Monday was filled with conversation. So much conversation I thought it was Wednesday by the time the day was over.
In the morning, much to the surprise of the Sisters and myself, I made it up for 6:30am prayer. A recording of bells rings through the hallways of the Mount five minutes before prayer begins, and I ran upstairs to get a spot. It was Feast of Transfiguration, so we sang hymns about embracing transformation, sat in contemplative silence, and closed with a recognition of the 73rdanniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
Later that morning, I went to the Erie Benedictine’s downtown offices and spent time on “the 4thfloor,” which includes the ministries of Benet Vision, Monasteries of the Heart, Alliance for International Monasticism, and Emmaus Ministries. Walking through the hallway and greeting the Sisters, oblates, and others who work at these offices, there’s a palpable environment of excited hospitality, genuine appreciation of visitors. No one is too busy to meet the newcomer, meetings and emails can wait until all feel welcomed. It’s a work environment foreign to the usual grind associated with the workday, too often driven by urgent deadlines rather than relationships.
From there, I went over to meet with Sister Joan Chittister, renowned and respected writer on spirituality, monasticism, and feminism in the church. She lives at the same house in downtown Erie she has lived in for many years, brews me a cup of coffee as I arrive, and we sit down to talk as her parrot, Lady, becomes very interested in pecking at my toes. Our conversation was filled with wisdom and apt advice in regards to the ministry I have found myself in – namely, Nuns & Nones. The first piece of advice was that I shouldn’t feel the need to re-invent the wheel. Look to the traditions and the structures that already exist as potential partners, and create alongside those communities. And she encouraged me to think about how we can base our gatherings in one tradition. Community needs a place to stand; community needs grounding in order to grow and flourish.
I spent the rest of the afternoon back at the 4th floor offices, surrounded by all the inspiring feminist and social justice fridge magnets and posters you can imagine.
I also got to sit down with Sister Mary Lou Kownacki, a monk and advocate of many years. She’s the Director of Monasteries of the Heart, has created programs that serve local neighborhoods, and served as executive director of Pax Christi USA. Mary Lou is also a poet and author, probably most well-known for a quote she’s not positive she should be credited for – “Engrave this upon my heart: ‘there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.’” But Fred Rogers credited her with it several years ago, as Joan also continues to do so, so it seems at this point she is stuck with the accreditation.
I had started reading “Monk in the Inner City: The ABCs of Spirituality” by Mary Lou last week, in preparation for my trip, and it’s hard to say what a soulmate each word and idea in that book felt for me. It shows her playful relationship with prayer and her prophetic witness to justice and peace. As I quickly learned, she’s been arrested 13 times and is deeply committed to daily practice of zen meditation. She is a life-long monastic and innovates ways of teaching these spiritual values online. She has been a writer for the local paper and she has run national organizations. She responds to the needs she sees around her by filling the gap, creating the response to mend the ill. I could go on and on. The point of it all is that I am truly amazed by this woman, as is everyone else here. Our conversation was both generative and grounding.
Finally, my day on the 4th floor concluded with a conversation with Jacquelin, a younger woman in the community, around my age, who is currently discerning her vocation. It was the exact processing I needed in order to reflect on my encounter with two living saints in our midst.
That evening after prayer, 10 of us – both millennials and monastics – gathered for dinner and drinks at a downtown pub to talk about Nuns & Nones. We opened with sharing our ministries or vocations, along with what question we are holding in regards to our spiritual, political, or vocational lives. One question from Sister Anne McCarthy, who has been arrested 20 times at public demonstrations, was about what the most effective way we can use the gospel to motivate people to passionate resistance against our current political reality. Other questions were around how monastic values, and a monastic way of life, can help people in our current times. My own question is the one I have been asking since earlier this year: how can I best give and receive love, and how does community fit into this search? We explored questions of community and commitment, choosing place and people over jobs and success, how we define “seeker”, what it would look like for a group of unaffiliated millennials to join into a monastic community.
The whole day left me overflowing with gratitude for the monks in our midst, to borrow language from Monasteries of the Heart. Each one of the people I met throughout the day, from the more well-known public figures of their community to the ones quietly doing transformative work in their day-to-day lives and local contexts, are living deep and searching lives, committed to justice in their community and world.
In my work, both with Nuns & Nones and How We Gather, we often speak of the role of Elders in young people’s formation processes. Meeting two spiritual elders, Sr. Joan and Sr. Mary Lou, and getting to sit alongside them in their homes and offices, I did not know where to even begin with our conversations. But maybe that’s okay. Throughout the day, I realized that this question of who Elders are, and what they do for us, is simpler than I thought. Elders are there. Elders offer their presence and life as a gift to model one’s own life upon. They sit with you, and respond to what you ask or say. They do not correct or instruct, they simply accompany the questions and the journey to the answers…or to more questions.
Of course, these two knew this all along. They’ve written about it, they’ve talked about it. Monday evening, I revisited these lessons on eldership, in deep gratitude of their presence in my day. Here are two lessons on eldership from Sr. Joan and Sr. Mary Lou:
Joan’s story on eldership:
“The disciples ask to someone in their midst, ‘I hear you are going to see a spiritual elder.’
‘Yes I am.’
‘What rituals does the spiritual elder teach you that are so important to you?’
The disciple says, ‘The elder doesn’t do any rituals at all.’
‘Well then, what prayers does the elder teach you to say so that you have a feeling of grace and goodness?’
‘Oh, the master has never given me a prayer at all.’
‘Well then, what potions are you taking from the elder to give you a new spiritual life?’
‘Oh, the master has never given me any potion at all.’
‘Well if you’re not getting rituals, and you’re not getting prayers, and you’re not getting potions, why do you go so far to sit with this spiritual elder for nothing?’
‘To watch the spiritual elder light the fire.’
Wisdom comes from choosing the right people to watch, to grow from.”
(Joan Chittister, “Sister Joan Chittister: Lighting a Fire with Faith,”interview by Tami Simon, Sounds True: Insights at the Edge Podcast, Dec 8, 2017, audio, 59:00.)
Mary Lou’s story on eldership:
“’Is there anything I can do to make myself Enlightened?’ the seeker asked the elder. ‘As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning,’ the elder answered. ‘Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribed?’ the seeker asked. And the elder answered, ‘To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.’”
Mary Lou Kownacki, A Monk in the Inner City: The ABCs of a Spiritual Journey (New York: Orbis Books, 2008).