"Find a place in your heart and speak there with the Lord. It is the Lord's reception room." -(Theophane the Recluse)
Ash Wednesday Reflection from the Prioress
Ash Wednesday Reflection
March 1, 2017
Sister Nicole Kunze, Prioress
I’d like to start with a story from Father Richard Rohr. “Over 20 years ago, I was giving several retreats in India. While there, I became very sick from some food I had eaten. A young Hindu boy was put in charge of me, caring for me until I was nursed back to health. He waited on me day and night, making sure that my every need was met. As I lay in bed I wondered how a young man could come to such love, deeply caring for someone that he never knew. So one morning I asked him, “Who is God for you?” “Sir, I believe that whenever one person shows respect for another person, there is God.” Fr. Rohr ends the story: “It was clear to me…that in his respect for me, and I hope mine in him, that we both met God.”
Respect for persons is a Benedictine value that is critical to life in a monastic community. Our monastic community’s ongoing formation study this semester is helping us enhance the quality of our community life by reflecting on Benedict’s vision of respect and hospitality. We have read and discussed Esther deWaal’s article, “Woven Together in Love”. Near the beginning of the article, de Waal states, “The challenge posed by community life is this: How can I learn to love all these people in the way that they really need to be loved? How can I relate to them in a way that allows me to be fully myself, and also allows them to be themselves?”
As prioress, I have the privilege of visiting with each of our sisters. I am touched, and honored by the stories they share with me. I know for certain that each them has a love for our monastic community, our sisters, and our way of life. I don’t doubt that at all. That doesn’t mean there aren’t tough times, times when community life isn’t perfect. As much as each one of us loves community, there are times when living in community can be challenging. I think Benedict knew that our relationships in community are a blessing and a challenge. He knew human frailty and limitations yet believed in our potential. Benedict says we should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior.
Lent is a good time to do this type of work. In the reading from the Book of Joel at today’s liturgy we heard, “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” Lent starts with the heart. A verse in today’s responsorial psalm – “A clean heart create for me, O God.” Sister Genevieve Glen states that Lent is heart work and that we are called to make heart changes, changes that matter, during this season.
I’ve come to have a greater appreciation for Chapter 72 of the Rule of Benedict in the past year. We are to pursue and foster good zeal, that zeal which leads to God and everlasting life, first described using a verse from the letter to the Romans: “They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other.” We do love and care for each other. But sometimes this is difficult as we live day by day together. There will be conflict and disagreements among us. I don’t wish us to be of like mind or opinion. In our differences we can and must respect each other. That is something we can model for our society at this time.
In his Lenten reflection, Pope Francis uses the story of Lazarus and the rich man to show us what we need to do in order to attain true happiness and eternal life. His first point is that Lazarus teaches us that the other person is a gift. “A right relationship with people consists in gratefully recognizing their value. Each life that we encounter is a gift deserving acceptance, respect, and love.” I believe we should strive to see the gift in others, to see God in others. Reflect upon how you show respect to others and where you could improve.
By continuing this journey of faith together during this season of Lent and beyond, I believe we will see God in the other and we will fulfill the words of Saint Benedict, “Let us prefer nothing whatever to Christ and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.”
Monastic Life and St. Benedict
Saint Benedict says that the most important qualification for accepting new community members is that they “seek God.” He discerned, after trying various forms of monastic life himself, that for many people the most successful way of facilitating the search for God is in the context of community (for mutual support and witness), under a Rule (for simplicity, stability and accumulated wisdom) and a community leader (for wise and honest guidance and freedom from unnecessary concerns). He believed that a moderate lifestyle was healthiest to support a life with many hours of prayer, study, holy reading and manual labor; too much or too little food, sleep, access to material goods, or curiosity about worldly happenings would take energy away from God seeking.
Each day of a monastic’s life includes regular times for communal prayer – the “Liturgy of the Hours,” times for personal prayer and holy reading of the Scriptures, periods of manual labor and craftsmanship, and common meals with mutual service of waiting table and cleaning up. Following this daily pathway keeps monastics on the track of searching for God without side roads into distracting activities.
Benedict disposed of a social problem of his day (social class distinctions from nobility down to slaves) by assigning community rank by the day and hour the candidate appeared on the doorstep. Modern society may have different distinctions of wealth or education, but this automatic equalizing practice still continues. Mutual respect, love, service, patience, obedience and sharing of wisdom in communal discernment bind the community in searching for God and assisting one another in doing so. Even today, not all religious Orders call upon every member to participate in community decision making.
While Benedict set apart certain places and times when the monastics were to be apart from guests and pilgrims for the silence and solitude necessary for reflection, he was sensitive to the neighbors’ needs. The members used their gifts of healing – spiritual and medical – to assist the sick who came to the door; they fed the hungry and gave shelter to travelers and pilgrims going to holy places; they evangelized the still mostly “pagan” people in villages surrounding the monastery. Benedictines throughout history, and still today, offer their services to the local church according to the needs of the people and the ability of the monastic members to meet those needs; thus Benedictines serve in varieties of ministries.
~ +Sister Edith Selzler, OSB