“Prefer nothing whatsoever to the Work of God” (RB 43:3), Benedict insists. But what happens when your ceiling springs a leak?
Coming up the stairs on Sunday morning, I took in the scene. It was a disaster. Overnight, water had poured from a leak in the monastery ceiling. Soggy pieces of plaster and water sluiced onto the floor, mere steps from where worship was scheduled to begin in less than an hour. Everyone seemed to spring into action at once, grabbing buckets and mops and towels to avert the worst of the damage while others figured out how to shut down the water at its source. Knowing that the bamboo floors would warp with moisture, we got down on hands and knees in our Sunday best, moving urgently.
As the hour tolled for Sunday Assembly to begin, Sister Mary David Walgenbach quietly said to us, “It is time to go inside.” I was stunned. The ceiling was hemorrhaging, the paint on the walls bubbled and the floors were slick with damaging moisture. How could we stop? “But,” I sputtered lamely, “It feels like we’re giving up.” Brooking no protest, Sister Joanne Kollasch soon emerged, ringing a bell that she had retrieved from her office to lead the way. Like sheep we trailed after her—leaving towels and buckets, and debris behind. As the doors of the assembly room closed, I forced myself to focus. Sister Lynne Smith, who only moments before had been right beside me with towel and bucket, had donned her robes in her role as presider. With a start, I remembered that she was not only presiding that Sunday but was preaching the homily. Yikes. As the service began, the urgent worries of the outside world faded from view and all hearts turned to prayer—led in no small part by the example of the sisters. Part of the monastery’s ceiling was falling apart, but these women were quieted, centered and ready for the Work of God. What was going on here?
Afterward, I pondered what I had just witnessed. In a world where the “tyranny of the urgent” often takes precedence over prayer, these sisters appeared to be modeling a different way. They were not swept by the same tide of calamity that I was nearly carried out on. What I understood to be a disaster that required immediate attention did not unduly faze them. Instead, they responded evenly, calmly, offering a perspective cultivated by years of adherence to a monastic pattern of prayer. Was this kind of steady leadership the fruit of Benedictine spirituality lived out over time?
An hour later, when I emerged from the service, there was still water on the floor and some of the damage to the building was irreversible. But I was changed. And it is a conversion that I still meditate upon.
It is not easy to make time for prayer, for the slow “Work of God”—particularly when the sky seems to be falling. It takes focus and discipline. In Wisdom Distilled for the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today, Joan Chittister is ruthlessly truthful: “The hard fact is that nobody finds time for prayer. The time must be taken. There will always be something more pressing to do, something more important to be about than the apparently fruitless, empty act of prayer.”
But it is the perspective of regular prayer which makes us able to keep our heads in troubled times and join the Psalmist in saying:
Therefore we will not fear when earthquakes come
and the mountains crumble into the sea,
though the oceans roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble and the waters surge. (Ps 46:2-3).
It is a perspective that continues to hold me here in wonder.
Follow this link to read Rosy’s earlier posts: Living in Community – A Benedictine Sojourner’s Journey