I drive from British Columbia to Saskatchewan toward a Benedictine monastery on the Canadian prairie. On arrival, I take a deep breath, emerge from the car and push open the wooden door of St. Peter’s Abbey. As I enter my room, unaware that this will be the first of many visits, my heart wonders: “Why am I here?” A moaning wind buffets trees outside the window. In unfamiliar solitude, with no prospect of immediate distraction, I feel lonely and in exile.
What am I seeking? Whom do I seek? At the moment, I’m the only guest. Piles of used bedding in the hall attest to a group of retreat participants recently dispersed. A tour of the abbey grounds with Father Martin, wheat fields permeated with sunlight, is still in the future; the same goes for tea with Father James in his hermitage surrounded by chickadees. Brother Basil is as yet only a voice underneath my window dealing with flood waters in the basement. On this first day, monks seem surreal, like characters in a Brother Cadfael mystery novel.
I cherish the biblical story of the woman who, after enduring years of hemorrhage and exclusion, seeks to be healed by touching the hem of Christ’s clothes. Gradually, as the days unfold, I attend Lauds, Noon Prayer, Vespers, and Vigils. I encounter monks wearing black habits. And I’m reminded of that woman. It would be a shock to Abbot Peter if he turned to find me surreptitiously touching the hem of his robe as he bowed before the altar and filed out of Vespers! But in a profound way this image captures an essence of my journey. Metaphorically, I touch the robes of contemporary monks in an attempt to reach the Christ I once believed in and who was as dear and familiar to me as my mother and father.
As a little child, after a day in Catholic school, I tiptoed into church to pray. I prayed to Jesus with happy confidence right into middle age. A presence in all aspects of my life, Jesus was my friend and mentor, whether as a baby in a manger at Christmas, a tortured man on the cross on Good Friday, or risen from the dead and appearing to Mary Magdalene at Easter.
Somehow, navigating life’s tumultuous journey, I lost my compass. I no longer connected with the Son of God. To spend my entire life trusting Jesus, only to lose him, was excruciating. It was as though all photographs were removed from the album; all signposts on the roadside erased from once-familiar territory. Those were challenging years raising a family in a materialistic, competitive and complex culture. I taught my children catechism and attended church liturgies and potlucks, but as they grew and left home, I began to question my faith.
Now, I wish to recapture a sense of joyful certainty. I long to experience again the passion for Christ I knew as a young girl: the certain belief in every aspect of the story of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. And yet: Is this kind of certainty necessary or even desirable?
Much evil is performed in the name of religious certainty. Perhaps, I seek God even as I also seek permission to question. Maybe my doubts and fears will lead me deeper into exploration of faith and hope in a transcendent and loving God as I gather with other disciples in the upper room and beyond. It’s possible that I’ve been shadowing Jesus on that road to Emmaus all through this time of uncertainty. Maybe he’s so transformed I no longer recognize him. And I’ve changed too: I must gaze with new eyes and a broken heart if I’m ever to find this Jesus I seek.
A certain degree of doubt can be healthy when it causes one to question and search. Now I view the Roman Catholic Church with a discerning and critical eye; it is a deeply wounded and sinful entity. And yet, within all the uncertainty and inevitable human faults and failings, still this pilgrim seeks to recognize Jesus, God’s child on earth, from within this flawed human structure. With the help of grounded, compassionate Benedictine spirituality, I seek to fall in love all over again — and again — with an ever-deepening Mystery.
It turns out that the question “Why am I here?” reveals as many layers as there are cloud formations in a prairie sky. To begin, I’m here to discover the amazing gift of silence, and for a time to be still within that silence. I’m here to touch the hem of Christ’s robe. To be the woman who persists in her demand for Christ’s attention, even as she is rejected and bleeding.
When my own children were small, Easter Sunday dawned with splendid expectation. Amidst Easter bunnies and hidden chocolate eggs, I proclaimed to my family: “Christ is risen!” Caught up in the motion and emotion of the Gospel story, I imagined running alongside Mary Magdalene to the empty tomb, stopping in my tracks to speak to the gardener. Only it was Jesus, raised and transformed. And I recognized him!
A holy, transcendent Mystery flourishes in monks, chickadees, and wheat fields at an abbey on the prairie. This is a place resonant with listening hearts and warm hospitality. It provides direction, hope, and joy — even within loneliness and exile — for this pilgrim’s faith journey.
This was previously published in The Saint Katherine Review and Spirituality (dominicanpublications.com). Strachan is married with three grown children and lives in Nakusp, B.C. She is a Benedictine Oblate with St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, Sask., and a member of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild.