Lessons in Wisdom

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

Recorded writings on wisdom date back to the Ancient Greeks, including Aristotle, Socrates and Plato. Theism claimed it (the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament), as did Christianity (St. Paul’s letters). Thomas Aquinas considered wisdom to be the cause of all virtues.

But what, really, is wisdom? Webster’s says it is “discernment and judgment; discretion; sagacity.” Ask a Benedictine Sister for her thoughts, though, and she’ll tell you it’s not about a definition. Instead, she says wisdom is about how we listen, learn and give our gifts away.

Monastic Benedictine women should know. They steep themselves in scriptural wisdom, contemplative wisdom and the wisdom of their founder, St. Benedict. By the time Sisters retire from active ministry, they have accumulated the wisdom of the ages. Here, then, are the wisdom stories, reflections and observations from some of our elders.  

David’s Gift

Sister Catherine Maloney says she gained more wisdom from a seven-year-old boy than she did from anyone else during her service as a hospital chaplain. She met David as he was losing his battle with cancer.

“David had the heart of all children,” Sr. Catherine says. “He didn’t fear death. He was sorry to be leaving his parents, though. He drew a picture for me of the apples he wouldn’t be able to pick with his father.

“David helped me understand that my job was not to preach, but to honor and respect the wishes of every patient. He helped me understand that my job would often be to help patients on the road to heaven. He helped me understand that patients would be less agitated and more willing to let go of life if their wishes were honored.”

She says she learned that lesson happened during David’s First Communion.

“All of the kids in his second-grade class had made their First Communion,” Sr. Catherine says. “I asked him if he wanted to make his, and he said he did. So we made all these adult decisions about it. We brought balloons and gifts and invited a lot of guests. When the day came, we went into David’s room and he said he didn’t want to do it after all. We were all stunned. I asked him privately, David, is there a better time or way to do this? And he said, Yes. I want my mommy to bake the bread. I went out and told his parents and the priest, and everyone agreed to do it. So we all came back the next day with his mother’s bread, and he made his First Communion. Thank God we did what he wanted. It made him so happy. He died a week later. I’ve used that lesson throughout my ministry.”

Contemplative Listening

The importance of deep, selfless, contemplative listening cannot be overstated, the Benedictines say. Sister Rosemary Becker says asking questions allows her to get to the heart of another’s need.

“I pray for wisdom every day,” Sr. Rosemary says. “I pray to listen deeply, to avoid self righteousness and criticism of others. I pray to remain open to seeing Christ in all, rather than simply my own vision of them. I pray to avoid my own self-deceptive ways.”

The Gift of Change

At 93 years of age, Sister Mary Jean Feeney credits change as a tremendous teacher.

“It was most challenging in my life to be going along, satisfied, and be all of a sudden called to something completely different. I was a teacher for 40 years before being called home to the business office as Treasurer. It was a surprise. I was a math teacher and had no accounting background. I was 65 years old.

“I was asked to think about it. I realized I had promised to do what was needed for the community, so I said yes. I went up to Notre Dame to learn accounting and computer skills. You know, every cloud has a silver lining: I found great satisfaction in learning a new skill.

“The change turned out to be a blessing. I got to enjoy accounting as much as I enjoyed teaching. I’ve found joy in whatever I’ve done. It’s taken patience and perseverance. Everybody has ups and downs. The downs aren’t just bad. They’re alerting us to something that we shouldn’t miss.”

Be True to Your Values

As a spiritual director, Sister Teresa Ann Harrington has spent many hours both listening to and simply being present to her directees’ hopes and fears. What wisdom has come of that?

“This may sound glib, but I believe the most important thing in life is to be true to your vocation, whatever it is,” she says. “The values of decency, honesty, caring for others, a willingness to give of oneself to others: these are important. They give you peace.

“There will come a time in everyone’s life when the reality of their lives is right at their doorstep,” she says. “Live life so that you are ready for that.”

Claim Your Miracles

On her first visit home after joining the community, Sister Rita Cain remembers being full of religious fervor. She had brought a Benedictine medal to pin to the sleeper of her sister’s new baby. He had been quite ill and Sr. Rita wanted to help him get better.

“I told my sister, ‘This will be my first miracle.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Your first? I have them every day!’”

Sr. Rita’s nephew did, in fact, get better. But she says the wisdom contained in her sister’s sentiment is worth taking to heart. That is, everyday life is miraculous: the sunrise, the sound of a baby’s laughter, forgiveness. We should celebrate the miracles that make ordinary life extraordinary.

Forgive Yourself

Sister Mary Jane Wallace is in-between piano lessons. She’s been thinking a lot lately about what we expect from kids in the classroom and at the keyboard. She’s decided we need to spend more time praising and less time criticizing.

“As teachers, we always stressed the negative,” she says. “We would mark tests as -2 rather than +8, for example. But you know, that’s what kids remember. The negative. They remember what they failed to do. And that’s not right.

“I just had two beautiful young girls play a duet in a public performance. They played perfectly when they played alone. But when they played together they had trouble. Once upon a time I would have warned them about failing. But I told them just to have fun.

“I think our tendency to criticize others comes from not forgiving ourselves. If we can learn to forgive ourselves for being less than we can be, maybe we can forgive others. And maybe we can model self-forgiveness to others.”

Be Willing to Learn

In a coffee house near Augustana College where she serves as Catholic campus minister, Sister Marilyn Ring sips her latte. She is feeling tender. Last night (All Souls Day night), the community had come together for the annual recitation of names of the Sisters who have died. Sr. Marilyn says she could see every Sister she had known as her name was read.

“I was filled with so much gratitude for what they had given to me,” she says. “Sister Modesta ran the laundry. Without obviously instructing me but more by doing taught me the value of working together, of caring for the Sisters’ sheets and towels and clothes.  

“Sister Claire Louise would put a raincoat on over her habit to give the young children a shower. Nothing was too much to ask of her. She loved and cared for those children as if they were her own.  

“Sister Bernarda, our nurse, showed loving care and respect for us when we were in pain. Nothing was ever too inconvenient or difficult to take to her. She was both a physical and psychological healer.

“Sister Martha – so aptly named! Anyone who went to her was nourished and cared for, anytime of the day or night. Guests, Sisters, students: anyone could come into her kitchen for a cup of coffee.

“These women taught me hospitality, compassion, a spirituality of life and love. They taught me that it wasn’t all about me. For example, the work wasn’t done until everyone was finished. If there were dishes to be washed, they were our responsibility. I learned to focus on the ‘we,’ not the ‘me.’ This came from the elders.”

Knowing Wisdom

How can we recognize wisdom?

“Well, if you are asking the question you are a seeker, so you already have some wisdom,” Sister Catherine Cleary muses.

“Look within your own heart,” she says. “The answers are there, where God lives. Take the time to listen. Wise conclusions, wise decisions resonate in your heart.”

Sister Cabrini Rael adds a one-word caveat. “Silence,” she says. When pressed, she adds, “If you don’t practice the art of silence, you’ll never have any wisdom. Just don’t say anything. Keep quiet.”

Wise words to carry with us as the New Year unfolds.