The Courage to Change

When the love-of-my-life spouse and soul mate was diagnosed with dementia-related mild Neuro-Cognitive Disorder (mNCD), it felt like life had sucker-punched me. For months I was disoriented and breathless, like a non swimmer tossed overboard in the middle of an ocean. And then, with the elation of a ship-wrecked soul when a rope ladder descends from a hovering helicopter, I climbed my way into the loving embrace of the sisters and oblates of Saint Benedict’s monastery. I had found my spiritual home.

In those days, the words “spiritual home” were, for me, synonymous with heaven. And for a while I imagined I had arrived in an other-worldly place. Falling in love is like that. When we’re giddy on happy-hormones, we don’t notice that everything is not, in fact, entirely rosy. In the same way I had fallen in love with him nearly 25 years earlier, I was swept off my feet by the Benedictine way of life. I found a monastery full of soul mates – hundreds of sisters and oblates. And then in December 2018, a McKnight Foundation grant from the Central Minnesota Arts Board allowed me to set up a Scholar’s office at the monastery (in Studium) to research and write about the habits common to poets and monastics. My first day there, I practically floated from my silent office to the Oratory, where I joined the community in the midday prayers of the Divine Office. It seemed as if blissfully quiet angel-wings of beauty and hope were carrying me.

After prayers, I joined the sisters for lunch in their dining room, where Sister Mary Rachael [sic] asked what I was working on. I told her I was writing a series of essays about how practices common to monastics and poets give our lives meaning. When I said I was going to call my collection Book of Transformations, she grasped both my hands, looked compassionately through the windows of my eyes into the depths of my soul, and tenderly spoke words that sounded like a funeral condolence.

“Oh,” she said. “So you’ll be going through transformation, too. I’ll be praying for you.”

It was a deer-caught-in-the-headlights moment. Coming to the monastery had not brought me to a place of living happily-ever-after.

But why was I surprised to realize that the work of exploring transformation would inevitably transform me? I had, after all, chosen my title from a line in Stanley Kunitz’s poem, “The Layers,” which ends with the words, “I am not done with my changes.” To accept the reality of life is to accept that we who dwell within its circle are constantly changing.

Sigh. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…

To accept life as it is, is to bravely and humbly acknowledge that I am not done with my changes.

This is an excerpt from a previously published article: “How Can We Be Open to Transformation? a story, a poem, and a spiritual practice to help muster the courage to change.” To read the rest of the article, click here.

Tracy Rittmueller, OblSB

Photo: Butterfly, symbol of transformation