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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, July 30, 2007

my people

Forward progress on The Mission has slowed lately. On the one hand I have copywriting to do--and therewith the earning of (some of) my keep. On the other I have problems with my story, and with the world of my story, that I'm still working out. These things combined have brought the course of my stream, which has never been a torrent, to the stillness of a lake. Now I'm just poling the raft along, searching for the outlet so I can resume my journey to the sea.

Last night on CBC's Sunday Night was a segment on monasticism among young women in Canada and around the world. I watched with much interest, since I was myself, briefly, an ordained Buddhist monk at Gampo Abbey on Cape Breton. The segment specifically focused on the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary in Michigan, whose convent was founded 10 years ago. According to the report, the average age of a Canadian nun is 74, but this convent is filled with young women who have turned to a life of poverty and chastity in order to commune with God.

Kimmie and I were both impressed with the convent and with the girls. As I recall, the convent houses about 90 nuns, of which nine are from Canada. All the ones that appeared on the show were young, and it was clear that the convent was not a dumping-ground for unmarriageable Catholic daughters, but a destination of choice for thinking and spiritually aware girls who had many other options open to them.

I found myself identifying with these girls as they talked about wanting to do something meaningful with their lives, and enter into the question of why they were born and why they are here. Some of them had given up athletic and political ambitions, and all of course are giving up aspirations of having a family of their own--as well as personal possessions.

I recognized the "feel" and the attitude among the nuns, for I venture to say that the monastic experience is probably not too different between the different spiritual traditions. When the girls get up to pray to God, it's not so different from the morning gathering of the Buddhist monks and nuns to chant and meditate before breakfast. Each person there has made a definite, conscious decision to orient his or her life around a spiritual discipline, and has implemented that decision fully. It's an extraordinarily powerful basis for a community. While Buddhists don't refer to their ultimate reality as God, they share with the Catholics an intent to live in accord with ultimate reality, and their discipline and their behavior are probably not very different. They lead spare, unadorned, mutually supporting lives.

The girls interviewed were in no way sanctimonious or zealous. Their speech had a soft, heartfelt, and candid quality that I recognized from my own monastic experience. These are not people who "can't cut it" in secular life, but rather people who have perceived the emptiness and unfulfillingness of many worldly goals, and who have decided to do something about it. The Buddhist monastics I knew included bond traders, zoo-keepers, scientists, athletes, and nurses.

While I don't think that monastic life is for everyone, I had a strong feeling while watching the segment that the world needs people who have had monastic discipline--as many of them as it can get. We need selfless people who take a long, deep view of things and speak from the heart. We need spiritual people as much now as we ever have, and maybe more.

Yes, as I watched these young novices and nuns I had the feeling that I was again among "my people".


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