My work as director of membership and monastic formation has prompted me to reflect on my own formation lately. Formation is different for each woman who comes to community, yet the process is similar. Prayer, common work and dialogue, study, leisure and the practices of hospitality, listening, obedience and humility invite a woman into the on-going conversion at the heart of monastic life. Some stories from my own early years in community may shed light on the process of Benedictine formation.
An ordinary event soon after I moved to the monastery revealed a portion of God’s agenda for my formation. One afternoon I had the task of picking apples. Sr. Joanne and I chose the three best wooden baskets we had for me to use. I set the baskets in the driveway and went into the house to get my sunglasses. When I returned, I got in the car and backed out of the garage – right over all three baskets, demolishing them into splinters. I couldn’t help but laugh at my own mindlessness. There was nothing else to do but tell Joanne what I had done. Later I realized this was an occasion to practice the fifth step of humility. “We do not conceal from the abbot or prioress any sinful thoughts entering our hearts or any wrongs committed in secret, but rather confess them humbly.” (RB 7:44) I have had many subsequent occasions to practice this step of humility.
I entered the novitiate a littler humbler but still largely ignorant of what the process of formation would mean for me. Nevertheless I had fallen in love with God, the sisters and this way of life through regular participation in the Liturgy of Hours, the Sunday Eucharist, our common work, common meals, study and leisure time together. I was eager to learn and grow. I had opportunities to grow every day.
As I moved deeper into community life I saw myself re-enacting the role of the oldest child. That sparked a re-examination and desire to heal family of origin dynamics in my life. When I tried too hard to “fix” myself, Ephesians 2:8 spoke to me: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
In a video we made in 2000, I declared “I came to community because I wanted to grow, but I didn’t know how much I would grow!” My sisters laughed.
My growth continued throughout the four years of my temporary profession. I earned a Masters’ degree in monastic studies from St. John’s School of Theology · Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota.
As one who doesn’t like conflict, I learned in community that arguments were not the end of the world if one could give and receive forgiveness. Benedict teaches us to pray the Prayer of Jesus everyday to remind ourselves of the need for reconciliation. A phrase from the Benedictus that we pray every day in Morning Prayer took on new meaning: “… ready the way for our God by teaching them salvation through forgiveness of their sins.”
Participating in the community’s practice of hospitality expanded my heart to receive others and their gifts as blessings from God. Through working in the garden, the prairie and orchards, I came to regard the monastery grounds as an integral part of our community. The trees have taught me about stability and perseverance. Lost Lake shows a peace that endures beneath any disturbance on the surface.
In October 2004, I made my final profession as a member of Benedictine Women of Madison. Benedict reminds us that we are always beginners in the Christian life, so formation is on-going. God continues to call each of us to deeper knowledge of God and ourselves and to service within and beyond the community.