We’ve got two sets of tomato plants going strong out in the back yard. One set is planted the old-fashioned way – in the ground. Another set is planted upside down in what look to me like flowering missiles stranded in mid-air. Sr. Bernadette planted the first set out in our little vegetable patch, and Sr. Eileen followed with a small fleet of airborne seedlings dangling from the frame of an old well.
One of the interesting things about living in community is the wonderful variety when it comes to the non-essentials – such as recreational gardening methods – and the unity when it comes to the essentials. It’s kind of like a cheerful blend of accents and inflections – tomatoes and tomahtoes – that merge into a single voice as we gather for liturgical prayer, meals, communal recreation, and other essential aspects of vowed life in monastic community.
St. Benedict recognized the variety of temperaments in a monastery, going so far as to exhort the Prioress to “accommodate and adapt” herself to this diversity as she engages in the care of souls and leadership of the community. Yet the assortment of personalities and preferences by no means creates a “do your own thing” environment. The Rule calls us not only to obedience, but also to constant awareness of and preference for the needs of others, and that sometimes means moderating our accent, transcending our natural temperament, or curbing our preferences in service to the monastic community, to the Church, and to God.
The community envisioned by Benedict is one in which Sr. Bernadette can plant her ‘tomatoes’ right-side-up while Sr. Eileen plants her ‘tomahtoes’ up-side-down. Yet it is also a community in which each of us is often called to turn ourselves upside down in service to one another. I can’t tell you the countless times I’ve seen both Sr. Bernadette and Sr. Eileen do exactly that.
Postscript: Sr. Bernadette is our Sub-Prioress, and also serves tirelessly as our Infirmarian. Sr. Eileen is a Family Practice physician and is often called upon to assist with Community medical questions and needs. It’s no exaggeration to say that the times are countless in which they’ve turned themselves upside down in order to help turn someone else right side up!