On a recent trip back to the monastery, I tried to be extra holy.
The group of wonderful women I was with left a bit before me. In the remaining hour before our stated departure, I walked to the cemetery on the monastery grounds. I still remember the time I came upon it on my first visit to the monastery. I was in awe! Even in death, these sisters hold each other. I was moved by the deep commitment of stability – a commitment unique to the orders of Saint Benedict. This latest visit was my first experience of taking a church group with me to this sacred spot. I was so impressed – not to mentioned amazingly enlightened – when one sister of the monastery spent about two hours with us explaining everything from why it’s called a monastery when it’s a group of sisters (monastery comes from the word monk, which means one who single-heartedly seeks after God), to how decisions are made among them, to what their connection to Rome is. (BTW: A monastery is a group of those who vow to single-heartedly seek after God. And a convent (think convention) is the living quarters for those who have taken monastic vows to live together in a single-hearted search for God.) I loved how the sister talked about the vow to stay with the other monastics of her community. If one of them is getting on her nerves, she remembers how aspects of her personality certainly must get on the nerves of the others; and yet they practice patience, forgiveness, and forbearance with her. Perhaps she can practice a little of the same with those who irritate her most. I loved how she talked of consultations. Though they elect a prioress to be their leader (after all, they’re like a family living together but without a stated mom or dad to be in charge – someone has to be empowered to decide who will take out the garbage and who needs one of the few private bathrooms of their recently renovated living quarters). Still, for certain matters, it’s a regular practice to consult all the sisters of their community in order to hear what they have discerned. In the end, the prioress they have chosen due to the gifts and abilities they see in her makes final decisions. But she doesn’t do so without the mutual input of all the sisters. Mutual respect and responsibility are norms among them. In fact, Saint Benedict (in his 5th Century Rule) charges the community to listen for the youngest voice among them as the voice that often bears the wisdom of God. . . . I was reminded (on this trip among incredibly wise church women who have lived through the ultimate highs and lows of life) that sometimes the youngest voice might have discerned well. And sometimes we need to be quiet to listen to the strength and perseverance and deep, deep wisdom of the sisters who have gone before us. It wasn’t just the monastic sisters who had lived long and discerned well the presence of God in their lives. It was the women of the church who traveled there with me who were bunking right down the hall from me in the retreat center. They are the bearers of immense wisdom, the overcomers of unbelievable circumstances, the champions of a grace that somehow carries us through. I was honored to be in their presence – even if only for 24ish hours.
And so, when they departed, I thought I’d take a walk to the sisters’ cemetery. Just to be reminded of the way the sisters of the monastery hold each other – even in death. It was a time of solitude. Quiet to connect with God. My heart and mind were so open from such a wonderful overnight with such amazing women in such an incredible place. And so, I found myself at the foot of the crucified Christ in the cemetery. I was raised Protestant with very few statues, icons, or visual representations of Christ. In theory we’re much more about the resurrection than the crucifixion so the crosses I’ve known are empty – not occupied by a bloodied body. Still, there I was at the foot of the crucified Christ. It was obvious to me that the sisters of the monastery found the depiction meaningful enough to have such a statue perpetually overlooking them – even in death. So, in my last few minutes at the monastery, I thought it might do me well to look full into the face of the crucified Christ to see what wisdom he too might have to share. I closed my eyes. I concentrated on my breathing. I did everything I always teach and practice in order to enter that quiet place where Spirit often speaks. I looked up into his face to gaze upon him while I waited for whatever word he might have for me.
And then I felt it.
OUCH! A sharp, violent pain at my ankle. And then another. My eyes darted down from the face of the crucified Christ to the spot on which I stood.
A hill of angry ants.
Agh. My shoes were filled with them as a few began their ascent up my shins.
I’m still not sure what to make of it. My final attempts at serenity in such an amazing place. I spent those last moments swatting ants – squashing any that clung too tight. A violent defense. Not one of my finer moments. I pray to God none of the sisters saw me.
What does it mean? Be sure to look before you launch into a sacred sign that’s new to you? Know that the crucified Christ is a reminder that we too might suffer? Don’t go traipsing off-trail in Alabama with your eyes shut because you never do know when you’ll come upon an ant hill – or something worse? Remember that serene centeredness easily can be interrupted by self-protection? All of the above or something else?
I’m still not sure of the final lesson. All I know was that I was hoping for some great insight at the foot of that crucified Christ who was there overlooking the eons of sisters who have given their lives for his sake. After every last ant was gone from me, I was left with the amusing mystery of this place in which we live, move, and try to connect with the Great Being. Perhaps the best lesson is to watch where you’re going. And when you get pulled off-center by a hill of angry ants, try not to take it all so seriously. I never did look back into the face of that crucified Christ. But if I did, I have a feeling the torment on his face would have turned to a radiant, giggling smile.
Enjoy the journey! After all, he did!