Excerpted from a forthcoming book on my monastic journey.
The sisters needed a second year of talk about my call before they agreed to the last step: a “discernment” retreat at the monastery. After that they’d have to make a decision to take me or say no. Of course, it was supposed to be a mutual exploration, but my heart had never wavered. Neither had my doubts. I’d faced a simple choice: follow my heart in faith and divine indifference, putting aside all doubts, or deny my heart in favor of fear.
The only healthy thing was to follow my heart – however inappropriate I might seem for Benedictine community, or Benedictine community seem for me. Realizing this the previous September, I’d told the sisters I was ready for the commitment.
Nothing anyone said or did changed my heart, or my intension. But the extra year did have one, nice side effect. It gave me months after I was already sure to test the feeling of letting go.
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My retreat was finally scheduled for April, the week after Easter.
That year was only my second experience of a Catholic Easter. I loved it. On Maundy Thursday the congregation washed each other’s feet at Mass, with dinner served by the sisters. On Good Friday, a solemn service included letting anyone who wished kneel for a private moment by a large wood cross lying on the ground. Saturday Vigil had processions that wound outside to bless new fire and water. And on Sunday, there was a celebratory Mass.
Before I hung out at the monastery, my ritual experience was limited to eccentric, solitary earth-ceremonies I performed for myself. Yet I ate up all those corporate rites. The liturgical year seemed to provide an incredibly useful way to process loss, despair and transformation, not to mention all those perfectly-good-for-a-pagan rituals of darkness, water and blessing new fire.
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By April of that year, I was going to the monastery several evenings a week. I got along with everyone and they got along with me. So I entered the retreat lightly, expecting it to be relaxing and fun. My only concern was if the sisters would finally agree that the Spirit was behind my call. But it was not really my problem. If the Spirit was, they would.
I arrived at the monastery still pleasantly buzzed from the four days of Easter services. An echoing buzz of enthusiastically trilling birds filled the spring air. As I trundled my wheeled case to a room, the loud CLANG, clang, CLANG, clang of the ten-minute warning sounded for afternoon prayer. I dumped my suitcase and went. Most people hurried to prayer at 4:30, so the oratory was empty as I took a prayer book and entered, stopping to flick a quick bow at the cross.
The oratory was a small, plain room at one end of the monastery. It felt both ordinary, like old slippers, and set apart, a sacred space reverberating with decades of prayer. Two facing rows of plain, oak chairs formed an aisle down the middle of the room. A modern icon of Jesus hung on one wall. At the far end, an oak lectern and candleholder, as well as a metal cross, stood in front of several tall windows. Outside in the tiny lobby a baptismal font made a continuous, soft burble.
I closed my eyes and waited for the liturgy to start.
Breathing out I thought, “You,” and connected with that larger something-or-other, God, Christ, Whatever. Breathing in I thought, “I,” and my personal something-or-other blossomed inside. I, You, I, You. The stress of work and driving smoothed away as I fell into the rhythm of breath. Then one of the sisters came in, flicking on the light. More people entered. The bells rang once for the half hour and there was a general scuffle. I opened my eyes, standing with the rest.
The leader sang, “Oh God, come to our assistance”.
We all answered, “Oh God, make haste to help us.”
The first psalm was nice, but the second set my teeth on edge. An angry God crushed other nations in war for the sake of Israel. Yuck. The canticle wasn’t much better, crooning that everything on earth worshiped Jesus as God. By the time we stood for the second “Glory Be,” I’d lost all patience - even for that feminist monastery’s fairly innocuous version, with “Creator” substituted for “Father” and “Spirit of Life” for “Holy Spirit.” I grumbled under my breath about orthodox, Trinitarian arrogance.
How would I survive three daily doses of this stuff? In the few minutes of silence after the reading, I gazed glumly at the cross.
I closed my eyes. Inspired by who knows what I prayed, “Jesus, if you want me here, I have to feel you so close I can’t slither away on any excuse, not even the nastiest of scriptures.”
© 2007 R. Elena Tabachnick