“Service is about mutuality,” said the beautiful, bright-eyed, round-faced woman. “You can’t help anyone else unless you put yourself on their level.”
I’d heard the same sentiment voiced by many people who are in the business of helping others. It’s true, but it’s much easier to say than to do.
What struck me about this woman’s remark was the simple joy with which she said it. She wasn’t lecturing, just stating fact: Everyone knows we’re all the same, broken or whole, homeless or housed. That’s what makes the work so meaningful.
She had reason to know what she was talking about. She was a nun.
Our encounter occurred during a weekend that Jeff and I spent recently at a Benedictine monastery. I’m not going to mention the monastery’s name or location, because I didn’t go into the weekend intending to write anything about the experience, and I don’t want to betray the graciousness with which the 30 or so nuns received us.
But I can tell you about their selflessness, and what it felt like to be immersed in a weekend of prayer and meditation.
I am not Catholic. Enough said. From the first months of my investigation into selfless service, though, I have been impressed by the Catholic model—the efficiency, yes, but also the love and unbelievable patience the staff members, volunteers, and clergy bring to their work. Watching them interact with the poor and especially the homeless, I have been amazed by their endurance and capacity for tending to others’ needs before their own.
This is one reason I was so enthusiastic when my cousin and her husband suggested we go on retreat to this particular monastery, which he knew well. Before she died in 2014, his aunt had been a sister there. During our stay we would be able to talk with nuns about their work and their lives.
As a teenager I found the notion of becoming a nun highly intriguing—not for me, of course; I was too interested in boys. But I could imagine being so broken-hearted by love that I might forsake all else for a life of meditation, prayer, and good works. How romantic! I believe these thoughts coincided with my reading Henry James’ novel The American, which ends with the narrator’s great love suddenly taking vows and entering a cloistered convent, where she will live forever out of his reach.
What kind of young woman took such a radical step in real life? To do so meant vowing utmost obedience to the church hierarchy—something that gives me the shivers even now. How has it worked out for them?
Beautifully, it turns out. These were intelligent, engaging, gutsy women who worked outside the monastery as teachers, counselors, and staff members in a transitional housing program for the poor. They’ve had fulfilling careers. They wear street clothes, not habits.
Most of them entered the sisterhood at young ages, 18 to 21. But a number had taken vows in their 30s or later, some after a devastating loss, such as the death of a child.
They met for prayer three times a day, short, heartfelt sessions with scripted verses and songs. I found myself looking forward to those interludes. The sisters cooked and cleaned and tended the monastery’s lovely grounds. In hot weather they splashed around in the swimming pool. Nuns in bathing suits: Who would have thought?
As we chatted and joked and heard their stories, I felt myself drawn into their circle of love. Exploring the grounds and the gardens, I felt a peace and deep restfulness settle over me. Walking the brick labyrinth, saying a simple prayer, my mind fell still.
And I knew: In a life where they are called on to forget themselves, these women have reached a level of service that I, in my secular world, may never attain. Each day they must quiet their egos and rededicate themselves to God. There is no room for argument. They must simply give, and give, and give.
My most profound moment in a weekend of beautiful moments came in an afternoon when I found myself alone, seated in what was once a grain silo but served now as a place of meditation. It was open at the top; a circle of blue sky hung above the curving, whitewashed walls. The floor was paved with gray bricks arranged in concentric circles. Cool green mosses grew between them. A narrow panel of stained glass had been set into the east wall; it stretched from the doorway thirty or more feet to the top. As I gazed upward, the sunlit walls curling around my vision, I could suddenly imagine what it would be like to die, or be born: a smooth white tunnel, leading up and up to great beauty.
I will go back. I look forward to it. I’ve even written a note on my calendar for next year: Get thee to a nunnery. Until then I will wrestle with myself to do what the nuns do by nature and vocation: live simply, without ego, and love fully.