Changes Come

Thursday, 5 November 2009

I'm watching The Abbey at the moment. This three part doco is about five women who spend five weeks at an enclosed Benedectine monastery, Jamberoo Abbey in New South Wales.

I kept thinking as I was watching it (I've got one episode to go), "How will these women be able to cope if they go into something like this, such a discipline, without the love behind it to fuel it?" you know? Sort of like an arranged marriage, getting married to someone you don't love. Or like getting out of bed every night for months on end in the middle of the night to feed a Tamagotchi instead of a baby. Or like being a Fundamentalist Christian ;)

And so I admired these women for doing what they were doing. And at the same time I was surprised and gratified anew at the beauty and grace of God. S/he's just everywhere, taking us now, taking us on. Pretty cool.

So much about that sort of life appeals to me, you know? Not that there is any sort of a calling there, even without the 4.30 am vespers (is it vespers? I can't remember). No thanks, very much. But it's funny how things change; where once I may have looked askance at a bunch of Benedictine nuns, these days I see the way they are living their lives as something of quite rare beauty. The ritual, the turning aside to prayer seven times a day, the structure, the silence, the craftwork, the gardening. The mindfulness, a life spent praying without ceasing. The work. The rhythm.

Till the day they die. Wow.

I once used to wonder how that sort of a life would have any kind of value to God. And yet I couldn't help imagining as I was watching it how God must be particularly fond of this bunch of women. So much of their lives resonate with me; I see so much of my own life in theirs, too, though our lives are so very different.

And I think I am beginning to understand a little the topsy turvy nature of things, the first being last, the hidden being of great value, the things that we have been squeezed into thinking are important are actually the things that kill, the spirit that we think is gonna kill us (and who does) bringing life.

All topsy turvy.


  1. Sue, I wonder what's harder at the end of the day? To learn to love out in the world that steals, cheats...bleeds? Or stuffed away from it all in a highly controlled environment?

    And then I think, but isn't it about being out there in the flowing tide where there's stealing, cheating...bleeding and dying?

    "There is all this untouched beauty
    The light the dark both running through me
    Is there still redemption for anyone"

  2. I LOVE those lines in that song. It is the centre of the song for me.

    Yes, I used to think too that people like this were browbeaten, stuffed away from it all in a highly controlled environment - which they are of course on one level. And yet on another, it does not seem to be at all the case. I guess it's the love that changes everything, right?

    One of the nuns was telling them when they get up and pray every day at 4.30, that they are praying for the world before it awakes. I think within everything, as you say, regardless of where we are and how manipulated and controlled we are, how well we are learning to love is absolutely everything. It determines how much breathing space we have around us at any one time. And I think that's something I see now that I would have missed years ago, when I would have been thinking about doctrinal differences and how pointless their lives would have seemed and now it's like seeing it all through a different lens.

  3. I agree Sue. There are many that come from such a tradtion that I have enormous respect for.

  4. Me too. Which is quite laughable cos once upon a time I was quite the Catholicism basher, haha :)

    But what you were saying about isn't it about being out there in the flowing tide of stealing cheating bleeding and dying - yes, I think so. At least for the likes of you and me. And yet in one way I feel like I have half a foot in both worlds. My life is particularly monastic in many ways and so I feel I straddle both modes. Which is quite delightful I guess. And I am angry and frustrated at God that there is too much monasticism and not enough of finding my tribe, but that is another conversation entirely :)

    I think too that even though these women in this enclosed environment have such a different life, I guess having to live every single day with 30 women in each other's pockets all day every day when you would like to throttle each other would be a rather different way of learning to love, wouldn't it?

    The differences in modes and methods of living used to be something that I was concerned about. I used to feel a bit more that perhaps there was a "correct" way of doing it but now it does quite amaze me how much difference there is and how much the same we all are too :)

  5. I think all of that is a very sound observation

  6. Your observations are indeed wise, Sue -- especially the part about their wanting to throttle one another. I have observed hints of that among monks I have known. They are not really hermetically sealed from the world, just removed a bit to enable them to follow their chosen lifestyle. I sometimes think it is the weaker among us that is called to such a structured life.

    By the way, it is Matins (or Office of Readings) that occurs in the early morning, before dawn. Not all monasteries follow the same schedule. When I stayed at a monastery on retreat, the Office began at 6:30 a.m. They do retire early, you know. Vespers occurs in the late afternoon.

  7. Barbara - I love the way you put it. I did used to think they were hermetically sealed but no, turns out they are not, at all. Just removed at a distance so as to pray.

