Monasteries of the Heart

Little Blog for Beginners: Some More Thoughts

I've been taking a course on medieval monastic history this semester, and I've learned so much from it. There are a ton of names and dates to remember, of course, but the professor also brings a lot of storytelling into his lectures and finds a way to make it more "human interest" than some history classes would be. Early on in the semester, he was explaining to us that the great, opulent monastery of Cluny used to provide dinners to the local peasants, and that records show that on an average night, they would serve 200 sides of bacon to their neighbors. 

Two hundred meals--that's about what our Emmaus Soup Kitchen averages on a given night today, too. Kind of gave me goosebumps.

A thousand years and four thousand miles apart, the monks of Cluny and the monks of Erie, PA, set out a good dinner night after night for two hundred people. There's something kind of moving about it--the thought that we're just taking our place in this long history of the Christian response to suffering--and something kind of disgusting, too. I guess Jesus was right when he observed, "The poor you will have with you always." A global superpower in the twenty-first century doesn't provide for its people much better than feudal medieval France. 

I don't know; when Jesus made that remark I don't think he meant that that's the way it ought to be.

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When I wrote my last blog post, I said something like, "The world keeps turning without Mary Lou," and when I re-read that today, I almost laughed. I wrote that less than 24 hours after she'd died; I guess I was in shock that the sun had set and risen without her. But now it's been almost three months of the regular daily life unfolding, without her input or advice or reactions. 

Actually, I think I'm still in shock. 

I have been so spoiled by fate that at thirty years old, this is the first major death in my world, and I'm making my way through the grief without much of a road map. For the first couple months, I was mostly just terribly sad about the fact that she died when she wanted to live––sad whenever I thought of the things she can't do anymore, the ideas she had that don't get to be expressed anymore, the food and poetry she doesn't get to experience––and then, on top of that, I was really sad for everyone else who was mourning her.

It's really only in the last two weeks or so that I've started to miss her and be sad for myself.

A few days ago, I was sitting on the floor of her office, like I always used to, before she got sick, when I'd go in in the afternoon and we'd talk for a long time, me cross-legged or kneeling, her in her desk chair. I was looking through her bookshelf, trying to choose a poem for the Vision and Viewpoint newsletter, and just on a whim I opened Tales from a Magic Monastery, which we both loved. Between two of the stories, there was a ripped-out page from the October 2017 Give Us This Day missalette, serving as a bookmark. It was all folded up, and when I opened it, I saw that it was one of those short saint bios that she loved so much. She'd underlined a few phrases about the saint and written my name in the margin. Had she meant to give it to me and forgotten about it? Did she give it to me, and I'm the one who's forgotten about it in the 6 years since then? 

Mystified and a little shaken, I showed a couple of friends. They thought I'd take it as a gift, a sign of her presence, and if I were a more grateful, trusting person, I'm sure that's how I'd experience it. But honestly, all I felt was her absence: I can't ask her about it. And the words that she underlined with me in mind... well, I don't think anybody else on this earth would associate those good qualities with me. She was always a little more blind to my faults than most people are.

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Last weekend, my goddaughters asked me to take them to the ice skating rink for the afternoon. I was happy to be the chauffeur, but I hadn't been skating since I was a little kid, and since then I've sprained both of my ankles about forty-hundred times, so I had no intention of joining them on the ice.

The youngest girl––no longer the chunky-cheeked five year old I met when I first came to Erie, but a 13 year old with braces on her teeth and friendship bracelets up and down her arms––hadn't ever been ice skating before, and she was not exactly a natural. The others were off, gracefully gliding along, and she was clinging to the side of the wall with not one but both her hands, barely inching along, wide-eyed and grimacing. I stayed on the other side of the glass, shouting a few words of encouragement, and as she inched around the perimeter, I kept pace with her, giving insincere but enthusiastic thumbs ups through the window and yelling, "You can do it!" every time she looked at me. 

Well, she made it around the rink probably two or three times, never getting the hang of it but never falling either, and every time she came back to the doorway off of the ice I'd tell her, "You've got to take your left hand off the wall and use it to help you balance and push yourself along!"

She was gracious enough not to point out that I was talking a big game for someone who was too scared to try it myself. But after we went through this routine a few times, and she was once again back at the entrance, wavering about whether to go again or to get back on solid ground, she said, "I wish you were out here, too."

I said, "Girl, I would be no help to you. I don't know how to skate and I'd probably be knocking you down with me!"

She said, "I know! But if you came onto the ice, at least we'd be scared together."

Did you ever hear anything so sweet? It's like a real life version of the Zen story that goes:

One day, Chao-Chou fell down in the snow. "Help me!" Help me!"
A monk came and laid down beside him.
Chao-Chou got up and walked away.

In fact, it really is like that story, because I caved in, and went and rented a set of skates of my own, and I ventured out on the ice with shaky knees, and––no surprise––made exactly the same mistake she made, clinging to the wall with both hands and leaning forward instead of standing up tall. Her older sister came over to hold my hand (easier to be compassionate to a pathetic-looking adult than to your little sister, I suppose) and guided me through one lap around the rink, enough to say I did it.

Meanwhile, as I was sweating and trembling and hyperventilating, the little one found her legs. I got off the ice and nearly kissed the ground in relief to not have broken an ankle, just as she was finally letting go of the wall entirely, making her way into the center of the rink and experimenting with different kinds of strides. She was so beautiful.

I was not any help to her, really, but something about me getting on the ice made her a little braver.

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I guess what I want to say is, thank God we have one another.

To feed each other.

To see the best in each other, even if only for a little while.

To remember each other with love. 

To guide each other around the ice rink.

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A blog by Jacqueline Sanchez-Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and a scholastic in the initial monastic formation process. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.