Novice Sister Reflects on Life in Community

By God's grace I am what I am. Rule of Benedict

Sister Claudia Scharf, OSB is now a fully professed sister, working in parish ministry. This story was written during her novitiate.

One recent evening found Sr. Claudia Scharf sprawled comfortably on the floor in front of the TV watching Olympic ice-skating. Other Sisters sat behind her on the sofa and a couple of chairs, commenting, cheering and critiquing the performances. Someone made some popcorn. They all stayed up too late and were tired the next morning.

Life in a monastic community has a lot in common with life in a family. You support each other, eat together and enjoy leisure activities together. You take turns using the cars and you share possessions.

But, as formation director Sr. Mary Core points out, monastic life is dramatically different, as well. You have answered a call to come together purposely to seek God. Toward that end, you pray together morning, noon and night. You pursue ministries that are compatible with Benedictinism and the community's needs. And you seek, every day, to practice the values elucidated in the Rule of St. Benedict.

"Community is absolutely central to Benedictinism," Sr. Mary says. "From the Prologue right on through to the end of the Rule, we are taught to be dependent upon and respectful of one another. We minister, work and live in relationship with those in community.

"Chapter 72 in the Rule says it best. It urges us to vie to be the first to show respect to one another, to respond to one another's needs. If that isn't community, I don't know what is. But there are some practical challenges. The reality is that we are human. We have many weaknesses. Sometimes we're cranky, ill, oblivious. Sometimes we can't see another Sister's need. Sometimes we are the ones who are in need! And then another Sister will show her caring and ask how she can help."

For many of today's inquirers – many of whom are in their 30's and 40's - the prospect of living in community after years of living alone seems remarkably challenging. How do you go from owning things to sharing everything? Or from eating alone to dining with 40-some other women? Or from holding the TV remote to relinquishing it to group control?

Sr. Claudia, a 49-year-old novice who is nearing the end of her second year with the Sisters of St. Benedict, agreed to discuss some of the challenges and joys of learning to live in community.

Q. You moved here from Florida in September, 2004. What were your first impressions of your new living arrangement?

A. I was on a high. I had visited twice before I entered the community, so I had met all the Sisters and loved the place. I felt like I had finally found home. I had been searching for a long time. It was a relief to finally have found where I was supposed to be. Another reaction I had was awe. It is amazing that we all can live together, seeking God, desiring this way of life, following the Rule. I'm amazed at that a lot. But I was tired, too. Sister Audrey Cleary explained that my fatigue was being caused by being present to everyone when I wasn't used to it. It still can happen, but I recognize it now and know I need to be alone awhile.

Q. What were the next reactions you had, once you had lived here for a time?

A. I had to give up old habits of living alone. For example, I had to relearn how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I no longer dig the peanut butter knife into the jelly jar, like I used to. I get a new knife. When I'm finished, I wipe up the crumbs right away. And I don't stack the dishes in the sink for later. I put them into the dishwasher immediately. I push the chair back into the kitchen table.

Q. How would you characterize this year, your novice year?

A. As a novice, I am studying Benedictinism and Scripture under the direction of Sr. Mary Core. And I am strengthening friendships. All my Sisters are my family and I have a special connection with each one. If I'm lacking in something I know where to go get it. I love hearing Sr. Estelle Ternus's laugh. I love feeling Sr. Martha Herzog's energy.

Q. It sounds ideal!

A. Oh, it's not always ideal. We're all human, and conflict occurs. We had a guest Sister make a presentation on how to deal with conflict. She said to resolve conflict within 24 hours or no one will remember it precisely. I really have used that lesson. We talk about it and then it's over. Resentment can build if you ignore a situation.

The best blessing is our silence in the morning. You can wake up naturally, say your prayers, go for a walk. You acknowledge Sisters at breakfast, but there are no conversations till after Mass. By the time you get to the handshake of peace, you're really ready to connect!

Q. Do you have any advice for inquirers?

A. Come spend four to five days here, in addition to your first vocation weekend. Come with an open heart and be open to the entire process. Write in a journal about your experience. Always leave time for reflection so God can speak to you. It's a wonderful life. But it requires adjustment. Not everyone likes the same TV shows. Not everyone is easy to live with. But community life will stretch you and push you. Every time I feel internal resistance to a change brought on by living here, I know it's God reshaping me. And God is what this is all about.