What Lay People Can Learn from the Cloister
I’ve often heard what a blessing it is for a family to have one of its members enter the Religious Life (to become a Priest, Monk, or Nun). Although I had always assumed it was mostly due to the prayers and sacrifices so generously offered by the Religious, now I realize that it’s also due to the lessons one can learn from the witness of the family member.
Our daughter, Sister Agatha, is a novice with the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles having entered their Priory almost two years ago. We are allowed two visits a year, and this was our first visit of 2017. Here are some of my reflections from the experience:
- Dependence on God. The Priory actually has a working farm where they grow much of their own food. I love that the food we receive at the Priory is always homemade, fresh and delicious. I asked Sr. Agatha for recipes long ago, and she’s shared with me a few. However, she explained that she really couldn’t share more because they don’t use recipes for most meals. They fix what they have in their pantry which consists mostly of what they’ve grown or raised and what they’ve received in donations. She said they aren’t fussy – they throw together what they have, they are hungry, and they eat it. It’s as simple as that, and oh so fascinating to think about. We, in our modern way of life, especially in suburban California, are so accustomed to eating whatever we want, whenever we want. I have my recipes and set up my menus with no consideration whatsoever to food that is in season or available. All kinds of food are available to me all the time. But when one lives off the land as they do (or from donations given by the generosity and charity of others), one must accept what is given them, when it is given. That may seem like a small thing, but in reality it’s huge!! It’s a completely different approach to a very important aspect of life. It’s a true dependence on God for daily bread.
- Intentional Days. Sr. Agatha has taken classes on Monastic History, Chant, and Latin as part of her novitiate formation (training). We inquired about the duration and frequency of her classes, to which she responded that it’s not at all like high school. The formal classes are about half an hour in length, and take place maybe once or twice a week. She mentioned the reason for this was because their formation was taking place in all the different things they do: the gardening, milking cows, sewing, etc. So the classes are just a part of their overall formative experiences. As a homeschooler, I found this exciting to think about. Not at all that I’m going to embark down an unschooling path; in fact, quite the opposite. The lesson I’ve taken away is the importance of realizing that everything our children do will be formative in nature – either for good or bad. Therefore, we parents must order and structure our days with good, intentional formation of our children in mind. The Sisters at the Priory are not on computers, don’t do e-mail, don’t have social media or any media for that matter. Their days are ordered, have structure, and are prioritized beautifully with literally every waking minute intentionally formative. Which brings me to my next point:
- Contemplative Silence. Many people have marveled at the fact that the Sisters keep silence all day, except for one hour during recreation, when they are able to talk with one another. Most of us (myself included) think that would be most challenging. So I asked Sr. Agatha how she is doing with that. She responded by saying that she has grown to love the silence. She actually craves it. So our family (all 10 of us!) visited with her for two days this past weekend, and I asked if it got tiring or challenging for her. She said two days was just the right amount of time, because that time of silence has become such a way of life for her. It was just the encouragement I needed to be a bit more consistent about keeping a one-hour “quiet time” as an important part of our homeschooling day. Sometimes I feel too busy and that it’s hard to find the time. But to have a substantial amount of time for silence (one hour seems a good amount for our children) of silence is important for our souls. Silence is the language of God, and without it, we can’t hear His voice.
- Importance of the Saints. Sr. Agatha quoted St. Benedict and referred to his Holy Rule often. It is something that has formed and shaped her quite a bit just in these last two years of daily immersion in this Benedictine community. It causes me to stop and consider who my heroes are. Who are the heroes of my other children? We are so blessed as Catholics to have the communion of saints, a vast array of heroes after whom to model our lives. It’s also a reminder to us as parents of the need to be careful of the movie stars, sports stars and other celebrities our children may be drawn to. We must be vigilant about keeping what is good, holy, beautiful and true before their eyes.
- Appetites. Prior to entering the Religious Life, Sr. Agatha loved to travel, and did quite a bit of it in the first 18 years of her life. She mentioned that she’s gotten the “travel bug” a few times. But she now realizes that any desire we experience is really and truly a desire for the only real satiating fulfillment in the Universe, God. It has also occurred to me, that we do create appetites for our children when we do certain things often enough whether traveling, consuming media, shopping, or eating out for example. Not that these activities are in and of themselves are bad, by any means (with the exception of unwholesome media, of course), but they can become harmful if done excessively, which is true of everything. We need to be thoughtful and aware of this reality, and moderate (or even limit) these types of activities as we raise our children. In particular, we must intentionally point out to our children that God is really the only true fulfillment we will ever experience.
- Detachment. We all still marvel at the transformation that has occurred in Sister Agatha. She has blossomed in all the virtues, and has a maturity level that is quite amazing for a 20-year-old. It’s a beautiful testimony to what this total and complete, radical and bold renunciation of self and the world can do. I am inspired to put God first in my life, renounce distractions, and press on doing the right thing, which is often the most difficult thing. Though it breaks my heart to say “good-bye” to her after our visits, I realize that it is just part of the cross, the sacrifice that makes the Religious Life so fruitful and blessed. You can’t earn the crown and all the jewels of virtues without the total and complete renunciation that makes this kind of growth possible. For more on this, see Patrick’s post on “Detachment Parenting.”
Thanks be to God that He calls each one of us to Himself completely. And thanks be to God for the gift of Religious Life. The Religious Life is beautiful for us lay people to learn from, as they point us to the way it will be in heaven – a transformative union with Christ without end. They provide a template for living our lives, and their prayers and sacrifices provide the graces we in the world desperately need to stay on the path and grow in holiness. Each of us can embark on a life of prayer and work, all for the glory of God.