Surprise! Monasteries Are Modeling Ways To Face The Future
Sunlight streamed through cypresses and sycamores as our group of scholars and appreciators of the writings of Thomas Merton sat on the porch of the hermitage on the grounds of the Abbey of Gethsemani where Merton once lived. Wind rustling through leaves and the one-note song of a nearby cuckoo bird presented the only sounds. One of the monks, Brother Paul Quenon, eventually broke the silence with a spontaneous prayer:
In the rustle of the leaves, we hear you,
in the touch of the breeze, we feel you,
in the light of this day, we see you,
in the silence, we hear your silence,
in this company of friendship,
we know your love
I happen to be a chronic workaholic. That morning at Merton’s hermitage reminded me how staying at a monastery slows us down, refreshes the mind, renews the spirit, and helps us rediscover the sacredness in ordinary moments.
Sharing in community prayer is one of the gifts we receive during a monastic visit. The Trappist monks at Gethsemani, outside of Louisville, begin their day with Vigil prayers at 3:15 a.m., pause seven more times for prayer throughout the day, then end the day at 7:30 p.m. with the words of Scripture and a blessing from the abbot before going off to bed. Visitors can join the monks at any of the prayer times. To do so is to cooperate with an age-old rhythm of life whose built-in pauses give us the space to reflect on what truly matters.
My days at Gethsemani provided a brief respite from the collective sadness and trauma I had felt over the unspeakable carnage at Robb Elementary School in Texas, the senseless death and destruction in Ukraine, and the disturbing drumbeat of revelations about the January 6th insurrection at our Capitol that nearly toppled our democracy.
Each time I attended the monastic community’s prayers, I thought of what Merton wrote in his journal after his first extended retreat at the abbey: “Now I know what has been holding the universe together and keeping it from cracking into pieces.”
After my Gethsemani retreat, I participated in another monastic experience, an online conference on “Benedictine Life: A Vision Unfolding.” The event commemorated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the St. Scholastica Federation, a union of 17 Benedictine women’s monasteries. The emphasis wasn’t on the past 100 years as much on the next 100 — a pretty startling endeavor considering the drastic reduction in monastic vocations.
These Benedictine sisters understand that organizations rarely escape a period of diminishment. There is generally a start up period, a time of growth, the inevitable plateau and then, often, decline. That, however, is the moment when renewal can begin. This is what is now taking shape.
While the number of monks and sisters continues to decline, an exploding number of lay people are attempting to live the monastic values of community, consensus, humility and hospitality in the secular world. For the first time in history, there are more lay associates of monasteries than professed men and women living within monastic walls.
My friend Katie Gordon, a 30-year-old drawn to these values, calls this “the monastic impulse” in our current world.
The monastic women of the St. Scholastic Federation don’t view this moment solely as a challenge. They consider it as a launching pad for renewal. They are gleaning wisdom from current social models for confronting organizational change. Our country is likewise facing a societal sea change in a variety of areas: greater diversity within our citizenry, expanded calls for equality and inclusivity, and new ways of looking at gender. We as a society would do well to follow the lead of these Benedictine sisters in seeking ways to embrace transformation.
The process of “emergence” arose many times in conference conversations. Unlike traditional strategic planning that involves deciding upon an end result and then moving toward it with intentional steps, the emergence process represents a more organic, evolutionary method. “It gives us instead the promise of surprise,” Sister Edith Bogue, a sociologist from Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman, AL, said in her keynote address on “The Way Forward.”
“Emergence” recognizes that momentous change occurs in increments. It involves taking risks, experimenting, and being willing to abandon some experiments. It requires the repeated asking of “What if?” questions, as well as “What and who might help to move us along?”
It also necessitates what Sister Edith calls “unlearning,” the courage to let go of previous patterns of thinking that no longer prove useful or effective. This is where the practice of humility — integral to the monastic impulse —becomes key. Humility allows us to acknowledge that individually we don’t possesses the whole truth. No single person does. Humility gives us permission to admit that we might have been wrong in our previous thinking.
Sister Edith offered for our reflection the image of a Native American kiva. The kiva represents a enclosed, silent, underground space where one attempts to emerge from confusion and darkness. In the midst of the kiva is a ladder reaching toward the light — reminiscent to anyone familiar with monastic spirituality of “the ladder of humility” in The Rule of St. Benedict by which we ascend to greater self-knowledge and compassion.
By climbing the kiva’s ladder toward light, we ultimately reach a place of spiritual growth and renewal, or as Sister Edith notes, “the womb from which we emerge with new resilience.”
Sister Edith ended her talk by quoting Native American elder and former Anglican bishop, Steven Charleston. He writes in his book, Ladder to the Light:
We will climb into the light… We will heal the scars of the past and begin to do what we were created to do: dance. We will dance in hope. We will dance in truth.
Do not be afraid. Do not be tricked into thinking what has been broken can never be fixed… Let this moment of darkness be the beginning of your next journey in faith. Help others find the ladder… And once you are there — once you have emerged into the world we are recreating — join the dance. Beneath the bright shining sun, join the dance and let the healing begin.
It is both conventional and easy to view monastic life as a hopeless throwback to the past. These Benedictine women — along with the monks of Gethsemani in their prayer and their silence — are proving that monastic spirituality offers an important pathway to the future. May we listen.