: The Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing were the gracious hosts of the very first meeting of international Benedictine women. Held here, at Casa Santo Spirito, these first delegates met to discuss the future of such an organization and lay the groundwork for a more official structure. Subsequent meetings were held every five years in Rome until 1999, when the delegates decided to make the meeting an annual event - much ground to cover, many issues to discuss. This first annual meeting was held in the United States. (Photo above: Rome, 2000 at Sant' Anselmo)

2001: At the 3rd annual meeting, held in Nairobi, Kenya, the delegates approved the name, CIB - Communio Internationalis Benedictinarum - a most exciting moment! This dynamic group has met in Poland, the Philippines and Australia. There are now 19 regions within the CIB. The US and Canada are Region 9 - and, according to the CIB website, we are 3,595 sisters! (I refer you to the website which has been my source of information. A more complete and accurate history may be found there as well as the CIB Handbook, statutes and papers delivered at various meetings. Our prioress, Sister Cecilia Dwyer, OSB, has attended the CIB several times as both delegate and presenter.
From Rembert Weakland, OSB to Notker Wolf, OSB, the creation and growth of the CIB has found support in the Abbot Primate. It has been officially recognized by the Abbots of the Confederation. Perhaps, one day, our two organizations might have a gathering...for simple conversation and a good meal. Holy conversation can change the world. I think Benedict and Scholastica would approve.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Mail Call...

Each day the mail for visiting monastics is placed on a long table in the dining room. One can't help but see it as you make your way in and pick up your napkin. There is always a good measure of glee when letters and cards are claimed. Many of my sisters have blessed me with letters, postcards and even a box of chocolate for Valentine's Day! Such love...

And interesting piece of mail came for me the other day - so interesting, in fact, that another sister picked it up and brought it to me in Study Group on the lower level. I suppose I could have had some real fun with this letter, but I never think quickly enough in these situations. I ended everyone's curiosity quickly and without melodrama. The Abbot Primate sent me a 'thank you' note.

I suppose I should stop here and explain what an "abbot primate" is. The abbot primate heads the Confoederatio Benedictina Ordinis Sancti Benedicti - Benedictine Confederation of Monastic Congregations. Established by Pope Leo XIII and later ratified with amendment by Pope Paul VI, the Benedictine Confederation is a voluntary union of autonomous congregations of Benedictine men from all over the world. The abbot primate resides at Sant' Anselmo in Rome and welcomes the abbots of the world for a meeting every four years. Abbot Notker travels the world addressing the needs of the various congregations and speaking about monastic life. I had the privilege of hearing Abbot Notker speak almost two years ago in Collegeville, MN. The abbot primate also oversees the mission of the Pontifical Athenaeum - the Benedictine university at Sant' Anselmo. Monastics from all over the world come here to study and teach. Sister Aquinata was the first woman to study at Sant' Anselmo in 1973. (Classes are taught in Italian!) Now...back to the note!

I sent Abbot Notker a copy of The Reshaping of a Tradition: American Benedictine Women, 1852-1881 by, Ephrem Hollermann, OSB. Actually, Sister Maoro,who currently serves as a General Counselor of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing, was going to a meeting last weekend with the Abbot Primate and I asked her if she'd be kind enough to hand-deliver the package and note. The 'thank you' came within days and very simply expressed his wish that the women described in Sister Ephrem's book might inspire many young women to seek GOD in our monastic way of life. Nice...

The Reshaping of a Tradition certainly inspired me - helped to form my new identity as an American Benedictine woman. My copy at home is full of yellow highlighter and has little notes in the margins. Definitley a "must-read" for anyone interested in monastic history or the achievements of women in the 19th century "mission" Church. I'm so glad I remembered to pack Ephrem's book. I'm pleased the Abbot Primate received it with gratitude. And, I'm proud to be an American Benedictine woman. There is so much to live up to in our precious history. But, if we are women of faith and flexibility, as our mothers were, we will be good stewards of the tradition...and do a little shaping of our own.

- Sister Vicki

PS - Sister Ephrem's book is available through her community's website:

Monday, February 18, 2008

In the shadow of St. John Lateran...

...appears a HUGE flee market open only on Saturdays. Sister Veronica and I went in search of its treasures this past weekend. We took the train from the Casa to Termini and changed to the Metro. Metro line A took us to San Giovanni. I thought we were getting on the wrong subway until I realized that Giovanni means, "John." DUH!

