The God I imagined looked sort of like Albert Brooks, but with a beard. We all know how holy beards are.
After three days at the monastery, I expected this bearded comedian to wander in the room and say, “Everything going okay? Can I get you anything?” When God talk is constant and enveloping, when Biblical images and stories are in constant rotation in your environment, God goes from being a bit part to a main character in your life.
Here’s what did feel weird to me: a priest has to do the mass. At the monastery where I was, all female, all nuns, this seemed such a deliberate insult. All these women who have focused their whole lives on God aren’t good enough to bless a little bread and wine? I also felt weird about the singing to the virgin that ended morning prayer. They sang in Latin. It was lovely. But my Lutheran growing-up just snagged me there.
What didn’t feel weird at all: everyone at a monastery is praying, singing, reading. Doing do-gooder stuff, especially teaching. Making art– icons and other paintings, pottery. Keeping up the grounds, weeding and mowing and watering flowers. I spent three days sleeping, daydreaming, reading, singing, and praying. If they had a dance club there, I would have been in heaven. I slowed from 45 RPMs to maybe 10, walrus speed. I could watch the clouds, really watch them, and the birds in the preponderance of sky I had up on the hill, and think. The chanting of psalms, three or four times a day, two or three at a sitting, burrows into your mind and pulses there, sort of like a great pop song, but more soothing.
The sisters I visited are Benedictine, so their religious practice is living together, praying together, working together. I didn’t meet a single sister who had lived there less than ten years. I met several who had been there more than forty. And a couple getting to ready to celebrate their jubilee– fifty years as a nun. Most of them have worked, or do work, as teachers.
They aren’t so much on the self-denial, although they are plainly dressed. The most popular car for nuns: Geo Prizm. A few wear the hair cover thing with the cute white headband. Only a handful wore habits, and several of those women were visiting from a monastery in Tanzania. I realized immediately my cute t-shirts and high heels felt wrong. I stuck with the plainest things I brought, and no makeup, braiding my hair just to get it out of the way. When in Rome….
It also was great to be in such feminist company. They might not call themselves that, but nuns are, as a group, the most educated, self-developed, socially conscious people you will meet. I”d say statements like Paul’s about there being neither slave nor free, neither male nor female in Christ, was the seed of feminism. Whatever you think of that, Benedictines are quite democratic. They vote for their leadership. And in their main chapel, which was built during the Depression, all the stained glass windows show women. They pray for inmates who are executed, and the abolition of the death penalty.
It didn’t feel weird to be with the sisters. I feel odd about calling priests “Father.” I have a father, and I never call him that. I do have four sisters, though. They drive me crazy at times, and I pal around with them, just like the nuns do. No one uses the word “nun” there, it is always sisters. “Are you a sister?” Another visitor asked me during my last meal there. No, but I have sisters, so I get it. We hold arms while we’re walking and tell stories about a long time ago. We argue like tigers when we do. We are cut from the same cloth, and we like to be together.