How Does One Get Invited on a “Monastic Vacation?”

In the cloister

As a follow up to my recent post about my Monastic Vacation at a 13th-century monastery in Italy with the Servants of the Lord, my friend, the Professor of Political Science and host of the Research on Religion podcast series, Tony Gill, interviewed me about that vacation. Please visit their page to hear the podcast and learn more about the numbers of religious vocations in the U.S. and worldwide, as well as details about everyday life inside of a monastery.

How much does it cost to take a monastic vacation? Tony asked. Nothing. Most religious orders live off of donations, so donations will be accepted but they are not required. How can this be? “The love of God is free,” one person told me. So it won’t empty your pockets to take a monastic vacation, but I’d be surprised if you didn’t come away from it inspired to give more freely your own time and love to help other people.

In addition to the podcast, I suggest you watch this video interview with Father Miguel Buela, the founder of the religious family the Instiutue of the Incarnate Word, to which the Servants of the Lord belong.

Short Update on my Happiness Project

I’m continuing the Happiness Project I wrote about last week. This week, I decided to work on one of Gretchen Rubin’s resolutions of her happiness project: Order. So each night I started journaling about order in my life: when I do it well, when I don’t do it well, and how I feel when I do it well. The first problem with this part of my happiness project was that I couldn’t find the journal where I was keeping my notes about order. In fact, I had 3 journals floating around 3 places–my bedside, my desk and my purse. So, to have more order, I wrote a big title on each journal and only used each one for one task: bedside (order journal), desk (work tasks), purse (personal tasks).

Putting order into my order journal certainly helped. So what did I fill that order journal with? Well, I realized that having order in my day allowed me to be productive and on-task so that if I had to stop what I was doing to help someone, I could. I realized that if my classroom time is ordered, then my students know what to expect and can be more creative, so we all have more fun. I realized that order is not about obsessing over every little detail in our homes, cars, or purses, but about structuring our lives and our days so that we can cooperate with others. No order, no cooperation.

Another one of my my big insights from my happiness project was that we can find happiness in our own kitchen. Now that I appreciate my kitchen, I finally hired some folks to tear down a wall between my kitchen and living room, tear off the ugly wallpaper, paint the cabinets and walls, and put in new countertops. I never realized that a week of not having a kitchen could make me so miserable. No kitchen means no coffee in the morning, no warm meal waiting at night, no regular consolations from food and drink. No kitchen, no happiness.

What will my happiness project bring next? I’m both excited but nervous to find out…so stay tuned!

 

My Monastic Vacation

“Would you please tell me how you got invited to stay in a 13th monastery in Italy?” a friend recently queried me. With the decline of vocations to the religious life in the West, few of us have ever seen inside the walls of a convent or monastery, so my recent stay with the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara piqued the curiosity of my friends from all religious backgrounds. My curiosity about monastic life started after reading  Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, a gripping conversion story, in which Merton,  like Saint Augustine centuries ago, turned away from the world of sensual pleasures and worldly honors and embraced an aestetic life of prayer and sacrifice.

In the cloister

But my recent monastic vacation was more like Kathleen Norris’s tale the The Cloister Walk, in which laywoman spends months with Benedictine monks and Norris recounts the beauty of reciting the psalms, the silence, and the slow passage of time. Unlike Merton, who joined a monastery, Norris only visited the monastery, then she wrote about her experiences and made monastic life understandable and appealing to thousands of laypeople like me.

Although I don’t have a vocation to the monastic or religious life, the idea of retreating from the world for a brief period of spiritual refreshment–a monastic vacation–deeply appeals to me. So when I made plans to spend this past Christmas in Rome with my brother and his family, I contacted a religious sister I know in Rome and asked if her order would give me a quiet place to rest and pray for a few days.

Thrilled at her affirmative answer, I took a two-hour train ride north of Rome and was picked up by two young religious sisters and driven to their new convent, which was built in the 13th century and until recently housed the Poor Clares (a Franciscan cloistered order). I was greeted by 80 sisters from 20 different countries–most of them in their 20s and 30s–and was warmly welcomed at all meals, community prayers, and recreational activities. I had a private room in a long, quiet hallway, and the sisters made sure I had heat and hot water, which is not easy to come by in such an old building.

Sisters praying the rosary

What is life like inside of a convent? First, to be clear, these sisters are not monastic–they have a calling work in the world, teaching catechism, running schools and hospitals. Their home was built as a monastery for cloistered nuns who never left the walls. But today’s religious vocations–the relatively few we have in the Catholic Church compared to previous generations–tend to be more like the Servants of the Lord and do corporal and spiritual works of mercy, fortified by vows of obedience, poverty and celibacy, solidified by community life, daily prayers, and intense spiritual direction.

