The first time we met was in a southern Connecticut on a property tucked snugly along a meandering road. The driveway was a windy, rut-filled trail with the woods as sentinels on either side. At the end, or perhaps the beginning, there was s sun-filled expanse and a simply framed home surrounded by welcoming gardens. Her frame was tall and narrow; snow white, close cropped white hair framed a round face, and her blue eyes popped with mischief and a calm curiosity. She wore a plain brown dress with a white collar and one hand rested in a deep pocket while she fingered the three knots on her cord belt. Hospitality spilled from every word she spoke. For me, there was an irony in her kindness and her unequivocal warmth of welcome. She was, after all, a contemplative, a monastic, and she had chosen a life of living the Gospel in the fullness of the tradition of St. Clare. In my ignorance, warmth and hospitality were not expected at all. The demands of their life, I reasoned, placed limits on such things; it was an unexpected surprise that opened decades of conversation, learning and friendship. And it was the way I learned something about the pervasiveness of stereotypes, the power of narratives, and our human capacity to adapt.
From that initial contact, I realized that stereotypes are not confined to race, class, ethnicity or gender. They apply to religion, to the persons who practice faith, to those who minister, and to those who observe. More importantly, enclosed religious women invited me to see the rich personalities, the deep strengths and the simply human personalities that chracterize all humanity. The monasteries, I learned, are microcosms. Flaws and foibles were as visible as kindness, generosity, compassion and empathy. Above all, there was laughter. Enclosed religious women live and share humanity in simplicity and self-awareness, juggling emotional conflict and rational differences like everyone else. They taught me, a lifetime adventurer in the world outside their own, to see my own world daringly differently, and to trust in the strength of a shifting narrative.
Their narrative, rooted in the hills of Assisi and the centuries of evolution since then, has a startling clarity and an ourageous conviction. There is the palpable Franciscan charism wound through the vision of Clare of Assisi, for women called to lives of prayer and poverty, relying fully on God and gently nurturing one another. Striving to celebrate the presence of God in the world and one another, their individual stories are grafted to one branch of a bigger tree. And they live, thrive, in the sharing and re-telling. In that way, their story inspires others and the tree of stories grows deeper and more intricate roots even as the branches spring with newly born blooms and color. Here, the message, the narrative, derives a multi-layered complexity that mirrors the realities of human life. They steadily gaze into the mirror of eternity and practice the attentiveness to God in hours of prayer and are equally cognizant of the multiple and profound ways God is present to others living outside the monastery. Sharing and gathering stories refines each life; the perspective of the contemplative monastic, the narrative, bears crediblity. Their lives elevate the importance of story and narrative exactly because they live so far outside other stories.
Finally, theirs is not a life of stagnation but one rooted in acute attentiveness to the ebb and flow of life. Repect and trust are fundmental to the life and to the narrative. And for those of us living so distant from that contemplative monastic experience, respect and trust are more than equally necessary. When we first met, when we shared those initial conversations, I had no idea what sharing a story really meant. She taught me it is really about simply being human together; being attentive to the presence of God means being attentive to one another, to those who cross our paths. Kindness shows respect and trust builds over time. Warmth and hospitality on a hot summer day were just the unexpected prelude to a life-changing friendship. The narrative continues.