Benedictine Bliss Blog, April 2014, by Sister Hannah Vanorny
I did not give up chocolate for Lent this year – or Facebook or Mountain Dew or caffeine – I gave up impatience. I have given up impatience for the last three Lents. Each year I get impatient with my own failure to be patient, and vow to do better the next Lent!
Patience with others is a very important quality to have when one lives in a monastic community with thirty-five other Sisters. Unfortunately it also one of the hardest qualities to maintain in community life.
My favorite chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict (besides the Prologue, which is pretty darn good) is Chapter 72, which talks about the good zeal of monastics. The chapter is basically a little treatise on how to get along in community – by not just spouting our Benedictine values, but actually living them out in our lives with one another. Here is one of the best lines: The Sisters should each try to be the first to show respect to the other, supporting with the greatest patience one another’s weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another.
This is not just a pretty line we read and say, “oh what a nice vision of community.” These words are a real challenge, one that we don’t always meet. Don’t get me wrong, we really do try to live out Chapter 72 of the Rule at our monastery. When I first met the Sisters, I was very moved by how caring and supportive they were to each other. I witnessed Sisters actually earnestly competing in obedience to one another and showing the greatest patience with each other’s shortcomings. Living in the monastery these past seven years, I have learned that love is the key to overcoming impatience. When people really love one another (like we do in community), they can put up with a lot of frustrating situations and irritating eccentricities!
I have a little story that demonstrates the support and patience we show for one another even when it is challenging. I told this story at Sister Ralphine’s wake service a few years ago. Sister Ralphine, who was already elderly when I first met her, was a living example of Chapter 72. She was kind and patient with others, and very faithful in coming to community prayer right up until her death. The whole community benefited from her great spirit. One day we were eating lunch and Sister Ralphine, out of the blue, said nonchalantly: “I’m just sitting here with my legs crossed.” The other Sisters at the table and I looked at each other in confusion; we all knew that it had probably been years since Sister Ralphine could cross her legs. She had been using a walker for some time and wore big heavy orthopedic shoes, but nobody wanted to contradict her…she just looked so proud! So, instead, we all said things like: “Wow, that’s great Sister Ralphine, good for you!” We thought that if indeed Sister Ralphine had lost her mind, we were going to keep supporting her with the greatest patience out of respect and love for her. As we were talking, another Sister and I peeked under the tablecloth, just to make sure a miracle hadn’t occurred…but no, Sister Ralphine was sitting like she always had, both legs planted firmly on the ground, clearly uncrossed. So I said (see I was new and hadn’t quite learned the delicacy of these situations): “Sister Ralphine, it doesn’t look like your legs are crossed.” Sister Ralphine responded by giving all of us a big grin and pointing to her plate of food, where she had two chicken legs crossed over one another. The joke was on us! Sister Ralphine was indeed sitting there with her legs crossed!
Although we strive to follow Chapter 72 in our monastery, it is not always perfect of course. But when we fail, we simply pick ourselves up and try again. When I am feeling impatient with another Sister and her “annoying” ways, I sometimes think of that incident with Sister Ralphine and the way we all patiently rallied around her in support and love. It inspires me to keep working on overcoming my impatience during this Lent. Please pray for me and keep your fingers (and legs!) crossed that I will succeed!