Sometimes I think I have this thing for monks and nuns! I realize with all that’s going on in our world, that statement could get me in trouble! Minimally, it sounds fishy. But I mean it. I am not sure exactly when it was that I met my first monk or nun. I know it was not growing up through high school. We barely had any Catholics in the rural area that I called home. So it would be college time, at least.
There is not doubt my religious world expanded significantly in my college days. I went to college in the south, so suddenly there were many Baptists in my life! I also began to make friends with Episcopalians, Catholics and all their cousins who could teach this Quaker boy a thing or two about liturgy. I made friends with Jews and knowingly made friends with Muslims. My world was getting much bigger.
But I don’t remember meeting a monk or a nun. However, I do remember reading about monks and, in fact, began reading some monks who wrote some important stuff in the early and medieval periods of Christian history. I don’t think that I actually met a monk or nun until my graduate school days in Boston. And that is where I went to my first monastery. Maybe that is when I began to develop a thing for monks and nuns.
What I liked about them is the clear and deep commitment they had made. They were living out their faith in a way that made my faith pilgrimage look like a kindergarten day trip! I am sure I idealized their way of life. I did not think I would follow suit and join a monastery. Having a family makes that a tougher decision! But I did want to learn from them. And I have.
My most recent encounter with a monk or nun came through an article that I read. A Franciscan nun, Illia Delio, was the focus of an article that I found fascinating. “We are dying---and that’s OK,” is a pretty engaging opening sentence! Those were the words Delio recently spoke to a gathering on nuns. Immediately, it endeared me to her and that group of nuns---none of whom I know. I figure only a group of nuns can hear words like that and be ok with it!
Most of us would hear the words, “we are dying,” and not be ok with it! Delio followed up by saying, “It just means something new is emerging. We need to become young again.” The key is to understand she is not really talking about any particular individual. She is talking about the group of nuns and, perhaps, even larger religious movements. I can even think about my own Quaker tribe and our future.
The neat thing about Delio is she is a world-class scientist, as well as a nun. This gives her knowledge and perspective I don’t have. So I like what she says in the face of telling those nuns they are dying. "If we attend only to the breakdown," Delio says, "we think we're over. We see death. But that's a closed-system way of thinking." I understand closed thinking. All too often this characterizes religious people. We get the idea we have some answers, then we close off all thinking.
That only makes us dangerous! This kind of closed thinking can makes us judgmental. It can lead to conflict and, sometimes, violence. There is no life in this kind of thinking. It does, indeed, lead to a kind of death. Delio provides a wonderful alternative. She calls it openness. Listen to her words.
"An open system has a capacity for newness. New basins of attraction arise within the system and pull it, over time, in a new pattern of life. So chaos really is a saving grace," she says, adapting the notion of chaos theory from physics. I resonate with the idea of a capacity for newness. This fits evolutionarily and, I think, it fits very well for spiritual development. It is exciting to think our universe and all of us in the universe have a capacity for newness. That is a great way to understand the work of God in our world. God is graciously actualizing the newness in our lives.
I find her writing style compelling. She talks about new basins of attraction within our system. Again, I translate this into spiritual terms. I have been exposed to these basins when I encountered spiritually alive people and communities. Some of these people and communities have been the monks and nuns I have met. These new basins of attraction pull us into new patterns of life. If this is a deep truth to life, then death and chaos can never be ultimate threats.
It is paradoxical to use a term like, “saving grace of chaos,” but it makes sense to me. For a Christian, this is a perfect way to talk about the Resurrection. Through death comes life. Chaos threatened order, but a new order emerged out of the mess of the crucifixion. That only makes sense in faith. And I am sure that is where Illia Delio is coming from: faith. An open system leading to new life. Thanks to the nuns in my life.