The market, once it's set up, is several blocks in size. The primo "real-estate" is under a giant roof (which seems like nothing more than a frame and LOTS of tarp and plastic.) Apparently, this is a very popular shopping spot for Romans. I could barely make my way down the sidewalk to the entrance. All along the way, merchants greet you and call out their bargains. (It's a little intimidating for a person who has trouble returning things in department stores.) But, there is also an excitement in the air. There are vendors from all over the world: India, Guatelmala, Peru and China - very global! And, the prices are very low - perhaps, the source of the crowds. (DUH, again!)
Sister Veronica and I split up for 45 minutes and picked a meeting place so we wouldn't lose one another (like at the Vatican - another story.) I think I saw her, though, about six times as we both wandered our way around the booths. I had really just one thing I was searching for and I found it at one of the first displays on the outer sidewalk. As my little sister, Maggie has been known to exclaim, "Que ganga!" or, "What a bargain!"

We took the Metro back to the Vatican and had lunch outside - a little pizzaria, table in the sun. Would you believe it had paper-thin slices of potato on it along with the much-desired mushrooms? It was thin and glazed with olive oil and herbs. Yum! Then, Sister Veronica took me to a gelaterria nearby that she had visited with some other sisters. Gelato is very different from ice cream in texture and consistency - but the flavor, oh my!

It was a lovely day - a short one, just five hours. But it was just right. I suspect that was my last trip into the city. Not a sad thought, though, because that means we're coming HOME!

Love to you all...

- Sister Vicki

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pilgrimage Part II: Monte Cassino

Two and a half hours southeast of Rome, there is a city called Cassino. It fills a generous valley surrounded by mountains. It is easy to see how those mountains became valuable real estate in war. Mountains offer security. Armies find them nearly impossible to climb without detection. Securing a mountain means a vantage point and a high probability of victory. Montecassino is such a mountain. The monastery atop its peak was founded by Saint Benedict himself in the 529 AD. It has, however, been completely destroyed four times over in the last fifteen-hundred years: the Longobards in 577 AD, the Saracens in 883 AD and even an earthquake in 1349.

The last destruction occurred on February 15, 1944. Allied forces mistakenly believed that the Germans were hiding in the monastery and using it as a secure base of operations. Bombs fell from the sky for nearly six hours until there was nothing left but a single tower – where Saint Benedict’s cell was located. Many monks escaped the structure and those hiding in the recesses beneath the monastery were miraculously spared. Montecassino was faithfully rebuilt – a nearly exact duplicate of the previous structure - after the war and was consecrated by Pope Paul VI in 1964 at which time the Holy Father acclaimed Saint Benedict the Patriarch of Western Monasticism.

Understanding the history is critical to appreciating Montecassino. Aesthetically, it is radically different from the humble cave at Subiaco. The monastery is an expansive fortress of porticos and archways. The abbey church is a Baroque masterpiece of marble from eighteen different places in the world, gold leaf and frescos. It is literally a monument to the breadth and height of Benedictine monasticism.

My heart was moved, however, in some significant places - first, the tomb of Saints Benedict and Scholastica. The remains of the siblings rest together underneath the massive marble altar. The altar is encircled by candles and there is a silence observed there – by monastics and tourists alike. Saint Gregory the Great tells us that Benedict had the body of his sister brought to Montecassino and laid in the tomb prepared for him. How beautiful that his brothers laid him there beside her – true spiritual companions from the womb to the tomb.

The last stop on our official tour was to Benedict’s cell. It is believed that the "man of GOD" finished writing The Rule in this place. From the window, he saw a dove soaring into the sky and knew that his beloved sister had died. And, in an unprecedented moment of private grace, Benedict saw a vision of the whole world held in a single ray of light (See: The Dialogues II, 34 & 35).

There was one more thing about Benedict’s cell that I’ll never forget – the altarpiece depicting Saint Benedict and two angels. It was the inspiration for the altarpiece in the chapel of Saint Gertrude High School – established 1922 in Richmond, Virginia. The sight made me happy and sad all at the same time. That’s good, I think. It’s time to come home…

Blessings and love to you all…
- Sister Vicki