Sister GilChrist at Acem’s communication course
Denyse Lavigne says things about the benefits of Acem’s training in interpersonal communication that almost any participant could say:
It helped me get in touch with my own inner feelings and life experiences. It also gave me an opportunity to understand group processes. I picked up many things that can help me in my own work, where I often have to talk to people and interview them.
But Denyse isn’t just any participant. She is a nun at the Cistercian monastery Tautra Mariakloster in mid-Norway, where she has lived since its foundation in 1999. The work she speaks of is as a prioress of that monastery, which much to the bewilderment of its nine inhabitants has become a tourist attraction in this part of the country. The monastery now sends at least one nun to the communication course every year.
Denyse – or Sister GilChrist, as she is called in the monastery – decided to become a nun in her early twenties, after having seen very poor people while travelling in Latin America and very rich people on a luxury tour in California. “Both groups had pain in their lives. I wanted to reach out to everybody, and chose a life of prayer and meditation.”
Tiger in a cage
The first day at the communication course came as a total surprise. The leaders of her group said nothing, didn’t even smile. Later she understood that they wanted the participants to form their own process, without relying on the leaders to solve their problems.
Then came a number of mysterious “oracle” statements, which reminded her of Zen koans. “The tiger is in the jungle, but still in a cage.” These she found revelatory. “We were beginning to explore important areas, but still without really coming out to share our feelings. We talked a lot about these statements in the group.” And now she even observed a little smile on the face of one of the leaders. “He just couldn’t help it.”
At some point, the group became obsessed with rules, which made Denyse impatient. “That’s not what I’m here for.” But others insisted that this was part of the here and now and needed to be discussed. In the end there was plenty of room for everybody to share his or her personal issues. The leaders also became more active and often had insightful comments.
Denyse grew up in French-speaking Montreal in Canada. Her family was Catholic, but her mother vehemently opposed her choice to become a nun. “You’re wasting your talents!” Denyse chuckles and assures us that she has used more of her talents than she could ever dream of. Before she came to Norway, and even became a Norwegian citizen, her life as a nun was spent in the United States.
At the communication course, she took part in an English-speaking group of people from different cultural backgrounds. “I think it lent richness to the group. Sometimes there was a language problem, and it may have slowed things down, but in the end I don’t think it took away from the group process. When we say ‘butterflies in our stomach’, the Chinese would talk about little horses in their heart. No wonder they didn’t understand why we were discussing butterflies!”
Denyse is used to cultural diversity. She has discussed anger with the Dalai Lama. “He felt that any kind of anger is a wrongful thought, while for us anger as a feeling is neutral, unless you act it out.” She once spent a month in various Buddhist temples in Japan. Last year a Buddhist woman stayed in the monastery at Tautra for six months. “She fit in like a glove. Our lifestyle is very similar to that of Buddhist monks and nuns, and we experience many of the same problems in our communities. But there are also differences, as some of the Buddhists observed. “You Christians live a real community life, while we live individual lives inside a monastery.”
The last Kleenex
In the last meeting in the communication group, even one of the group leaders needed to wipe a tear. “We gave her our last Kleenex! Very symbolic, and it was nice to have this demonstration of feelings at the very end.” And just before both leaders rose to their feet to leave the room, one of them said, “Welcome to the real world!”
Interview: Halvor Eifring
Photos: Torbjørn Hobbel
Copy editor: Ann Kunish