Benedict's Dharma 2

Day 3 - Thursday - May 1, 2003
Sister Mary (Meg) Margaret


SR. MEG: My presentation this morning will be on the monastic way of life. And if you'll allow me to hint towards a comparison, my way of life is with form in a monastery. As a layperson your monastic way of life is without form in your marriage, in your home, in your workplace. And as Friends of Benedict, we're both following the same Rule. What I thought I would do is talk about how that Rule works in the monastic way of life, and what is the place of the vows. If you don't take vows with form, what are vows without form.

Another way of introducing this would be to say, what people see of us is above the river, they see me in the monastery at Beech Grove with a very set life. You know, prayers, much like what you're doing this week, morning, noon, evening prayer, Eucharist every day, common meals, common silence, common work.

There are other women's communities like the Trappistines that have more form; nobody works outside the monastery. Whereas, in my house, we have 40-some cars -- that may tell you something -- for 84 women. But we still have much form.

Now what do people do, when they do it is under the river. You and I both know there are people that live in a monastery, but under the river have lost the meaning or the intention of their practice. There are people that live above the river but are intensely living a contemplative way of life.

Let me talk about what are we doing under the river when we live the monastic way of life. I'm going to walk you through the door of conversatio morum, conversion to the monastic way of life.

It's C-O-N-V-E-R-S-A-T-I-O morum as opposed to conversio morum, C-O-N-V-E-R-S-I-O. Conversio means you have a conversion, and then you change your life. That works for about the first ten minutes, but you need an ongoing conversion. That is where our practice comes in to sustain our conversion. Our practice is to live life as a contemplative, as a monastic.

What is that way of life? That way of life is living in a monastery, the same monastery your whole life, under an abbot and the rule.

Let me first take on the vow of stability. Benedict in the first chapter talked about various kinds of monks. I think if he were sitting here today, he would say there is a fifth kind of monk, and it would be the Friends of Benedict.

The first kind was hermits, and most of us are not hermits.

The second kind are wandering monks that go from place to place. He was critical of them, he felt they had lost their fervor and had no accountability.

A third kind were monks that cluster together, like-minded souls, but they bound together in tepidity. They were folks that followed their own will.

He said he was writing this rule for cenobites, cenobitic monks who lived in common, lived in common under an abbot. This kind of common life in the Christian tradition is essential because the Christian way is ecclesial. Breaking bread together at the table is as important symbol of unity as is the word of God in scripture, or as is even Christ himself.

Christ gathered people and considered his way the way of people, the way of ecclesial people dedicated to following his way of life to the Father.

___So, being in community is not optional.___

So, being in community is not optional. It is constitutive; it's part of being a Christian.

Should you be a hermit, you would still do it in the name of all Christians and be doing it for the sake of all Christians. No one ever can isolate themselves from the community.

The first form is stability. You'll have to translate that for yourself, but it does have something to do with place. It's not just time. It does mean your feet have to be on the ground someplace. It is where you are.

Benedict was very critical of people always being someplace else and never being rooted where they are. So, place is first.

For me, over these many years of being in the same place, the benefit is this ongoing conversion, because they've watched me grow up in my community, and they've called me forth, and they've held me when I've had some harder years.

The second part of this is to be under an abbot, under someone you have given permission to call you to accountability, someone whom you are obedient to. Many writers say that Benedict's main vow was obedience.

We don't take a vow of celibacy, nor do we take a vow of poverty. But this obedience to the abbot has in it all the prescriptions of our goods and our body and our way of life. So, obedience is a sine qua non, which means that without which it would not be. So, obedience is essential.

My obedience is expressed to my prioress, Sr. Carol, we meet on a monthly basis, and I bring to her my accountability. I have a calendar, and I have a list of permissions I need, and I have a list of things that I'm always accountable for: My finances, money that has come in, the gifts I've given or gotten.

Before I go into things, I want to talk about this relationship with somebody whom you give authority to. It's very similar I think to marriage because you are doing it together, and you are no longer a free agent. You are in relationship for life. Some people do it through prayer, but there is a need as humans to be accountable and to give permission.

___Some people do it through prayer___

Do you have too much? Too little?

This accountability and obedience is a way to listen. I'm accountable to my sisters in community. I listen to them, and they listen to me. It's can be as a group in our chapter meetings. There is much to learn in a group, and there is much to learn individually with my sisters.

I would say over the years what I've learned is to love them, especially the older ones. They are just so wise, and they've become so human, and so dear.

I watch the younger ones come in, and it takes them a while to realize that we're not caring for the older sisters. Truly it's inter-generational living. We are not just sitting at that table to help somebody. It's a mutual assistance, and everyone is a peer, there is no one better than or more than. We certainly are all unique, but we live in community.

So, obedience is mutual, it's individual, and there is a total willingness to live with accountability.

I'm accountable for my things, here is where the vow of poverty comes in. I've taken a vow of total renunciation, which means not to own anything, and not to even have the possibility of owning anything. Should I inherit something, it would immediately go to the monastery. This vow of total renunciation means that everything is for my use, but I own nothing because I've renounced owning, I only want God. For the sake of God, it's easier to live without things.

How do I get things? How do I use things? I use them with permission. So, that brings me back to obedience.

Obedience is the way in which I get authorized to have a musical instrument. Believe it or not, I just got this one. (Indicating her flute.) Isn't it a honey? This is from Israel. It's rosewood, and it's the best one I've ever had. I haven't even broken it in yet.

