Last night I went to the 50th Anniversary event for The Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Saint John’s Abbey. It made me think about the Benedictine virtue of Stability.
The room was full of wonderful people, many of whom I know. On the way in I met up with S. Michaela, the prioress of Saint Benedict’s Monastery, the women’s monastery where I was communications director from 2008-2012. One of my last acts was working on her installation as prioress. With her was S. Susan, the prioress elect, who will be installed in June. I said to her: “One night I was sitting next to you at an ESL training session and the next week you were elected prioress!” I asked her about her team, which will be announced soon. I have known her as a somewhat shy and quiet woman, but she was beaming!
I met a couple of new people, too. When I said my name was Susan Sink to a young editor at Liturgical Press, she said, “Oh! I know that name!” My work on The Saint John’s Bible continues on there. When I introduced myself to a woman at my table, who turned out to be the daughter-in-law of J.F. Powers, she said, “Oh! You’re a poet, right?” To be identified as a poet was really gratifying!
I was seated between two Benedictine monks, the music scholar Anthony Ruff, and the wonderful Hilary Thimmesh. In great Benedictine fashion, they gave two takes on a joke. Fr. Hilary said: “There was a farmer who won the lottery and received $10 million. When asked what he would do with the money, he said, ‘I’ll keep on farming until it’s all gone.'” To which Fr. Anthony said, “I thought you were going to say, ‘I’ll give a half million to each of my children.'” Both answers are rooted in this Central Minnesota (large German families) farming community.
The keynote speaker was Kathleen Norris. She told the story of her relationship with the Institute, particularly how it served as an ecumenical place, where Catholic and Protestant and Evangelical and Pentecostal and Mennonite scholars come together, each working on their own projects, and speak to each other of their faith, traditions, and theological positions. Into this environment was dropped Norris, working on her book Dakota, a Presbyterian drawn to Benedictine monasticism. She had trouble winning over the scholars, and recounted a discussion with a philosopher/theologian who said dismissively that all she did was “tell stories,” to which she replied, “What else is there?”
Her book Cloisterwalk, about her experience at the Institute, is what brought me here as a scholar in 2005-06. I often relate how full I was that year. Even though I was lonely a lot of the time, I was also completely engaged with ideas and writing and the people around me. I was in the company of giants and I knew it. Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, taught me so much about liturgy that year it transformed my relationship to my faith. (And I was her occasional bridge partner to boot.) After I read from my memoir about my experience as a teenager in an Assembly of God Church, the one evangelical in our group came up and said, “You did good, Susan.” That meant more to me than any other response.
I became an Oblate of this community, Saint John’s Abbey, and present at the ceremony, where I made my promise to live out the Benedictine Rule as closely as I was able in my layperson life, was Kilian McDonnell, OSB, 95 years old and the founder of the Institute 50 years ago. He was also at dinner but retired early. I tried my best the year my office was across from his at the Institute to convince him one could not find immortality through poetry (and that his legacy in ecumenicism and theology was immortality enough) but he continues to write it!
And stability. It is a major pillar of the Rule of St. Benedict. For the monks it means staying in one monastery, committing to community and place no matter how difficult that becomes. Loving one’s brothers or sisters and staying rooted.
When I had lived here two years or so, I was asked to write an essay on Stability for a book for Oblates. I also gave a talk to the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey on the subject. But I have to admit my heart fell when I received the topic. Before coming to this area, I had moved every two years (or more) my entire adult life. I had never been in a place longer than four years. I had never been committed to place. Also, I came here after a divorce– even my marriage had not proven stable enough to last more than five years.
I had to be creative, and so I found that the word “stability” only appears twice in the Bible, and only in the Old Testament. And it means “good rule.” The term only applies to stability of government– good rulers applying good rule. The story of the Israelites is not one of sustained stability. I also remembered that my friend, the scholar Dorothy Bass, who had been at the Institute with me, was trying to write a book about Christians embracing place and staying put, only to discover the New Testament was all about moving around, not staying put, never putting down roots! Jesus did not say “bloom where planted.”
But in the Quad last night, where the bricks were made by the monks in the 19th century, I had a glimpse of how my own stability has happened. Here I am. It has been twelve years! Here I am, full of stability (ha!), growing food and prairie plugs, raising chickens, living in a world of family that was not my own ten years ago– with adult children visiting and elderly in-laws to care for and in-laws on the farm.
I have been tutoring Somali women in English on Monday and Wednesday mornings and last week I drove them home after class. I asked if they wanted to see my home, and they did, so we drove to the farm. When I pointed out that my husband’s sister lives in one house and his brother in another they said, “That is good! That is very good! It is good you live with family!” They also thought it would be scary out here at night with the animals in the woods– like me before I came here, they are city people.
I have not stayed still since I arrived here. But I have stayed (or maybe become) rooted. What a blessing to be gifted with life in this place. What a blessing to have come here and what a blessing to have stayed.