"F*ck dudesie." slipped from my lips...."
"Damn it I forgot I gave up swearing." bashfully trailed behind like Linus' tattered blanket. What a disheveled way to commence a day of rest at a Benedictine monastery. But my enthusiasm refused to be curbed by such minor inconveniences. Who needs a cup of perfectly brewed, well balanced coffee at pre-dawn anyway?
One hour and twenty minutes later I found myself in St. Joseph. The arms of dawn hadn't even stretched themselves yet, the town remain in peaceful dreams. To the right I could faintly make out the black iron gates of St. Benedict's Monastery, they were unlocked and opened wide to welcome in weary pilgrims. I was a pilgrim, but not your traditional pilgrim. Rather than trekking hundreds of miles for months over dusty terrain on my bare feet, I was cozied in a Mazda traveling 70 mph for a lousy 80 minutes (let the reader note the magnitude of my distress and recall that I was, in fact, up before dawn AND without coffee... ). Nonetheless, I was a pilgrim.
I was to meet Sister Cecelia at the front doors of the Gathering Place at 6:50 a.m. and from there we were to attend morning prayer together at the Oratory. Over the phone Sister Cecelia's voiced dripped with gentle beads of hospitality, so it surprised me none at all to see her small shadow framed by the towering doorway to the Gathering Place. I smiled to myself as she watched me walk to greet her... this was going to be a great day.
"This must be Ms. Brianna.", her voice was like that of a thousand heavenly saints. "Good morning Sister Cecelia. It's lovely to meet you." I whispered in response. Sister Cecelia stood at most, to my shoulders and looked up at me with bright smiling eyes. "We are so glad that you are here. Are you ready for prayer?"... Sister you have no idea...
We walked in silence to the Oratory to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours. I think I was expecting to see a barrages of black veils and turtlenecks (otherwise known as habits) because I was a little taken a back to see but a single sister adorned in the traditional habit. But her habit wasn't even black, it was all white. Sister Cecelia led me to the center of the pews and there we sat with dozens of faithful saints in complete silence. Each of the ladies looked identical. Short in stature, simple gray hair, no make-up, long skirts or slacks and beautifully aged hands worn by years of devoted service. Just then I was hit by a comical reality. What must I have looked like bouncing into this community? I towered over each of the sisters by a good six inches with my blue jeans, vibrant magenta shirt, sparkly flowered scarf and long blond curls. Why were the words; "Your beauty should not come from outward adornment such as braided hair and gold jewelry..." blinking like a gaudy fluorescent light outside a grungy tavern? Maybe I should have opted for a pony tail?
Morning prayer quietly ignited at 7:00 a.m. by the soft tune of a gong. It was a radiantly melodious display of humility, contrition and praise. In unison we sang through four Old Testament psalms and communally recited the Lord's Prayer. I aped the motions of Sister Cecelia in the traditional Catholic gestures I was so ignorant of.
After prayer we went to breakfast. What a treat! Just like at camp you grabbed a plastic tray, utensils and eased your way down the line of tasty choices. I laughed when I saw Fruity Pebbles and Corn Pops... nuns eat Corn Pops? I settled for oatmeal and a banana and, of course, a cup of coffee. All the while Sister Cecelia was describing each and every option I could choose from in great detail, encouraging me to take as much as my heart desired. Multiple times she asked me whether or not I wanted anything on my oatmeal. The first time I passed her offer, but the second time I said that I noticed there was a bowl of peanut butter and maybe I'd like some of that. She winked and we walked back up to the line for some pb. I figured I ought to expose my garbage and confess my ridiculous addition to peanut butter. She laughed and thought it was the craziest thing to put pb on your oatmeal. I'll save telling her of my other addictions, namely gum, for later.
Breakfast was filled with conversation, the exchanging of stories and an outlandish amount of joyful introductions. I met dozens of sisters (all who looked the same - so remembering names was completely out of the question) and listened adoringly at the way Sister Cecelia introduced me. "This is Brianna. She does photography and youth ministry and lived in California and now she is studying Theology and English at Bethel and wanted to join us for the day to see what we're all about. But when I talked with her on the phone and asked her if she wanted to visit for a day, a week or a month - she said all of those, but I'll start with just a day!". Yes, every person I met I soaked in the sweet disclaimer to my attendance. Sister Cecelia was as thrilled to have my company as I was to have hers.
We made our way through multiple clusters of Sisters and as they each slowly scattered from breakfast on to their morning services, we stopped at the last remaining group and shared in conversation for quite some time. This was my favorite group of ladies. They were spunky and eager to talk of adventures.
Sister Cecelia introduced me to another Sister, "Brianna this is Sister so and so... (Oy, the dauting task of recalling names!)... She is recovering from a broken ankle that she got when she was in Big Sur."
"That was God's way of knocking you on your ass!" Laughed another sister sitting across from me. The table exploded into laughter while I sat there with a dropped jaw and stunned ears. "Sisters swear?!!? Rad!" This made me feel so much better for the f-bomb I dropped in the car earlier!
After breakfast Sister Cecelia slipped yet another surprising nugget of a sister's un-characteristic routines by inviting me to hit up a 20-minute workout at the monastery's gym. This was an inside look I wasn't about to ignore so I grabbed the invitation with both hands and walked up the cloistered staircase with Sister to the tiny room that held 4 dodgey workout machines. Sister Cecelia picked up her book and fell into her familiar 20-minute routine on the stationary bike while I kicked off my heels and started up the treadmill. There we were. Sister Cecelia and I hanging out in the monastery workout facility - I defied the sketchy belt that flopped all over the treadmill while Sister grooved her legs to the rhythm of silence. Never would I have anticipated working out with a 70-something Sister!
Warming up our core body temp led us into a grand tour of the entire monastery. Sister Cecelia transformed into an over-enthused kindegartner proudly explaining their show and tell object in exaggerated detail. Every painting or work of art we passed by I was given the run-down of who created it, when they created it and how they created it. With every work of art Sister looked at it with gracious attentiveness that I was unable to resist the force of the intentionality by which she studied. This impecably focused tour actually spread through the remainder of the day. I was shown every room of the monastery, the spirituality center, the hermitages and the guest house. What captivated me the very most was the rich hospitality I saw in Sister Cecelia and every other tender spirit we encountered. The moment I entered the open gates of the monastery I knew that hospiatlity was going to be a prominant characteristic, I just never thought it would be so radiant, so contagious and so deeply authentic. It was truly lovely.
3:00 p.m came far too quickly and it was time for me to leave. The day completed itself with a tour of the guest house and it was there, with Sister Cecelia and Sister Rita, that I decided I had to re-visit, and not just for another afternoon, but for an overnight experience. Sister Cecelia wants to show me the artisan studio, the college's art department and lastly; because she knows how dearly I love writing and everything English, she wants to introduce me to yet another sister; Sister Mara Faulkner who apparently teaches in the English Department.... I told you the hospitality was amazing! My next visit will include more solitude and silence as well as a deeper look into the pillar by which St. Benedict's Monastery stands - Prayer/Community/Service.