But I couldn't use it without having the blessing of obedience, because it's not really mine. I don't want my things because then my intention starts returning back to me, and I'm in a vowed life, a monastic way of life. If I keep grasping and taking it back, it takes me away from my renunciation, I need permission to use things.

The five ways of using things: I get permission to use things. I have no entitlement coming to me in the future. I renounce anything in the past that I have had or could have had. Any thoughts of either future things or past things, I renounce. I also renounce anything that I have that I may have needed in previous work but don't need any longer. I hand those in. I turn them in for the common good of community.

I think the fifth thing is to use things as the blessings of the altar. I'm going to stop here and say that the actual living of the monastic way of life under the river is really a ritual. It's a ritual action. I believe literally that my prioress is as if Christ. So, when I go in to her and ask her for the things that I use, I'm asking Christ.

When I'm playing with things, I'm playing like I would in church. When I walk into the refectory I bow and I sit down, it's as if I'm up in chapel at the Eucharist. When I'm up at Eucharist, I'm as if I'm with the community of other believers; that they are Christ; the priest is Christ. There is nothing other than Christ for my consciousness.

When I start thinking, feeling sorry for myself, getting into fatigue, depression, whatever, I return to the ritual. The ritual brings me out of it.

It took me about 30 years to really get into my bone marrow, when I'm in the world it's the same. I see no difference eating with you in your refectory than I do in mine. I see no difference playing this tune here for you as I would at the monastery chapel. I see no difference picking flowers with Jane as I would picking them at home.

___The ritual, then, makes the work your prayer, and your prayer the work.___

The ritual, then, makes the work your prayer, and your prayer the work. That's why it's so important to punctuate our life with this prayer of the Psalms, washing over three times a day. It anoints the ceaseless prayer that's going on in my heart all the time.

I'm going to take on, though, chastity. How does that play itself out under the river. Well, I am a celibate nun, and that means I made a choice with my sexuality.

Many people are continent, which means just no sex. That means they just don't have the opportunity to have sex, or sex isn't what they are into right now. A lot of people are continent. But at some point in our life we are called from the inside, to make a choice about our sexuality, either toward marriage, monastic life, or single life. That choice governs our vocation, what we do with our bodies. I chose to be a celibate monastic, that was the easy part. I did that in 1961.

The harder part is the choice to be chaste. Chaste covers my thoughts, and that means I have to be chaste in thought, word, and deed, but it starts in my heart, and then my mind. When the sexual thoughts and energies rise, I have to dash them against my spouse, Christ, and say, "Here. I'm just feeling my woman's feelings. Take them, just take them. You gave them to me. Help me use them in the service of Apostolic love."

There is no alternative for me to express my physical sexuality either in friendship, or in homosexual, or heterosexual ways. Maybe a light love of affection, but absolutely no sexual innuendo or sexual direction.

The sexual urges are very strong. In fact, they are stronger in a monastic celibate because we've refrained, sometimes we're surprised by our energies. The young nuns, wow, you should see, they are so surprised, and some of the older nuns, too.

You know, we have a facility at the Hermitage which is 120 lay elderly people that we serve. And when our sisters can no longer serve -- fourteen of us work over there, it's like an extension of our monastery. Once in a while we'll have some sisters there, and they'll share a room, let's say, with a lay person. They can actually fall in love with the person because they've never been with a lay person. They don't understand their feelings, or where they came from.

Believe me, if you are thinking sexual desire dies, it never dies. That's what I'm learning. I've gotten used to just expecting it.

___Benedict had a lot of teaching about being celibate___

Benedict had a lot of teaching about being celibate, he said to love chastity. In other words, not to resist it, but to embrace it as a way. If we had time, there is much teaching about celibacy and chastity in the teachings of Benedict, and John Cassian, but I'm only going to raise one for our consideration today, and it is for the Friends of Benedict who live below the river, if you keep a celibate married life or a celibate single life, your energies will return back through your body system, and you'll see clearly with your eyes. And your skin will be clear, too.

Believe it or not, there is a physiological benefit to being celibate, I've been saying to my married celibate friends -- and I have many in direction -- I see the same thing in them as I do in myself. What you do is you channel all your sexual energy to your partner, and then the rest of the time you practice renunciation. Any time you think of another mate or another temptation, you have to resist that and return it only to your partner. I'm returning it to my way of life and I get this inner strength, this inner clarity. It's very powerful way of contemplation.

Under the river we're practicing stability. We're practicing obedience. We're practicing poverty, poverty meaning the right to use things: Not too much, not to little, not too high of things, not too low of things, not too sparse. Again, in my book, 'Thoughts Matter,' I go into those teachings..

Then there is celibacy. We practice living a celibate life with a chaste mind and a chaste heart. Celibacy is our choice, but our thoughts are governed by chastity.

I'm going to conclude here with another little song of Mary. I just love this one. You know when you don't find things, sometimes something else is better.

Mary was the way for us. She was a normal woman who had a child and followed Christ through the cross and is still available to us, all we have to do is ask her for her presence. When I saw the flowers this morning, there she was.

So, I'll conclude this part, and then Kusala has a presentation on the five precepts, and then we'll talk about our disciplines and our way of life.

("Ave Maria" played by Sr. Meg.)




_Day 3_

Sister Meg  |  Rev. Kusala  |  Q & A