Sisters making dinner

What most struck me was the joy the sisters have–joy in sacrifice and joy in serving others. I literally felt like I was surrounded by 80 of Santa’s elves who were joyfully cooking, sewing, praying and ready to jump and do anything to make me comfortable, or just chat with me over a cup of coffee and some stale bread served with love. The Servants of the Lord wear a beautiful blue and gray habit, the blue symbolizing the humanity of Christ and the gray his divinity, and their eyes and faces radiate generosity of spirit.

My last night at dinner, I got up the nerve to ask, “Don’t you miss the things of the world?” One American sister thoughtfully replied to me with another question, “Well, what do you think people most want in life?” “Happiness,” I said. “Exactly!” she replied. “When I think about the things I gave up but I ask myself  ‘Will those things really make me happy?’ And the answer is no. But really the call to this life is supernatural–it’s a calling and a gift from God to live as a sister. It’s deeply fulfilling to embrace this call, but God must call you first.”

Acknowledging that their call to the religious life is just that–a supernatural calling–but there are many laypeople like me who long to share in their joy and community life for a brief period, the sisters throw open their doors to people like me who don’t have a calling to the religious life but do deeply appreciate it. They ask for nothing–just come and be loved, taken care of, and do as much or as little of their religious life and works of service as you choose. There is indeed a deep joy in loving without expecting anything in return.

Dinnertime

So, my monastic vacation was like my own version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, except I’m eating, praying and loving all in one place. Frankly, the food wasn’t great–the sisters live off donated food–but I always got served first and was welcome to seconds of whatever they had. The prayer was both deeply personal and my heart was moved in many ways, but I was sure that the communal prayer and the sisters praying for me contributed greatly to my inner growth. Further, experiencing God’s love is much bigger than any romantic love like that chronicled in Eat, Pray, Love.

Although there may be many reasons to lament the decline of religious vocations in the West, one more reason to pray for vocations to religious life is precisely because the religious of the church have long fortified the lay faithful with their prayers and example of warm love and eagerness to serve. We all could use a monastic vacation from time to time, even if our primary vocation, our path to serve God is through our work, families and friendships.

Christmas Liturgy from the Vatican

My niece Selena and kept each other warm outside St. Peter’s in Rome

From Rome, December 25th, 2012

Have you ever wondered what Christmas liturgy at the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican might be like? It follows the exact same structure as any other Mass, but nearly all the prayers are said in Latin, a breathtaking Schola of boys and men leads the singing, and the thousands of faithful who have traveled over many miles and waited many hours in line to get in maintain a reverent silence in the most grand piece of religious architecture you could ever imagine. The result is a breathtaking, deeply reverent liturgy that unites people from every corner of the world and produces profound joy–a foretaste of heaven on earth.

Pope Benedict XVI leaving St. Peter’s Basilica

Of course one big draw to Mass at the Vatican is you get to see and hear the Pope; in fact, Pope Benedict XVI passed about 5 feet from us twice. He had a warm smile, but looks older in person than on camera. His voice was strong and clear throughout the Mass, especially during the homily. His homily was long (by Catholic standards) and all in Italian, but the crowd of thousands sat silently, reverently listening to their Holy Father. As I speak French and Spanish fluently, and I had been practicing Italian in the previous weekly during my “monastic vacation” at a 13th century convent with 80 sisters from 20 different countries, I understood the main points of the Pope’s homily (and read it in English as soon as I got back to my hotel in Rome).

Christ came to bring peace to earth, Pope Benedict said, but if Mary and Joseph knocked at our doors and asked for a place to stay the night, would we have room for them? If religion has been responsible for violence in some instances, the Pope said, the 20th century showed us that eradicating religion won’t eradicate violence. The way to peace is by discovering the splendor of the truth and relying on God’s grace; that is, if  in our materialistic and individualistic culture we can make the time to know God and open our hearts to God’s love.

Pope Benedict XVI concluded his homily thus:

“The shepherds made haste. Holy curiosity and holy joy impelled them. In our case, it is probably not very often that we make haste for the things of God. God does not feature among the things that require haste. The things of God can wait, we think and we say. And yet he is the most important thing, ultimately the one truly important thing. Why should we not also be moved by curiosity to see more closely and to know what God has said to us? At this hour, let us ask him to touch our hearts with the holy curiosity and the holy joy of the shepherds, and thus let us go over joyfully to Bethlehem, to the Lord who today once more comes to meet us. Amen.”

