Rachel Olson Living in Community, Sojourner diary 3 Comments

Week 26

As I head into my final weeks as a Benedictine Sojourner at Holy Wisdom Monastery, two quotes keep coming to mind. One of them is an inclusive language version of Greek philosopher Heraclitus that says, “No woman ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and she’s not the same woman.” The other is from novelist Thomas Wolfe who iconically asks, “Don’t you know you can’t go home again?”

Perhaps you are sensing a theme here. There are a great many things I am unsure of at this moment, but there is one thing that is absolutely clear to me—no matter what happens to me at the end of this experience, I have been irrevocably changed by it. No matter where I go from here, whether it’s to a “civilian” life on the east side of Madison, commuting daily to my Project Manager job for the Benedictine Life Foundation, or if it turns out that I stay with the sisters and go on to the next phase of the formation process—either way—I will not be the same woman I was back in September when I started this journey.

I knew when I came here there would be changes. How could there not be? I had packed up my belongings and moved in with women who I’d known from work, Sunday Assembly and by reputation, but not a whole lot more than that. In the past six months I’ve rearranged my daily routine, had cause to examine all my personal habits, and, in general, willingly overhauled my lifestyle. It has been a lot like a vigorous spring cleaning—hard work, at times painful, but overall satisfying and restorative.

But the question begs: Now what? And the truth is, I don’t know for sure. I’d like to stay on a little while longer for a time of intentional discernment, which I’m told I can do. There are many things about this monastic life that I simply don’t want to leave behind. The Rule of Benedict, the daily rhythms of prayer, liturgy, work, spiritual formation and community time have all become very precious and essential to me. In truth, I can’t imagine going back to a life without them.

And yet, as the process towards belonging to this community progresses, the pathway narrows. If I were to become a novice, which is the next step, it would mean even bigger changes. I would need to let go permanently of the things I have thus far only let go of temporarily. I would no longer have my own income, or my own car, or make decisions about my future on my own. I can see the advantages of a life of great simplicity and sharing, a life where none of those things are needed or wanted any longer.

But, at the same time, releasing these hard won assets and tools and symbols of my autonomy will require enormous faith and trust. It will require a discernable sense of God’s calling, which I have not yet clearly received—thus, the need for discernment with the guidance of the community and others. I will be listening and doing my utmost to remain present and open. Your prayers for this would be more than welcome as I boldly go forward into an unfamiliar place, stepping into the waters of a whole new river.

Comments 3

  1. Rachel,
    I see your piece was written in March and here it is mid-July so I’m not sure of where your heart and mind are today at this point but I offer the following reflections from my own experience of leaving a secular life to embark on a monastic journey with a community. I was 33 years old when I left a lucrative profession in hospital administration and entered St. Vincent Archabbey. I too wrestled with the jump from individual autonomy to communal commitment and I must say once the leap was made I found the transition surprisingly liberating. I found most of the things I thought I would miss or thought I couldn’t live without, once shed, suddenly turned out to be weights I had just become so familiar with as to think they were essentials. I was mostly struck by the experience that all the freedoms I imagined I was going to have to forgo were really long-lived attachments that were actually shielding me from my true freedom. Sure there were many bumps in the monastic road but with the community and my gradual recognition of the graciousness of a deepening spirituality that could only take solid root outside of the distractions of living in the supposed autonomy of an individual life. For sure, it was a long journey and that is where the value of stability in the monastic tradition really provided not only balance but also foundation. I believe I was able to find many of the unique characteristics that I have come to see as being who I truly am, only because I was able to do the hard work of letting go of the network of ideas that I had established as being real when in fact they were only what I ‘thought’ was real. Here again, for me, it was community lived in all the joys and sorrows of commitment and stability that allowed me to blossom into my full growth as a being truly created in the image and likeness of God. A God who loves me, warts and all, and that I most fully and completely could experience in a community of sojourners searching for justice, peace, compassion, hope, and productivity. I wish you ever good blessing.

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