Benedict's Dharma 2

Day 4 - Friday - May 2, 2003
Sister Mary (Meg) Margaret


SR. MEG: Well, I'd like to do just a very brief companion piece to Rev. Kusala on American Benedictine monasticism and its evolution in the United States, because we've had a similar journey. And we can learn from the Buddhist, as we have.

___This is our 25th year in monastic dialogue___

This is our 25th year in monastic dialogue. I'm going to keep this to the bare bones, and then if you have questions, I'll respond to them so that we can get to our dialogue.

In the United States most Benedictine men and women came over around the year 1800, but there were sisters that came over as early as 1700 in Canada. And then an earlier group came in, the Ursulines came up through New Orleans.

Now, in the religious life world the original religious were monks and nuns under the Rule of Benedict or Augustine or Basil. And then in about the year 1050 they split between Christian East and Christian West.

The monastic tradition continued in the East more than in the West. In the West, the big split, the big reformation to the big more or less worldly monasteries was the apostolics. The first big revolution, I would say, started with Francis of Assisi. He again moved the whole religious life out of the monasteries, because he had empathy for the poor, and he had more to give.

Another big apostolic group were the Dominicans, and they were in response to right teachings. They became the order of preachers, the Dominicans, and they wore the white robes, they were outside the monasteries.

Now, in the monasteries there has been a continual -- so there is a parallel group, the apostolic religious, they are called sisters, and the monastic monks and nuns.

So, the brothers and the sisters are apostolic. They don't live in monasteries. They live in convents, and convents are little dwellings attached to their apostolic places like parishes, hospitals, or whatever. The monastics still had a monastery.

Technically, a monastery is where you can make another monk or nun. You can ordain or make final vows. You have an abbot. You are self- sustained financially, and you are buried there.

So, it's a total womb-to-tomb place, it's not dependent on the church. The church system is bishops and lay people and priests, and that's a third system. That's the big system.

The bishops have priests that have parishes, and the people are in there. Then the religious life system is the monks and nuns, we are the minority, and then the apostolic sisters and brothers. Some of those are ordained priests, but they are not monks and nuns. They are fathers usually, but can be brothers. They are Dominicans. The sisters are Sisters of Mercy, Ursulines, Immaculate Heart of Mary, Daughters of Charity.

One time I went to a meeting that Lilly Endowment sponsored up at Notre Dame. We were trying to guess who were all the sisters, who were all the monks and nuns in the United States. And nobody knew. There was no directory for monks and nuns and sisters. It was too complex. Since then some historians have made directories, but it keeps changing, it's a vast group.

___In about 1970, there were probably a half million sisters in the United States___

At one time, maybe in about 1970, there were probably a half million sisters in the United States. Now, we're down to about 150,000 sisters, monks, and nuns.

In the split when the monks and nuns in Europe became cloistered, which means the nuns especially could not go out of the monastery, they wore the entire habit, sang the entire choir, and when they came to the United States, they were not allowed to have the title, nun, because they were not sure that they could sing the entire choir. It was kind of an object of a vow.

They were called to the United States, like my community was called to teach the immigrant German children. They would have these little convents like sisters, but we had come from the lineage of nuns from Eichstatt, and Eichstatt used the Nonnberg Abbey, which is where the Sound of Music was filmed.

I was back in Nonnberg Abbey in '80's, and my room was exactly the same as the Mother Abbess. I was a Mother Abbess, then. We were getting together all the abbesses from Europe and the United States.

I asked her why we became sisters and not nuns in the United States, and she said because anybody that entered at Eichstatt and didn't have a dowry was sent to the United States. We were the poor girls, but we did really well. We now have, in my own group we have sixteen monasteries of nuns, and there's probably, let's see, probably 6,000 of us. We are just really happy little girls -- happy women, I should say.

But, anyway, we've done swell. We took a pilgrimage with Joan Chittister and some of the others, to reclaim being nuns because we now can take the full vows of total renunciation, and now we do sing full choir, we are real nuns, and we wanted to be received as such by these mother abbesses.

When we used to go back before that meeting, we would have to stay in the guest house. But now the Mother Abbess greets us, takes us to the choir stalls, and we gave the blessing along with her giving the blessing. It is quite touching thing after 200 years of being estranged.

KM: Sister, what do you mean by singing the full choir?

SR. MEG: The Divine Office. In the United States when the sisters and nuns came over to America the burden of singing all 150 psalms and meeting for prayer 7 times a day was too demanding with their apostolic duties. They used an abbreviated form of prayer. Only in the last 50 years did nuns in this country get the privilege of praying the official divine office like the priests and the nuns in Europe. What was lost was the full statutes as nuns in Europe.

First of all, it was all in Latin and it was way too long to teach in a day and do the entire Divine Office, which was Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Prime, Lauds and Matins.

When had reclaimed it by the time I entered, we did do all the Divine Office. We did Prime and then Lauds, and we came back and did Terce, Sext and None. We did Mass, and then we did Vespers, and Matins and Compline. That was a lot of prayers, and it was in Latin in my first few years, and beautiful, but very challenging. I mean as far as timewise, we had to get up very early, and feast days were difficult, but it had to be done.

I'm going to fast forward up to, then when I became prioress, I was the fifth prioress in this rather new monastery. There were 103 nuns. And I had worked with Bishop Gettelfinger, who you met a couple of nights ago, and we had done a lot of work renewing the Catholic identity in parishes after Vatican II.

I got this major grant, I'm very proud of the Lilly Endowment for assisting us in this, being in Indianapolis.

I think it's instructive for you as Friends of Benedict to do something similar. We did it to retrieve the best of our tradition, just to look at all of it and retrieve it. In other words, bring it up to sight, look at all of it, look at what's good about being a sister, what's good about being a nun.

