Photo credit to en.wikipedia.org
by Sister Edith Bogue, O.S.B.
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Do the Sisters get to go home for Christmas? Or... are you stuck here?
He stopped, "stuck here" hanging between us. I was not insulted: people don't understand life in a monastic community. How could they? Before coming to St. Scholastica, few had encountered a monastery. Most of the stereotypes for monastics (monks) are negative. Or unprintable.
My questioner asked out loud a question that I've seen on the faces of my colleagues and students. Isn't it lonely or sad for Sisters without presents under the tree, a loved one at our side, and children's happy faces? Cynics note that Sisters don't referee squabbles over who plays the new game first, decipher sketchy instructions to assemble a new gadget, keep our Tea Party uncle separated from our Occupy cousins, or stand in long lines to exchange something for the right color / size / style. They miss the central question: Can there really be a happy Christmas at the monastery?
Yes. Every year. Deep and beautiful, sparkling and busy, reverent and playful. We enjoy dozens of guests, gatherings "just for the Sisters" and time spent with one or two close friends. In times of silent prayer and contemplation, the peace of the Christmas season steeps into our bones.
"Don't you miss the excitement of doing things together - putting up the tree, decorating the house?" But we DO all those things, and do them together. Teams of sisters decorate trees in our dining room and parlors, and more trees inside our monastic enclosure. We share Christmas decorations all over, and enjoy table decorations made by sisters now in Gethsemane Cemetery. Some plan for a party after the Christmas Eve Mass (you're invited). Others host our big Christmas dinner. Someone is choosing the movie for us to watch together as a monastic family on Christmas night.
"Do you open presents?" I quickly do the math. If each of 95 sisters gave just a dollar-store item to every other sister, we'd need 8,930 gifts. With tax and wrapping paper, it would cost over $10,000. "No," I said, "not individually but collectively. St Nicholas leaves a bag of candy and fruit at each Sister's door on December 6, and on Christmas, the community gives each sister a little spare cash to enjoy in the holidays." He looked dubious. "For the Sisters," I said, "gifts are not so important."
"I know," he said, "It's about the baby Jesus, but the songs are so dorky..." I can't blame him: I dread the plodding Drummer Boy and maudlin Frosty, and it's hard to relate to the plaster babe in the crib.
"Actually," I said, "It's about surprises. In Advent, we prepare our hearts to welcome God - but we really don't know what to expect." He looked perplexed. "The first Christmas was a huge surprise: who expected God to arrive personally, as a baby born into a poor family in an occupied country? After that, imagine the surprising ways we might meet God today. That's why," I continued, "St. Benedict tells us to welcome guests, the young, the elderly - everyone - as Christ. They often are."
"We don't go home for Christmas," I continued, "we are home. We already have the gift we most desire: to be part of a community that is always on the lookout for God's unexpected presence." He smiled. "That's our prayer for the St Scholastica family, too - that everyone encounter God's surprising love this holiday season." May it be so for you.