The World as Your Monastery ~ An Introduction to the Life and Work of Francis Bennett

Read this text in Spanish 

There is a new monasticism that has been set loose in the world. It is not confined to literal cloisters of wood and stone but has developed and returned to the inner cloister of the heart. The walls of this new monastery encompass the whole world.” ~ Francis Bennett.

Monastic Life and Training

Francis Bennett was a Roman Catholic, Trappist monk for a number of years. She lived in two monasteries of the Trappist Order in the US and was also a member of an urban, contemplative monastic community originally founded in Paris, France in 1975. She has lived in France at several monasteries, including Saint Gervais et Protais in Paris, at Mont Saint Michel along the coast of the English Channel and in Canada at a small monastic community in Montreal Quebec. She received a five and a half year monastic/spiritual formation with the Trappists before she made her vows as a monk at Gethsemani Abbey in Trappist  Kentucky. She graduated from the Pontifical College Josephinum with a BA in Philosophy and completed a two year residency in Clinical Pastoral Education with Ohio Health Hospital System in Columbus, Ohio in 2004. She has worked in ministry in the area of pastoral Care in the hospice movement, as a hospital chaplain and in pastoral care of the sick and dying in parish settings.

Buddhist Teaching and Practice

She has lead retreats in both the Vipassana Buddhist Tradition and in the Christian mystical/contemplative Tradition. She has been offering spiritual direction and helping guide people in their spiritual quest for a number of years. She was an avid spiritual seeker throughout her entire time as a contemplative monk and studied deeply in both the Theravadan Buddhist practice of Vipassana, working primarily with Mahathera, the venerable Bhante Henepola Gunaratana (from whom she received a temporary monastic ordination  in 1999-2001) and with several western Vipassana teachers. She studied Zen and  practiced with Soen Sa Nim, the founder of the Providence Zen Center, in a kind of “correspondence course study” via the telephone, with Charlotte “Joko” Beck of the San Diego Zen Center and briefly with several other Zen teachers in both the Rinzai and Soto traditions of Japanese Zen.

A Radical Shift in Perception

In 2010, while in the middle of a Church Service in her monastery in Montreal, Francis suddenly experienced what she has come to call, “a radical perceptual shift in consciousness”, in which she discovered the ever present presence of spacious, pure awareness. She came to see that this awareness is actually the unchanging essence of who she really is and always has been; the Supreme Self, talked about by many sages and saints from many spiritual traditions down through the ages. She also came to see simultaneously, that this vast, infinite sense of presence at the center of her being (and at the center of the being of everyone else on the planet) is actually not at all separate from the presence of God, which she had been looking for during her many years as a monk and spiritual seeker.

Spiritual Teacher

Francis is now living a “new incarnation” as a spiritual teacher. She offers a blend of the Buddhist Traditions she studied, the contemplative Christian mystical tradition which she lived during her many years in monastic life, as well as the Hindu Advaita-Vedanta teaching of Sri Ramana Maharshi, who has had a profound influence on Francis.

She is also interested in offering spiritual accompaniment, encouragement and teaching to the LGBTQI  community in light of her recent coming out as transgender.

An Announcement from Francis ~ First Published on Facebook on 16th November, 2016 

A Transpersonal Teaching

This past year I received some somewhat strange news from a series of chance medical tests carried out for other reasons, that my chromosomal makeup is somewhat anomalous…

Normally, males have an XY chromosomal profile and females have an XX chromosomal profile. But some people who are born outwardly “male” or “female” can have various chromosomal aberrations that are not the simple binary XX or XY. It turns out I am one of those people. Discovering this was actually a huge relief. It’s helped me understand what I have been unknowingly dealing with my whole life and explains a lot in my psyche and even in my body which I have always wondered over.

Many people that have these kinds of chromosomal anomalies do not struggle at all with gender identity and feel themselves to be very fully identified with the gender they were perceived to be at birth. But some of them, like me, have always felt a kind of ambiguity around their gender identity. And some people with completely typical chromosomal profiles feel a sense of ambiguity around their gender identity also. The chromosomes and the form our body takes do not necessarily correspond to our sense of gender identity. Some studies would indicate that this also has some basis in physiological changes that happen in the womb as the fetus develops and experiences certain effects in brain and hormonal development.

To be honest,I have always felt somewhat “gender ambiguous” and as a little child of 5 or 6, I had deeply questioned my gender identity already. Between the ages of around 5 and 11, I actually felt inwardly that I was a girl, even though I obviously had the body of a boy, on the level of appearances. I used to sincerely and naively believe that one morning, I would simply wake up and find myself in a girl body and just continue my life that way. This is a classical symptom and experience found in many transgender or intersexed children very early in their life. I even remember telling my mom something about that when I was maybe around 5 years old. I will never forget her compassionate, motherly and loving response… which was so typical of her!

