The Novice Directors of our monasteries in the United States meet every other year. This year we met at Guadalupe Abbey in Lafayette, Oregon from 15 to 24 May.
Guadalupe Abbey was the first foundation of Our Lady of the Valley, Valley Falls, Rhode Island and could be considered the elder sister of Holy Cross Abbey. The original foundation was made in Pecos, New Mexico in 1948. However, New Mexico could not support the farming economy envisioned by the founders and the community relocated to Oregon in 1954. To look at the property, you’d think that the monks had carved out their home from an ancient moss-covered forest of douglas firs and white oaks. However, check out early photos of the community and the terrain is rather barren but for scattered white oaks. The indigenous population used to annually burn down the firs to drive their horses through the territory. The luxuriant growth we see today is the result of the monks re-foresting and the abundant rains of western Oregon. It’s a dramatic example of how the land can heal itself; all the monastery’s property is in conservation easement.
What is the point of a Novice Directors’ Meeting? It’s not the same as a professional seminar. Although we do share information about our approaches to vocations, screening, classes or discernment, we are not there to plot strategies. Just mentioning discernment might suggest that we’re approaching our responsibilities from a different perspective. First and last, we’re looking at our work with new-comers from a faith perspective. We, indeed, talk about our experiences, our frustrations, our incapacities and questions; we certainly evaluate our “performance” but we try to understand how God is at work in all this. The focus is not just on the Observer or the Postulant or the Novice; nor on the community or the changing values of society. We also have to consider all of this as the Novice Directors’ Vocation, as the providential challenges that God uses to form us as monks and nuns.
This necessitates a degree of transparency with one another, well founded since transparency and confidentiality are part and parcel of our daily work. That’s not to say that we’re an unanimous group by any means! Perhaps, that’s the real value of these meetings: that we can suspend our own opinions to listen to one another.
Fr. John Denburger, the retired Abbot of Genesee Abbey, presented three days of reflections on the Levite, as described in the Book of Deuteronomy, as a model of the monastic vocation. As the group “set apart” yet in the midst of the faith community; as the person who serves the mysteries of God and communicates them; as the person who longs for God’s presence; as the person who makes the sacrifice (of self) to allow God’s presence to enter human experience. The discussions that followed were very concrete and reflected our experience in our communities and of our members in formation; and of ourselves. Framing Abbot John’s input were days of “pastoral sharing”, our discussion of concrete issues or challenges. It’s a forum for mutual support–we are all in the same boat–suggestions or advice. Despite the constants of being over-extended, fatigued and often frustrated, there is an evident joy (and sense of humor) in the group which betrays a harvest of faith. Despite set-backs and whatever comes, we’re not floating on our optimism but labring in God-given hope.