The reverence continued throughout the liturgy of the Eucharist. I even saw an old friend from Princeton University walk past me in line for communion and we quickly exchanged a quiet handshake and Merry Christmas. I also made new friends who stood in line with me outside for five hours–a family from Mexico and another from Denver. We exchanged warm embraces with the nuns from Brazil behind us, the Italians next to us, and the African-Americans in front of us.

The most moving part of the Mass for me was after everyone had received communion and returned to their seats, a peaceful quiet came over the basilica. Suddenly, trumpets blared announcing the birth of the Christ. After one minute of stunning trumpets, the Schola burst out singing:

 “Adeste, fideles, laeti triumphantes, venite, venite in Bethlehem, natum videte, regem angelorum. Venite adoremus, venite adoremus Dominum.” (O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Come ye, o come ye, to Bethlehem, come and behold him, born the king of angels; O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.)

YouTube Preview Image

The singing is so crystal clear that I would have sworn I heard a single boy’s  voice–just listen to the “venite adoremus” and tell me that doesn’t sound like just one single voice! But watching the performance of “Adeste, Fideles” on YouTube (which I’ve seen at least 10 times in the last 24 hours) I concluded that the entire boys’ choir is so perfectly united they sound like they are one voice. The men’s voices sound like the background chorus to the real stars.

When one of the nuns from Brazil behind me joined in her with own angelic voice singing “venite adoremus”, I then joined in with the crowed. We sang 4 verses in Latin (with the English translations in the booklet we got as we entered). Tears rolled down my face during this stunning musical performance, one that stimulates both active partcipation and deep contemplation of the mysteries contained in words like,

“En grege relicto, humiles ad cunas, vocati pastores adproperant, et nos ovanti, gradu festinemus. Venite adoremus, venite adoremus Dominum.” (See how the sheperds, summonded to his cradle, leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze; we too will thither bend our joyful footsteps; O come, let us adore him, O Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.)

The Swiss Guards proceeding out of St. Peter’s Basilica

The closing procession featured the unforgettable Swiss guards–who must have the most creative uniforms in the whole world, and “Il Bambino Gesu” (Baby

The Baby Jesus (with a crown) being carried to the Vatican Nativity scene

Jesus) being laid in the Vatican “crèche” (Nativity). At the end of the service, one nun from Brazil said, “People from every nation can sing Adeste Fideles!” But her words express a deeper sense I had on Christmas eve in Rome: despite our different languages and nationalities, the Catholic faithful joined together in one voice in prayer and song, and many moments of collective silence to welcome the birth of our Lord.

Although many other people do not share the Catholic or Christian faith, the peace Christians long for is a deep human longing most people share. Furthermore, ritual is a universal language–which is why nearly all religious communities have rituals and many secular events, such as national parades, are highly ritualistic. In the best of cases, rituals both elicit social solidarity and incite personal transformation. As sociologist Emile Durkheim pointed out long ago, the effects of rituals stay with us long after the ritual itself ends. When I feel personally weak or wonder how the world can overcome the encroaching darkness, I will recall the trumpet blast in St. Peter’s Basilica on Christmas Eve 2012 and my own hopeful singing “Venite adoremus Dominum!” and be taken back to that jubilant liturgy.

Lost (and Found) in Translation

Yesterday was an unusual Sunday for American Catholics, and reinforces the distinctive nature of worship in Catholic and Protestant Christianity. It was the long-anticipated introduction of the “new” Mass translation. It is, of course, a bit humorous to talk about “new” anything when referring to Catholic worship forms, but yesterday was a bona fide beginning as the 3rd edition of the Mass translation into English rolled out for mandatory use. Since the worldwide official language of the Mass is written down, in Latin, this is a big deal—bigger for priests than for parishioners, because the former have more speaking parts than the latter.

Many American Catholics have long ago memorized their lines, and even in one year’s time I pretty much had mine down. Except for the Nicene Creed, which—although I occasionally recited it in the Presbyterian and Reformed circles in which I ran—is sufficiently longer and more complicated than the Apostle’s Creed. My memorization skills, at age 40, are not what they were in college. If I’m remotely normal, then plenty of people will be using the pew cards for a long time to come.

I suspect memorized worship lines are a curiosity to evangelicals, among whom spontaneity retains not only psychological appeal but also religious appeal. [Read more...]


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