We brought out all the traditional things of Western monasticism, and then we would claim the parts that made sense to us. We retrieved all of it that we could. We reclaimed the best of the Divine Office, the best of the vow of poverty, the best of the vow of obedience, the best of living in common. And we've worked really hard on how to do this.

But that wasn't enough, and this is the third part. We reappropriated that which we reclaimed.

In other words, it isn't good to select out of the Divine Office or even take the best of it, but we had to reappropriate it just for Beech Grove, just for our house, what would work at our house. Even though it's the best of our tradition, it may not be the best for us.

We were at a stage, we were in a feminist mood. We didn't know if monasticism could be reclaimed for women. Could you have obedience and still be adults? You know, how did you have mutual obedience and still be collegial.

I've been listening to a person who lives in one of your houses, an Anglican house, and they sort of did the same thing. They decided to be totally democratic, and didn't reclaim the Benedictine Rule. They didn't have to because that wasn't their origin. But they also didn't take it when they got here to the United States. So, they have a totally democratic way of living their monastic life, it's here in the Midwest. I see that could work, but then as a total egalitarianism. There is no abbess that has authority.

In other words, it's not the Benedictine Rule, so you have to know, like Kusala, the Dhammapada. You have to know the teachings of the Buddha, what is the orthodox, what's the core of it.

In Buddhism there are three baskets, in his lifetime didn't he write something like --

REV. KUSALA: Yes, it's called the Tipitaka, the three baskets. The vinaya, the sutta, the abhidamma. It's said in some languages to total a hundred books.

___The genius of us having the Rule of Benedict is it's enormously beneficial___

SR. MEG: The genius of us having the Rule of Benedict is enormously beneficial, because we dipped into it deeply and found that it had what we wanted. It had the lean structure. It had mutual obedience. It had the way of the vows. It had the way of prayer. It was something that we could count on. It was our centerpiece. It was the core of the monastic way of life. We still havef not plumbed the depth of it.

Each harvest we find more and more in there. So, we were thrilled to death to have this very insightful book.

Other communities just don't have that. They have a founder, and they have the way he lived, but they don't have his rule. They have a lot of letters. But they don't have his teachings.

They have a lot of teachings about the teachings, and they have a lot of customs, it's hard to discriminate between the accretions and the core living of the monastic way of life, the Benedictine way of life.

So, with that as kind of an introduction, I just have three things that I think would be helpful for lay monastic spirituality. And that would be: Follow the Rule of Benedict. In other words, it's not incidental. It's not by accident that you found that to be your core.

It is a source-inspired text; that in the prologue that talks about returning to the Father who has called us, and to listen with the ear of our heart to follow those words in obedience. It's a very core document, and it will inspire and continue to inspire with great commentators, such as Esther de Waal. I can't encourage you enough to continue with that.

The first thing is to attend to taking the essence of the monastic way of life, the essence of it, but not the form. You really can't live the form of a monastery, but you can live what the form protects in the monastery. You can do everything we can do in the monastery except have a monastery.

What is it that the monastery is doing? What is cloister? Cloister is that time away, that solitude, that desert, that cell. What is cenobitic life? It's a sangha like this, of like-minded souls, so staying in touch. But it's laying out your heart to a like-minded person that knows what you are trying to do.

That's the second thing, to find lay forms to do this contemplative journey. I think only you can do that, but in the light of the Rule and in the light of those of us who live it and have found our way through the form, and you find your way to contemplative life without the form.

For example, the Divine Office is a group prayer, not an individual prayer. If we had more time, it's just too sacred to do in a short moment, lectio divina is the form of the personal prayer, not the Divine Office.

You have to find your entry into Scripture. Now, scripture, there are three revelatory texts: scripture, nature, and experience, which is your entry level. You walk there, you go through the depths of that through the literal, through the allegorical, through the dynamic and moral, and then through the unitive.

You have to plumb the depths of the lectio divina. It is a practice for the individual, and any lay person can learn lectio divina. I think protestants would be just so attuned to that because you already know it. Already live it. Now, what is the daily practice with it that anoints your contemplative way of life.

___Follow the Rule, find your form, that is the essence of the contemplative life.___

The third thing besides again -- I'm repeating, but it's so important -- follow the Rule, find your form, that is the essence of contemplative life. The third thing is to remove the obstacles to your contemplative life. That is when you live in the world but not of it. We live as monasteries in the world but not of it.

Again, there was a huge million dollar study that Lilly Endowment paid for that interviewed most of the spheres in the United States and surveyed I think a hundred thousand sampling on why was religious life falling apart today. It was a very comprehensive survey. They had a lot of meetings that had several phases and had a full- time staff for like four years to work on this.

But the net-net of that study, was why religious life was falling apart, it was indiscriminate cultural assimilation, indiscriminate cultural assimilation.

Discriminate means to choose, to sort. Diakresis is the Greek word. And you would sort, and in the sorting, again for you, you would find the parts of the culture you can assimilate and appropriate in your way of life, because you are in the world, and this world needs you as worldly people, the best of the culture.

This sounds like Paul Tillich, doesn't it, Paul Tillich was that Christ in culture.

We are the Christ, we are the face of Christ in America today, but we can't be indiscriminate in our assimilation of other cultural phenomena. And that, again, is the work of your individual discernment, your laying out your thoughts to a wise elder, and in a sangha or a community of believers, and also checking it out against the norm of the Rule of Benedict.

So, with that, Kusala and I will come up, and we'll do a little bit of listening to questions and responding and some dialogue.



_Day 4_

Sister Meg  |  Rev. Kusala   | Q & A