I brought many questions with me as I left New York to begin my 6-month stay as a Benedictine Sojourner. The main one: “Will this experience change me?” I desperately wanted to change, to grow and to live more fully.
Many things are different about life here. I no longer live alone, a chef cooks delicious gourmet meals twice a day, and I spend a good portion of my time on manual labor like working in the garden and washing dishes after dinner. However, none of this felt completely unfamiliar.
But one practice of the Benedictines that I had absolutely no experience with is the Liturgy of the Hours. As a non-denominational Protestant, I’d never experienced anything like it. At the heart of the morning, midday and evening services are choral reading and the singing of scripture—especially the psalms. I read Katherine Norris’s book, The Cloister Walk, in which she describes the way that praying the psalms works on a person’s soul. She expresses a richness of experience that develops into a kind of healing. I wondered if the psalms would have this effect on me and whether I would ever experience the words with the deep resonance she seemed to have felt.
I responded immediately to the sense of community that coming together for prayer brings. It amazed me that everyone stops what they are doing to show up for each other three times a day. But a meaningful experience of the actual text of the psalms was beyond me. They seemed either overly joyful or full of angry revenge. In addition, there’s a learning curve to singing the psalms that has kept them at a distance. You have to pay attention to when it’s your turn, read the musical notation as well as the words, and listen to those around you so as to stay in unison. With my limited vocal range and inexperience, half the time I hardly know what I’m singing. I read the words but made little connection with them.
Then one day I had an inkling of the power of the psalms. For several days I’d been preoccupied with the welfare of my two beloved cats that I left behind in New York in order to come here. Though I’d arranged for my sub-letters to take care of them, it wasn’t working out and I had to find a new caretaker from here, a thousand miles away. One of my cats has special needs and the other is excessively shy. I doubted whether I could find someone willing to care for them. I was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, sadness and anger that everything wasn’t going as planned. I worried about my cats’ welfare and on top of it all, I imagined how it might seem to others to be so distraught over one’s pets. I felt slightly embarrassed about my ‘excessive’ emotions.
In the midst of this, at midday prayer we sang Psalm 31. Some of the lines hit me hard.
Let there be justice; save me!
Help me! Listen! Be quick to the rescue!
You saw me suffer,
you know my pain.
Grief consumes my life,
sighs fill my days;
guilt saps my strength,
my bones dissolve.
Forgotten like the dead,
I am a shattered jar.
I couldn’t contain my tears. The words resonated in a way I hadn’t experienced. It felt like a balm on my soul to accept so fully, in the presence of community, the burden that was in my heart. The words didn’t seem excessive; they seemed right on.
That night as I agonized over what to do about my pets, there seemed to be no good solution. I tossed and turned in misery. Finally it dawned on me. This is precisely when the psalms are useful—in times of trial. I replayed the images I’d heard and surrendered to them. I added pleas for help. A calming feeling came over me. I still had my problem, but I also had an inkling of a new connection to God. I relaxed and drifted off to sleep.
Denise West grew up in Memphis and comes to us from her home in the Bronx. She taught elementary school for 15 years and is an active member of The Riverside Church, an interdenominational congregation in New York City.
Denise chose Far from home as the title for her blog post series, saying:
“I’ve come a long way to live at Holy Wisdom Monastery. My hope is that living in a community founded on God’s love will teach me new ways of being at home in the world.”
To read a post she wrote just before arriving at Holy Wisdom Monastery and to follow future posts, go to: Far from home.