As a child, I loved all the classic children’s stories, such as Heidi, What Katie Did, Black Beauty. I recently came across a quote from Black Beauty which resonated with some experiences I’ve had in the past couple of months: “It is good people who make good places” (Anna Sewell).
If it’s true (and I believe it is) that places and institutions are good or bad because of the people who make them what they are, each of us carries a responsibility. A monastery is no exception.
Before I entered the monastery, I recall having a somewhat idealized view of the life, where all the sisters followed faultlessly every day the Gospel message to be loving and kind. Having lived here for 15 years now, I can say definitively that monastic life is much more of a struggle, and I know many sisters who would agree. There is no magical transformation the day you enter. You bring yourself to the monastery with all your good points, virtues, faults, and failings. If you were short-tempered, impatient, stingy, judgmental, you retain those qualities when you become a sister. Of course, all the good things about you, such as kindness, patience, humor, or generosity are still there, but it’s a daily struggle to make sure that the best of you is what emerges. Living a large community, where women have differing views of what living a good life looks like, adds another layer of challenge. You have to be willing to keep adjusting and readjusting as you rub up against sharp edges.
The inhabitants of a monastery are basically a microcosm of the world. I would say that most of us are nice people, the kind who would do you a good turn rather than a bad one, but also people who sometimes get it wrong. This was brought home to me a couple of times in these past few weeks. Two sisters who have some mobility problems and use a walker shared that they often don’t join in outings because they feel a “bother” or a “burden.”
This has really made me think. Firstly, I believe that most able-bodied sisters don’t feel that giving a hand to someone who is a bit less able is bothersome or burdensome, but there could be a few who’ve reacted harshly to a request for help in the past. This deters those who need assistance from asking again. That means that they are excluded from some community activities and that doesn’t help our community to be “a good place.”
It’s a reminder to me that if I want the monastery to be a place where all feel welcome, accepted, and valued, I have to be conscious of being hospitable to my sisters as well as visitors. Secondly, I think it’s very important that neither in the monastery, or in the world outside, do people of goodwill allow one or two mean-spirited people to dominate the feel of a whole community. Thirdly, I believe that those who need a bit of help are called to be brave and risk a rejection here and there, because if they let the meanies manipulate their behavior, the helpful majority are denied the chance to help. Good people need to be a chance to make a community a good place! And, because the monastery is a microcosm of the world, this applies to everyone out there, too. Let’s make a pact to overcome mean-spirited!
Karen Rose, OSB
Photos: Sisters and staff from Saint Scholastica Convent take a stroll through Clemens Gardens in St. Cloud, Minn.