She told me later that she thought that maybe I was just gay, which would have been just fine with her. Soon after that, she took me to a doctor out of concern and he said that gender confusion (now called gender dysphoria) is sometimes pretty common among small children when their basic sense of self-identity is still being formed. “He seems like a very happy and loving little boy, he seems to get along well with other children and adults and is well adjusted in many other ways. He will probably just grow out of it”, the doctor said without too much alarm.

But I didn’t “just grow out of it”! I still haven’t!

A specialist in endocrinology that I have been going to and with whom I have had some interesting conversations with concerning all this, has said that our chromosomal/DNA makeup is like a “blueprint” of our entire being, which effects the way we think, the way our body and brain and psyche develops, the way we see things, and experience life in general. And one thing that spiritual awakening has clearly shown me is that personal identity isn’t something that’s absolutely fixed. It’s actually quite dynamic, fluid and ever changing and is affected by so many different factors and conditions.

I feel no personal anxiety around all this at this point, although I did at various times in my life growing up. I have come to see and make peace with the fact that this is simply my personal makeup as a physical/emotional/spiritual being. It is how I find myself to be and how I always have been as far back as I can remember, and so, for as long as any of you have known me, I have had this reality in my life. I am what I am and have always been that, even though I may not have known about it consciously myself or may not have known what to call it or do about it. It was always clear to me on some intuitive level that I was “different” in this way.

I have come to feel and believe there are very few people that feel what we might describe as 100 percent, totally “masculine” or feel what we might think of as 100 percent, totally “feminine”. We all feel traits and energies of both what we might call,”feminine” and “masculine” energy at different stages of our personal development. And so, ordinarily, even something as basic as our gender identity is maybe not so “fixed” as we may assume or imagine. We are each something uniquely in between the extremes of 100 percent masculine or 100 percent feminine. This is true, not just for me and other folks like me, but for all of us. We all need to integrate these different percentages of masculine and feminine energy that we are feeling. I think, people are feeling more comfortable these days saying, “Yeah, I’ve never felt 100 percent masculine all the time, but I’m mostly masculine.” or vice versa… seeing and experiencing themselves as MOSTLY feminine. And, I think, it has become a more comfortable society to say that in.

I suspect it’s also because the science around gender identity is now supporting that experience. My personal discovery of “the science” of my own body has been an important one for me. This whole thing explains on an actual physiological level, part of why I have always felt connected in a profound way to females on a level that really has nothing much to do with physical/sexual attraction. It is more about feeling a sympathetic and empathic spirit connection that has, in recent years, given rise to a deep need and attraction to integrating the seeming male/female polarities which dwell within me and of which I have always been acutely aware.

I have deeply pondered over the karmic implications of all this and intuitively feel that there is probably some connection to past lives here on some level as well. But this guess is only reflective of my own personal beliefs and understanding of life and the afterlife. I have always believed intuitively in re-birth, also for as long as I can remember, even though it was not in my own religious tradition at all and was not taught to me as I was growing up. I also feel a deep resonance with some of the Native American spirituality and the Shamanistic Traditions that speak of “two-spirited” people, who are spiritual guides that feel a need to deeply integrate the spiritual energies of masculine and feminine within their own persons. Such people were deeply respected and seen as having something very valuable to offer on the level of integration in their various tribal societies.

I’m not really sure precisely what all this means for me quite yet, or what my expression of it will come to look like in the next few years. But I do know and feel that I am on a journey of integration and further discovery around all of this and that the eventual outcome of it all will help me to more fully and authentically offer to the world my own unique presence and being, my own personal essence. Like everyone else, the personal expression of “my life” will incarnate and embody the reality of “presence” or “Spirit” in a way that will inevitably be quite unique and one of a kind. This is true for all of us, even those with less “exotic” chromosomes than mine!

I have always felt a need to be transparent and honest with people in my life and even here on Facebook,  you are all “in my life” in a very real sense, even if we may never have met “in the flesh”. I just wanted you all to know this aspect of my journey because it feels so central to my personal life right now. And I also hope that my own experience may be of some assistance to some of you who may be going through a similar journey to my own. I think there are many more people on a similar journey than we may think.

I have felt some hesitation and concern about a public disclosure concerning all this and have wondered how it might effect my relationships with my family and friends, and my teaching career. But I have come to see that if I am to teach others about life and authenticity, integration and integrity, I myself must be a living example of it.

So, even though this is very personal stuff, I have decided it is time to disclose it publicly. I sincerely hope that whatever happens in my life and whatever expression my life takes, it will all be a kind of “teaching” about authenticity, integrity, and the courage to be true to ourselves.

I have always hoped, as Saint Francis once is reported to have said, that… “I can preach the gospel/dharma/truth, wherever I go by means of whatever I do… and if necessary, I will even use words”

I love you all! I invite you all to join me on this leg of my journey!It may prove interesting!

In closing, I am reminded of what Forest Gump’s mom once said to him, “Life is like a box of chocolates Forest..…Once you open the box, you never really know what you are gonna get!”

Peace! ~francis