After Vespers this evening, a Sister came to tell me about a leak in the ceiling of the sacristy. A quick peek revealed two bulging ceiling tiles and a slow drip that I knew was a harbinger of a potential gush. It’s the season of condensation on A/C conduits housed in the ceiling, and with no recent rain, I knew that’s what the problem had to be.
I went on to supper – in silence since we are on retreat this week – and contemplated my next move, which I knew would have to include a Sister more mechanically adept than I. While I silently ate my dinner and contemplated saturated ceiling tiles, another Sister came to whisper to me about a broken A/C unit in a building for which I am responsible. I kept eating, now contemplating two sets of moves, because when it comes to mechanical things, I am better at contemplating moves than actually making them.
What to do? I wasn’t sure. So I kept eating. And contemplating. Meanwhile, a Sister more mechanically adept than I, seeing my contemplative stance in the face of necessary action, took a stroll over to the building with the broken unit and made a quick fix of a simple problem, one that perhaps even I could have repaired had I contemplated the possibility of something so simple.
Then, with dinner over, we verified the repair together and then headed toward the sacristy with trash bags, plastic garbage cans, good intentions, and high aspirations. But as we carefully removed ceiling tiles, our best attempts to control the inevitable rush failed. Water sprayed everywhere and wet tiles fell messily into our arms.
All of this happened between the conclusion of dinner and the beginning of our Reconciliation Service, held as part of our retreat. I was responsible for greeting arriving priests so did not have time to change clothes. Yet there is perhaps no better way to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation than with evidence of failure clearly visible – in my case, a swath of fiberboard residue smeared across my shirt.
In monastic community, we come to know each other well. We know each other’s weaknesses and strengths. My Sisters know that I am not particularly adept with anything mechanical. They know that what might appear to be contemplation might just be utter perplexity about what to do, and so they pick up the pieces and save the day. But in turn, I know that utter perplexity is no cause for inaction. My job is to get up and try, even if it involves failure, or perhaps a big mess.
In our retreat conferences, we have been hearing about giving our all to our monastic commitment, about not holding back, about engaging fully in the ‘meat and potatoes’ of everyday life in monastic community. The routine events of life – the ‘daily,’ as we call it – are vitally important to a monastic because it is through them that we come to holiness. We get up and try. Perhaps we fail. We pick each other up. We begin again.
During our Reconciliation service, I made my confession, my shirt smeared with failure. The priest’s words of absolution washed over me, their musical cadence like a flowing rush of living water, like a benediction, like a blessing. Returning to my seat at the rear of the chapel, I saw my Sisters arrayed before me in the pews. We daily see each other’s failure. We daily see each other’s beauty. Part of this beauty is the compassion with which we greet one another’s normal human failings, helping each other in our perplexity, weakness and pain, as together we journey to God, as daily we begin again. The compassion falls like a gentle spring rain. Musically. Beautifully. Like a benediction. Like a blessing.
Postscript: Each year, our community pauses our usual ministries to take time out for a week-long retreat. Our meals are in silence. Our pace is quiet. Our steps are unhurried. It is a week of spiritual rest, refreshment, and more sustained time for prayer. This year, Sister Karen Joseph, of Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, IN, is leading our retreat conferences. She is offering to us some wonderful food for reflection based upon the Rule of St. Benedict and the wisdom she has gleaned from her many years of living this life. Her wisdom has been a blessing!