As strikes on Syria are being considered, drones debated, fracking practices questioned, global markets rising and falling like tides, I consider a summer road trip of a thousand miles.
In July, I help drive across three states and into a fourth to watch my friend Judith Valente interview Sister Joan Chittister for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, an interview which aired recently. I've read Joan Chittister books for years, admired her courage and tenacity. My friend Judith has spent the past few years writing about Benedictine spirituality, authoring a new book about Benedictine sisters in Kansas, Atchison Blue, along with another book out this year, The Art of Pausing: Meditations for the Overworked and Overwhelmed.
We were going to get up early, drive nine hours across the Midwest, through countless tollbooths, to stay at a Benedictine monastery, and to get a glimpse of the daily work of the prophetic Joan Chittister. I jumped at the chance.
We arrive in Erie, Pennsylvania in time to have dinner with Sister Joan and Sister Maureen, her assistant. They don't live in the monastery, but have stayed in the inner city, in a changing neighborhood, replete with drug houses, where you can catch the scent of weed in the air if you're driving around very long. Erie is the city of Sister Joan's youth, and during dinner she tells us about adventures fishing along the shores of Lake Erie with her father. Erie is her hometown, and she and the other sisters have taken a "vow of stability" to remain here, come what may. We also talk jet lag. Sister Joan has recently returned from Bhutan, as a founding member of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations. Turns out, Erie has a growing Bhutanese refugee population.
Sister Joan and the other sisters exemplify the adage, "think globally, act locally;" they do both, well. The Rule of St. Benedict (RB) says, "Let him who is received promise in the oratory, in the presence of all, before God and His saints, stability, the conversion of morals, and obedience" (RB, 58, 1-24). These three vows: stability, conversion of life, and obedience, ground this monastic tradition. Sister Joan balances this vow of stability with engagement in the wider world.
We spend the night in the monastery, and at 6:30 in the morning, I pray morning prayers next to Sister Judy, a woman who has been a foster mother to 30 babies. She tells me how she kept a journal for each of the babies, and recorded every day the new things the babies learned. I think of the line in Psalm 139, "In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed." Judy says the other sisters were generous and kind to the babies she fostered. She, for one, with her vow of stability, helped 30 children get a loving start in life, anchored in her care, and in the care of this wider community of women.
In the afternoon, we get to witness the dedication of a new community garden, part of a wider ministry. Everywhere we go in Erie, the people know about the work of the Sisters: feeding the homeless, helping immigrants, providing an art center for children, doing hospice work, encouraging creativity in their own community, and the list continues. I'm deeply moved by the influence they have on their community, and by their compassion.
I reflect upon Sister Joan's amazing leadership, then consider my own road. Twenty-two years ago, not long after I was ordained to ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I was in tears. At a regional meeting, a clergywoman mentor of mine was demitting from ordained ministry, taking herself out of the ordained ministry. She was demitting in part because she was "geographically bound," a term the church uses to describe a minister who will spend her/his ministry in one location. She warned me, "As a geographically-bound clergy, you're going to have to be very creative. You're going to have to come up with some very creative ministries to stay in the same location for the life of your ministry."
At that meeting, my mentor took me aside and said, "What I'm doing today, you are not allowed to do. Do not follow my example."
She then handed me the cross she had worn while leading worship services.
I have not forgotten that day, nor the days in which my clergywomen friends, women in my region who became like sisters, moved away, five in one year. They called me "George Bailey," the one who stayed back, while they left town. I became involved with projects in Brazil, parts of Africa, China, and Haiti, usually traveling to those countries with this work. The term "geographically bound," while used for me and my ministry, no longer applied. Yes, I stayed in one location, and yes, my ministry was also far afield. Not that a ministry is ever just "ours."
Yet, it isn't until meeting the Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania this summer, that I fully embrace my own "vow of stability," towards this community in which I find myself, in which I make breakfasts for countless teenagers at my house, in which I can't go anywhere without knowing someone. I am thankful to the Benedictines for helping me to see and embrace this as a positive thing.
Now the grounded Sisters of Erie are starting a new ministry, global in nature. It's called "Monasteries of the Heart," it's "a monastic movement for lay people designed to respond to the great hunger and thirst for spirituality that exists in today's world," creating community via the web, without geographical constraints. Fascinating connections have already been made with those engaged in Monasteries of the Heart. When I wear the cross my mentor gave me, it gives me pause. I entered a ministry she was stepping out of. She'd been right, we have to think creatively in ministry, if we are geographically bound, but also if we are free to move about the world. The Sisters of Erie reminded me there's room for local and global, and that staying put can be a good thing, even a revolutionary thing, and they are witnesses to it.