    I absolutely, completely agree that it seems in some ways that it is the weaker amongst us called to such a life. Indeed.

    Did you enter into matins when you stayed at a retreat? There are several I am contemplating visiting on retreat. i think from memory you are allowed to come into the church for some but not for others. I think I'll skip matins :)

  8. Wonderful song, Sue. Thank you. Karin Bergquist's voice just undoes me!

    Prayer runs in all these hiddennesses. Nothing we do is perfect.

    "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." That is all that keeps me going, sometimes.

  9. I never missed Matins. I used to get up a bit earlier and make sure there was coffee made for the other retreatants, have a cup myself as I watched the sunrise. This is bizarre because I am NOT a morning person.

    At the Abbey I visited, we sat in the choir like the monks, although at the other end. The monks helped us orient ourselves in their psalters. I recall once arriving for Vespers after an exhausting drive from Montreal. I picked up the wrong psalter. Tommy, one of the monks, who very much enjoys teasing me, came over and very patronizingly asked if I needed help using the books. Grrrrrr!

    In other abbeys, there is not always room in the choir for visitors. Frankly, it can sometimes be an imposition because there are people who sing off tune at the top of their lungs and drown out the monks' chant. That's totally the wrong attitude. The choir should blend as if it were one voice.

  10. Mike - yes, it undoes me too, both Karin's voice and this life trip :)

    Barbara - how interesting you made matins as a non-morning person. Very cool. Perhaps I shall have be inspired by your example if I ever get to a monastery on retreat :)

  11. sue...i have nothing intelligent to say but am cracking up at the Tamagatchi reference.

  12. Monastic life has always fascinated me, appealing in one way but also suffocating! I love the routine and order, the peace that would bring, but then what about those days when routine and order drive me crazy and I want to be spontaneus and wild! :) I told Andrew we are going off for a retreat one day soon :) I'd love to try and make the early morning prayers, praying as the sun rises just seems so wonderful to me, like the world starting again, before it became so damaged!
    Remember how much we dreaded getting up to go to Horsham and then it ended up being ok. (despite the reason we had to get up :() I reckon we can do it! :)
    lovely thoughts Sue...You are so clever, but I still get to boss you around :P
    Must listen to the song tonight when the house is quiet!

  13. Barbara - glad to make you laugh :)

    Andi - Yeah, I totally agree. The days where you're all frazzled and all those bloody people everywhere and ... yeah, I'm sure they must go nuts. Did you watch this when it was on? I loved it, I have basically just cried my way through the last episode.

    You're right about getting out of bed to go to Horsham. Okay, I promise, if we go I will strive for matins if we are allowed :) I would so love to go and do this together; it would be a beautiful thang.

    You are always allowed to boss me around :)

  14. Bloody Aussies, stealing our ideas! We had "The Monastery" "The Convent" and "The Retreat" before your "Abbey"! (The first was blokes, the second women, the third mixed at a Muslim retreat centre. Sounds like the same format, extremely interesting.)

    I hated nuns growing up, and now this way of life holds enormous appeal for me. I did dip a toe in the water once...

    I once heard a somewhat sentimental but to me still beautiful description of contemplative communities being beacons of light spread around the world that can be seen for miles around.

  15. LOL Tess. Well, what else are we gonna do but steal your ideas when we are the descendents of the flotsam and jetsam ejected from the dear rear end of the motherland to begin with? :)

    But yeah, you kinda figure whatever format you're watching that someone in Germany is watching their version etc etc etc.

    That is a tad sentimental ... and yet, it is quite beautiful also and I did get this sense. So you dipped a toe, huh? That's interesting :)

  16. Isn't it funny how we change. When I was younger it was the next car, the next job, the next house. When I prayed the scriptures about plenty and abundance, I could see my coffers full and overflowing. I did not realize the abundance would be created out of my contentment of with so much less.

    The Cennacle is a group of sisters who were formed in France in the 1800's in response to the Revolution. They have retreat centers in 16 countries. I have visited the one in Houston Texas on a silent retreat. If you knew me, you would see bizarre that is. It was life changing.

    I too grappled with the lifestyle of the cloisterd and monastic, the lack of service or some tangible fruit of ministry. But what they offered me in that one visit was a gift most rare.

  17. Ooh, Jo, I love that mystery, that you visited with a people for whom you grapple with "the lack of service or some tangible fruit of ministry" and came away with a "gift most rare".

    And so often these things are hard to be brought down to words. Luminous interactions with the divine.


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