About ten years ago, I joined a writers’ group. One rainy night in 2002, I sat in a cozy, wood-paneled living room with seven other women and talked about writing. I liked the seriousness and camaraderie, the mutual respect and good humor, and I joined. Of that group that sat around the coffee table in 2002, only I remain. We’re eight again – a mutually agreed upon workable size for such a group. The new members have energy, insight, and opinions. Lots of opinions.
How much of my own control have I invested? How much do I (and the others who agree with me) need to dictate the terms of our meetings, the tenor of our discussion? I bristle at one newbie’s announcement that “we’ll always meet at my place.” Yeah, my neighborhood is notorious for lack of parking, but don’t we cede a bit of ownership when we give up serving on our own plates? Just how controlling AM I?
On Monday nights for a little more than a year, I’ve been attending a lay Benedictine group. We gather for prayer, a meal, and contemplation. Last week, during T’s reading aloud from Cassian’s Conferences, one member turned the pages of her binder. A quiet sound but one that – like the unwrapping of a lozenge in the row in front of you at the theater – grew increasingly distracting. Did she have to paw each page before turning it? How difficult was it to pick up a corner and lift it? Just what was she looking for, anyway?
I’ve never considered myself a joiner. On personality-type quizzes, I tick the box next to I am energized by solitude. Growing up, I avoided organized groups because they involved competitive sports or the adherence to some social protocol of which I alone was ignorant (or both). I joined a sorority in college after my parents insisted that I go through rush (otherwise, they feared, I’d spend four years in the library). But here I am, a willing member of groups. And the surprising thing is that, as different as they are one from the other, each presents the same challenge.
In the movie Of Gods and Men, one Trappist monk tells another to go fuck himself. It’s a surprising moment – monks swear! and in French! – and such a human one. We feel the younger man’s outrage and pain; we feel his elder’s hurt and bewilderment. Being in community doesn’t mean we always talk nice or even like one another.
I joined the Benedictine group to have more time for studying scripture and sitting in contemplation, and to get to know a certain guy better. I found those things, and these too: one of our members scrolls down his iPhone during silence; another turns her pages during table reading. Reader, I get annoyed.
A few Mondays ago, we read from Saint Benedict’s Rule: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, who said: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’ (Matt. 25:35).” And then, from Sister Joan Chittister’s commentary : “The message is clear: Come right in and disturb our perfect lives.”
Hospitality is key to Benedictine spirituality. Three hours once a week may be dipping a toe in deep, deep water – barely breaking the surface – and yet, like any regular practice, no matter the time involved, it informs our lives. Perfect and not-so.
Disturb away; this, too, feeds us.