Thursday, August 06, 2009
Over the next couple days, I fell more into the monastery schedule, becoming accustomed to the hours of prayer, the hours of solitude with Our Lord, and in spite of actually sleeping well, I still napped a little each afternoon.
Although on Friday, my first full day, I was not able to pray or read anything, Saturday I did pick up the Bible and read from the Old Testament. Even before my retreat, I'd been drawn for some reason to read the books of Judith and Esther, and found that once again, I had to read them. Several times, in fact.
I found the prayer of Judith to be especially poignant: "Oh Lord, have mercy on me! I am all alone and have no one but you!"
The fullness of Judith's humanity was lived out through her true feminity. She knew who she was and threw herself with abandon into the depths of the Father's mercy and providence. That book has so many Christological themes it would be well worth an in-depth study. As it is, some of my musings on her story came into full fruition while on the retreat and I'll write separately about that.
Through prayer, through discussions with the Sisters, through random scripture readings, different themes began to develop in the course of the days, bringing in some ways, a sense of clarity. The Holy Spirit was present and made himself known in many ways.
I saw my time there as a precious gift of love from God himself. In every moment, He knew what I needed and provided it. Maybe one of the most beautiful aspects of the visit was the nearly absolute void of emotion. There was no "mountaintop" experience. There were no deep valleys such as I'd experienced on my first discernment retreat. It was a desert. Nothing more, nothing less. If you've ever been on the high desert on a perfectly clear night...sounds travel for miles.
It was that clarity that allowed me to hear the voice of God. He wasn't far away or impersonal. He was as present as my own heartbeat.
Somewhere in there, although I can't say that I'm called to it,I fell in love with monasticism, grasping an intuitive understanding of it if not a fully theological one (although I have that, as well.) I knew that this is what drew me to visit the Cistercians, this is something God wanted me to see and experience, to the degree possible. Even though I was not allowed to enter the enclosure, having visited an active community, and through my own questions, I knew what was going on behind those doors. They were living their life, keeping house, doing chores, and praying. When I waited for Sister to come to the parlor to meet me, I heard some discussions on topics being discussed by the community for the purpose of study. I heard a lot of laughter, and in passing the silent nuns whenever they moved about outside the cloister, I saw bright smiles and joyful eyes.
Monasticism is beautiful in its simplicity, its holiness and its reality. It is a life that is fully human.
Previously, I'd believed that the Cistercians were extremely austere, although, now having visited them, I no longer have that impression. Austerity, certainly, is a factor in all religious life, and in some communities or Orders more so than in others. Yet it is always present for it is a required ingredient for anyone seeking holiness and to draw closer to God.
There is something about the stillness of the Cistercian monastery, though, the spiritual desert into which I was drawn as well, that made me see beyond intellect or emotion what this was really all about.
Although I've described it before, I return to the image of the chapel; the simple lines, spartan decorations, and the effect of which that draws one wholly to God. That's not to say the Saints are not present, too, for one Sister spoke of conversations with her Saints as she moved from one task to another. In a way, this makes absolute sense. When one lives closely with others, why would one need photos or pictures to remind you of them? We keep photos of our loved ones in places not graced by their presence. When we are with them, we have no need to pull their likeness out of our pockets.
While there, when I looked at the bare altar, I saw, pure and simple, the Cross. The blood of the martyrs, the altar of oblation. To make such a total offering of oneself is to become more like God and to act in a way more in union with Christ who set Himself as the example to follow in His complete act of Redemption.
One of the Sisters explained to me, joyfully, the community prayer where they truly lose their own identities in order to take on that of the Church. The Latin prayers go back to Medieval times, 900 years of the same melodies, the same words, a living offering of praise and sacrifice to God. As they pray, they pray for us all, standing between the world and eternity in an act of intercession. They live each day dying to themselves in order to become fully human, fully living for God.
Who are these nuns? Who are the people called to monasticism?
Normal people, like any of us. Normal people who heard the call of God to come away with Him into the desert as an offering of love, not just for him, but for the world. They live a hidden life and in so doing, live more fully and more powerfully than most of us will EVER be able to do.
It's a life of grace, a hard life involving the surrender of one's will (although not one's intellect as so many mistakenly imagine), and a life which is a clear way to perfection for those who are called and who answer freely. It is a life of freedom, a sign of contradiction to the world that would seek viciously to destroy it (and in fact, this has been attempted many times throughout history).
Yet it survives. They survive, fully living, ceaseless in prayer, ceaseless in praise and honor to God.
I will always have a soft spot for the Cistercians in general, and, in particular this community as welll as the Dominican community I visited earlier, and a love and respect for monasticism thanks to the dear Sisters who welcomed me and gave me their time and advice this summer.
My own discernment goes on, and I'll not reveal anything further than this. For just as these nuns live a life hidden from the world, so my own discernment lives, hidden within my own private personal cloister where God and I communicate unceasingly.
Such is the reality for anyone in discernment. Even when we don't listen, God never ceases to speak.