I’ve known Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove for five years, since writing about his community in Durham, North Carolina. Since then, Jonathan has written a number of books, and his latest is The Wisdom of Stability. Following is an excerpt about a group of Roman Catholic nuns whose practices during the death of a sister were attractive to new members. We hope to interview Jonathan next week.
At a gathering of Benedictines from across North America, I listened with interest to a panel on contemporary expressions of monastic life. Having sat through more than a few
conversations with worried denominational leaders about declining church numbers in North America, I was struck by the honesty and hope with which the monks and nuns discussed the same realities in their own communities.
“What do you like most about your community?” someone asked in the question and answer time. “We do death well,” one sister said. A young woman who had recently made her vows, she went on to describe the beauty of women washing the body of one of their sisters, carrying her into the chapel, celebrating her life in their midst, and laying her to rest with the other sisters in the well-kept cemetery on the monastic grounds. Looking at the numbers, no one was sure how this community will go on when this generation has passed.
That those who are there die well, however, is the most compelling witness to their newest member. True stability is not, in the end, a way out of the mess that our world is in. If stability were but a way to build an impregnable fortress where we can be certain we are safe, it would be little more than a form of escape. But even death can be a gift if it reminds us that we must find stability beyond ourselves and our capacity to stand against the winds of change. In the desert, we are told, the early monastics made it a practice to dig a shovelful of their own
grave before lying down to sleep each night. Doing so, they mocked the demons who had assaulted them at midday and they found sweet rest in the Lord.