Erie, Pennsylvania — From May 9 to July 15, I lived, worked, and prayed with the Benedictine Sisters of Erie while participating in an internship with Sr. Joan Chittister.
Spending time with the sisters helped me realize the things I deeply desire in my own life. I am attracted to the sisters' practices of prayer, reflection, balance and stability while living in intentional community, and as I participated in these practices in Erie, I came to recognize my longing to live a life of passion, joy, love and purpose.
In the past few years, I have developed wonderful friendships that are often based on similar spiritual beliefs and a hope to work toward social justice. What I've struggled with, however, is the physical distance of these relationships.
My friends and I have moved multiple times and to cities all over the country. Our friendships, which were once grown in community with physical proximity and similar interests, are now changing with distance and newness. This has been difficult because I crave intimate and meaningful long-term relationships.
Because of that, the friendships — some of which span decades — shared by some sisters in this community have had a profound impact on me. One sister told me that her relationships are meaningful because they develop and grow when people of similar mindsets come together to do ministry or to build the kingdom of God. No one person can do all the work needed alone, she said; together, their ministries can bring about justice and peace.
I agree. I don't want to do ministry alone, either. Yet I worry about keeping relationships outside of physical proximity and stability.
I have found hope in stability while looking at the Erie Benedictine sisters' commitment to their community. Over time, the needs of Erie, Pennsylvania, have changed. When the sisters first arrived, they focused on providing education for the children of the German immigrants. But, like in many industrial cities, the population changed. The German immigrants of the early 20th century moved to the suburbs, and nonwhite immigrants and those who live in poverty ventured into town.
The sisters' original ministry of educating immigrant children is no longer mandatory, so the Benedictine sisters have altered their work to address the communities many needs today. They run a soup kitchen and food pantry, a free neighborhood art house for children, and an adult education center for refugees, and they have expanded their retreat and hospitality services.
I am impressed when the sisters speak of their relationships within the wider Erie community. As a permanent community in the Erie area, the Benedictines have developed relationships with people, businesses, nonprofits and the government over the years. The sisters are an established and trusted group within the society.
My friends and I are not necessarily in stable jobs or living situations. Yet the stability of the sisters seems to extend beyond their physical location. The sisters are stable in part because their monastic tradition is based upon an intentionally communal prayerful lifestyle. Their gathering to pray at least twice a day, following the practice of the daily office, brings them together in body and spirit.
This makes me wonder, then, with my ever-moving physical locations in order to try new things and seek out my vocation, what might it look like for me to become stable, to become an established and trusted member of society?
Before this internship, I ministered full-time and too often struggled to find time to read Scripture and reflect. I was constantly running from one thing to the next, rarely taking time to sit down and breathe. But I felt like I was missing something important, like my ministry was empty without some sort of daily intentional prayer.
The experience of living and praying with the sisters has reinforced in me the deep longing (the necessity, even) to live intentionally, with time dedicated each day to some sort of prayerful act, whether it be going for a walk outside, reading an interesting poem, or journaling.
Likewise, I am coming to recognize that taking time to reflect regularly adds to the ordinariness of my daily life. The sisters have an annual retreat in which they stop all their other work to reflect in silence. Some (mostly the postulants and novices) also have weekly reflection days in which they are encouraged to read, write, be in conversation with others, and catch up on rest. What a great practice this is!
Too often, I find myself caught up in something that doesn't really matter (for example, checking Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to waste time). With the sisters, though, the general focus on spiritual reflection provided me with the courage to change my practices and instead focus on setting aside time to reflect, write, engage in meaningful conversation, and be in silence.
This time of intentional slowing down has already impacted me in a few ways. I am less exhausted when I take time to reflect, and I find the ordinary in my day so much more delightful when I take time to ponder the originality of each moment.
These practices of intentional prayer and intentional reflection are affirming my hope to find a healthy life balance. The monastic sisters here live a scheduled day, for the most part: rise, communal prayer, work, rest/play (holy leisure), lectio, communal prayer, dinner, rest.
When I first arrived, this schedule felt limiting. Why couldn't I eat when I was supposed to rest and rest while I was supposed to eat? But quickly, I found the benefit of living this schedule. Not only did my body enter into these rhythms, but I also began to enjoy the balance of work and relaxation, of prayer and reflection. With this schedule, I am more influenced to spend my time in ways that are meaningful and purposeful.
Now that I have left the monastery, I'm challenged to develop a new schedule for myself that allows for this work-play-rest balance. I know it will look different than the schedule I kept with the sisters, yet I hope it will still incorporate time for prayer, reflection, communal gathering, and alone silent time.
The first step: Jacqueline Small, Sister Joan's intern last year, and I recently created "Seekers and Discerners," an online gathering space to bring together thinking women participating in some sort of ministry and/or attending a divinity school. This online monastery will provide space for young women in the Catholic church to pray, grow with, question together, and support one another in a church that too often ignores or silences their voices.
I'm not sure what lies ahead, but I do now know my inner longings. And I am thankful to these sisters for teaching me such beautiful ways of being, not only in their words, but also in their examples.
[Breanna Mekuly was Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister's intern from May 9 to July 15, 2016. She has a master's degree in theological studies and an emphasis in biomedical ethics from Vanderbilt Divinity School in 2014.]
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