My favorite place to sit in the monastery is the little cloister, where I can pray with the white oak at the heart of our grounds. This oak is nearly 300 years old. It had been growing in the same spot for over 100 years when our community first moved to this property, and we constructed our buildings around it. When what is now the guesthouse was the monastery and the only building in the complex, the high altar faced the oak. When we constructed the Middle House and St. Augustine’s Church in 1920, we built the new buildings so that they enclosed the oak on three sides and provided a space to meditate with it. I have yet to meet a visitor to the monastery who doesn’t immediately sense the spiritual power of this incredible tree.
As I have reflected on and prayed with our oak, I have taken to calling her the grandmother oak. I cannot help anthropomorphizing. Our oak reminds me very much of my grandmother: wise, stable, strong, flexible, beautiful in her age. Her very strength and stature provide sustenance for so much other life. The squirrels eat her acorns; moss grows on her gnarled limbs; and the swallows build nests in her leafy top. I have learned a great deal from this tree about what it means to be stable in a monastic community and a Christian life. Grandmother oak has also helped me lately with my grief.
On Christmas Eve last year my grandmother died. The timing of her death was poignant and appropriate. As the world waited in vigil for the birth of Jesus, I waited in vigil by my grandmother’s bed for her rebirth and homecoming. My grandmother, who had been a powerful force for good in my life, was returning to her God, her 85 years’ labor over.
She was a woman of quiet faith. I asked her about a year before she died if she prayed. She looked at me like I’d asked the dumbest question imaginable. “Of course I do,” she said. “Oh,” I said. “You never mention it.” “What’s there to say?” she asked. “It’s between me and God.” That was her: unshakable, matter-of-fact, deeply faithful.
When I remember my grandmother, the impression I have is of a woman whose strength lay primarily in her solidity and stability. She was not inflexible, but she didn’t bend with every wind that blew her way, either of spirituality or of taste or of culture. She grew with the times, but she retained what today seems an almost old-fashioned view of life, a view whose simplicity belies its depth.
In a book she gave me when I was a child, she wrote this about her ideals:
Most of all, I have tried to be truthful, even though sometimes the truth hurts. Family has always been extremely important to me. I have tried to maintain strong family ties to all our family members. I have tried to live a Christian life which I think is the most important thing a person can do. I have tried to live a life that would make my family proud of me and that makes me feel good about myself.
My grandmother rarely called attention to herself. She didn’t need to. She lived with such integrity that it ultimately didn’t much matter to her what other people thought of her. Once she had a sense of what was right, she was unwavering in her commitment to that good. It amazed me that at 80 years old, after a lifetime as a Southern Baptist, she became an Episcopalian. As she said at the time, she couldn’t bear to be a member of a church so hateful toward gay and lesbian people. The example of her integrity has profoundly impacted the way I try to live my own life.
In many ways, I can see seeds of my monastic vocation in my grandmother’s quiet approach to her faith and her life. She embodied stability, one of the components of the Benedictine vow. Like our own grandmother oak, we monks seek to grow in one place for the rest of our lives. This place is not primarily physical. Rather, it is the spiritual space of our life in the monastic community, bounded both by our threefold vow (obedience, stability, and conversion of life) and our relationship with Christ. We don’t seek rigidity, but nor are we swayed by every fad that comes along, spiritual or temporal.
Stability lends a kind of gravitas to one’s life. By gravitas I mean not heaviness, but rather seriousness, a commitment to encountering the Truth and to allowing one’s life to be changed and molded by that encounter. Stability allows the monk to point toward the truly important things in life, which is to say, to the rushing of Christ’s love and life into the world. Stability is ultimately a way of allowing the Truth to claim one’s life totally.
I pray that over the course of my life as a monk I will become more and more like my grandmother, like our oak. I pray that I will become a strong and stable pillar and a channel of Christ’s redeeming love. I pray we all will.
In loving memory of Mary Carolyn Evans Owen, 8 October 1930 – 24 December 2015.
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