Testing the waters of my vocation

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I spent the summer of 2001 living in a small Benedictine monastery in Northern Virginia. The purpose of the “live-in” was to test the waters—to explore my own monastic vocation. Those first months weren’t easy, as the following story suggests, but that summer changed me—it opened my heart to the gift of monastic life. That summer helped me to say, “I want to be a Benedictine sister.”

What drew me, a 30-something high school teacher, to monastic life? My interest began after I left teaching to enter the Master of Divinity program at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. Students there are welcome to join the monks at St. John’s Abbey for the liturgy of the hours, the daily prayers the monks pray together. After a few months of praying with them, that way of beginning and ending the day just started to feel right—like holy bookends that hold the day in sacred space. I liked that feeling. I also became friends with Sister Cecilia, a Benedictine from Bristow, Virginia who was taking a sabbatical year at St. John’s.

Although it scared me at first, I had to look at her life and wonder at the peace and love she exuded even in the midst of a difficult year away from home. She seemed to know something I didn’t. Or maybe she really knew Someone I hadn’t gotten to know very well at all. I guess what really drew me to monastic life was the thought that I might come to know this God better myself.

From my first visit to the monastery in Virginia, I felt a tug on my heart.From then on, every break I got from school, I headed south. I made five extended visits during my first year and a half at St. John’s. Each time I returned to Bristow, I could feel myself falling more deeply in love with the life.

From what I’ve been told, this “swoony” stage is pretty common. It’s a little like falling in love—overwhelming and wonderful all at the same time. I loved praying with the sisters in their small circle. I loved the laughter and sharing at meals. And I loved them. From the very first visit, I couldn’t believe how kind they were to each other. The attentiveness, the little gestures, the willingness to do things for each other—all that registered in me. It’s one thing to welcome the stranger; it’s quite another to love the people you live with every day.

As I inched closer for a better look at this community, the words of Saint Paul came to mind: See how they love one another!

Saying yes to a live-in year at the monastery was easy. I had already spent several months doing inner searching (translation: sheer terror!), and I was ready to speak my desire out loud. I wanted a sustained taste of this life, not just a week or weekend nibble while staying in the guesthouse. Believe me, I couldn’t wait to see what life was really like “on the inside.”

In this community a live-in experience can last for a few months or up to a year. During that time we continue our work in the world and remain financially independent while also sharing in the prayer and work of the monastic community. After filling out the application and taking a behavioral assessment test, a standard step in most communities, I was invited to move in.

But visiting the monastery was one thing; moving in was another entirely. Lovers on the verge of commitment aren’t the only ones who get cold feet. Actually, it was more like the shoes were just a little too tight.

Timing is everything
When I moved in that summer, I was exhausted. The end of the semester at St. John’s provided, as usual, several opportunities to stay up all night finishing papers and preparing for exams. I packed my little KIA Sportage with a significant amount of personal possessions to make my new room feel like my own space: family pictures, some books, clothes to last the summer until school began again in the fall.

I pointed the truck east and drove for three days—mostly on automatic pilot. I was excited at the prospect of spending my days with the women I had already come to love and, at day’s end, staying with them—on the inside!

You know how people say,“Timing is everything”? Well, my summer in the community came just 24 hours before a community retreat began. I was there for less than 24 hours before we went into silence for five days. OK, for seasoned monastics this silence thing is a joy—a time to go deeper, a time to listen to the Word of God, to be still and know the God who is always waiting for our attention. But for the new kid it seemed—how shall I say it?—impossible.

I hadn’t been there for three months; I had just moved into my new room that was even smaller in reality than I remembered it; I was wiped out physically, and I couldn’t even talk to the vocation director for five days. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with fear and worry. “Can I really do this for the rest of my life?” “Am I really going to be happy praying so much?” “They all seem to love this, what’s wrong with me?” “I’m too old to share a bathroom.” “Where do these women put their shoes?”

The five days went by. I e-mailed my longtime spiritual director back in Minnesota to keep from going crazy. When the walls of my room seemed to close in, I went for walks around the monastery grounds. (If you’ve ever wondered why they used to call them cells, I’ll fill you in.) It’s truly beautiful here. The summer wildflowers were like balm for my confused and weary soul. I frequently swam in the pool the community built in 1968 for summer-camp kids. For some reason the only place I could pray during those retreat days was under water.

Seeds of reconciliation
Two things happened that week that kept me from packing up and heading north. The community had a beautiful communal reconciliation service. After a Liturgy of the Word rich in poetry, song, and scripture, the sisters were silent together for a long time. (I know what you’re thinking—more silence—but stay with me.) Then, one by one they began to say things . . . actions and omissions for which they were truly sorry.

Now, this wasn’t a litany about broken dishes or making phone calls on “Silent Sunday.” These regrets were sins within their relationships—words spoken in anger, impatience with one another, selfishness, pride, failure to listen. Something happened inside me as I sat there with my mouth open. I couldn’t believe how honest they were with one another. I couldn’t believe they were willing to say these things out loud. I couldn’t believe they were breaking open the wounds of community life in front of me.

What happened next amazed me even more. One by one we all moved to the center of the chapel where a large planter was filled with soil. We each planted a small seed—a symbol of the new life that breaks forth when real reconciliation takes place. After a final prayer of healing and a blessing from the prioress, we all embraced in a sign of peace and wiped away some tears. That planter came back into view several weeks later. It was placed in the center of the circle where we pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I walked in one morning and gasped at the sight of all the green shoots coming up, signs of renewed life in our community.

A living voice
A second light bulb blinked on in my head at the very end of retreat. Our retreat director had spent five days examining with us the prologue to The Rule of Benedict. The prologue is the spiritual heart of the work that lays the theological groundwork for monastic life. I was still wondering how I would make it. I kept asking God if this was really to be my way to holiness. We’ve all got to find our way at some point, but I just didn’t know if I was moving in the right direction. Then the retreat director read one of the closing sentences of the prologue, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. “Do not be daunted immediately by fear and run away from the road that leads to salvation. It is bound to be narrow at the outset.” Well, that did it.

Not only did I make it through five days in silence, I caught a glimpse of the power of reconciling love in community, and I came to know Saint Benedict in a new way—as a living voice in our time. My spiritual director told me once that I had to “live in to the life.” Her words made sense to me that day. And so did the words of Benedict.

It is normal to fear the new and unexplored terrain of our lives. It is human nature to want everything to be easy and painless. But I came to St. Benedict Monastery to grow. And growth meant letting go of control, downsizing my life a bit, and opening myself to a new way of living and loving.

The next step
At summer’s end I returned to St. John’s to complete my degree. The following June I arrived at the monastery with diploma in hand. I was ready to resume my life in community.

The community retreat came and went . . . and I loved it. That year of exploration and discovery confirmed my monastic vocation. By the end of it, I felt like God held a measuring tape over my head and said, “Hey, you’ve grown another inch.”

And so I’ve begun the next step to formal membership. I entered St. Benedict Monastery in the fall of 2002 and began a year of postulancy. I know that the coming months will hold challenges and joys, but I’m strengthened by the words of Saint Benedict: “As we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the path of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.”
Sister Vicki Ix, O.S.B. is the director of vocations for the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia.




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