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Monks stay home a lot, and there are many reasons for that. Most of the reasons are good and some are not, but the monastic tendency to spend the vast majority of one's days at home does have the unfortunate consequence that we rarely get to meet people from other monasteries, much less become friends with them. We are always meeting new people as they come to spend time as guests at the monastery, and sometimes friendships grow out of these meetings, but rarely do nuns and monks travel to other monasteries, simply because we usually have so many relatives and friends to see in our scant time away from home, leaving little time for visits to other monasteries. There are rare occasions when we will make friendly visits to other monasteries, and those are always special times (often reported in monastic newsletters), but most intermonastic travel springs from "business" meetings, conferences, official visitations, or consultations. Even so, at these rare social or business meetings, it is good to see fellow religious and to get a glimpse, no matter how brief, of their homes. Sometimes, happily, these meetings bring with them opportunities to begin new friendships and renew old ones.
I recently had one of these opportunities to spend time with another monastic community when I travelled to Waukesha, Wisconsin, to lead a retreat for the Order of Julian of Norwich in late February and early March. I have been invited before to speak to various groups outside the monastery, but doing so for group of monks and nuns was a more daunting experience. Not only were there more addresses to prepare and deliver than are included in a typical weekend visit with a parish or similar group, but these people were also my peers and therefore (at least to me) much more intimidating. I knew that I would be totally transparent to them as I was speaking, so I had the added task of making sure that my life matched my words. Of course, I always try to "practice what I preach," but it seemed more urgent this time.
Although I was there for a week, casual conversation was possible only on the first and last days, since the community was in silent retreat for the rest of the week. As with any other home, an outsider can never get a true vision of another monastery, no matter how long he stays, but the glimpse I received of our monastic confreres in Wisconsin was one of a house of love and peace. It is true that a silent monastery is a monastery at its best, but even before and after the silent times, charity was very much at home there.
As the week progressed, and as I became more aware of the good things there, I was reminded of the many good things back home at St. Gregory's. I also started noticing the similarities and differences between our communities. One similarity is both monasteries' tendency toward "cloisteredness" or enclosure-- working quietly at home doing things that may not be spectacular, but are nonetheless helpful and good. As a member of another religious order once said to me, "St. Gregory's Abbey has been given a charism of withdrawal." Of course he knew that we are not withdrawn from anyone. The truth is quite the opposite--we embrace the world in deep love and express that love as best we can by our prayer and service offered at home, as do our colleagues in Wisconsin.
Another similarity between our communities is the importance placed on gathering together for corporate prayer at various times throughout the day as we meet in choir to sing psalms, hear scripture, and keep silence. Also important to both communities are daily periods of private prayer and meditation, as well as personal study of scripture and related topics.
Yet even within the similarities between our communities, differences are noticeable. For instance, although great importance is attached to corporate prayer at both monasteries, the structures of the prayer times are different, as are the number of times the communities meet for prayer. The monks of St. Gregory's spend more time praying together in the church, but more private prayer is part of the daily life at the Julian House. This difference in prayer does not make one community more or less prayerful than the other, it merely reflects slightly different ways to approach the question of balance between public and private prayer.
During the corporate prayer at Waukesha, one of the intercessions mentioned those living under the four vows of their order, the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, plus an additional vow of prayer. We here at Three Rivers make the traditional Benedictine vows of stability, obedience, and conversion to monastic life. The different vows reflect the particular histories of the communities and the visions of the founders, as does the existence of both nuns and monks at the Julian House, compared to the single sex community of St. Gregory's Abbey.
Whatever the differences between our monasteries, one of the most important aspects of monastic life is common to both houses--the desire to create communities where love and peace may grow in the individual, permeate the monastery, and spread out to the world around us. It is good to see the different ways that the two monasteries go about that pursuit, for the Church would be much impoverished if all its members were exactly alike, and we would likewise be bereft of many good things if all monasteries were the same. We must each follow our personal vocation with integrity, not pretending to be someone or something we are not. The same holds true for monasteries, who occasionally must ask themselves if they are truly following Jesus in their own unique, God-given way.
Setting aside time to ask such a question is one of the reasons monasteries have annual retreats like the one this past March at the Julian House, and the one every December here at St. Gregory's Abbey. Some annual retreats here are simply a week of silence with no guests or outside contacts. Other retreats include inviting someone from outside the community to speak on various topics pertaining to monastic life. The addresses given by the retreat conductor are usually aimed at strengthening the vocations of the listeners, either by affirming their attitudes and actions if they are good, or by challenging them if they are not. That particular thing may or may not have happened in Wisconsin when I was there, but what is certain is that I, the speaker, was deeply impressed by observing the listeners merely going about their silent business as nuns and monks. One hopes that the same thing happens here when we invite guests to lead our retreats, and I suspect it does.
Speaking to these sisters and brothers forced me to look into my own life as a monk, as well as into our community life here at St. Gregory's. It was sometimes difficult to remember not to compare the two communities too closely. They are who they are, and we are who we are, and we should be thankful for that and for each other. Monasteries are not the kingdom of heaven on earth, or even the best expression of human or specifically Christian societies, but we still strive to bring our gifts to fruition so that we may offer them to others around us, while gladly accepting the gifts offered to us from other parts of the Church and the world. We have our problems here, as do all of our monastic sisters and brothers everywhere--that is no secret. Fear of one's own weaknesses and knowledge of others' has sometimes led to strife in the past. However, the same knowledge can also lead to peace, as we first learn to accept our weaknesses, as well as our strengths, and then realize that we can work together, with each group's various gifts complementing the others'. In that way, we can bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
As we go about our daily life here in Three Rivers, it is
good to think of our sisters and brothers doing much the same
thing in their own special way, not only on the other side of
Lake Michigan in Waukesha, but all over the Midwest, across the
continent, and around the world. Most of us will never meet,
because as was mentioned earlier, monks stay home a lot. Instead
we must live in each other's hearts. That's quite all right,
because another person's heart is a very good place to be.
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