Benedictine Monastic Life

And what does the Spirit say? Come and listen to me...  Rule of Benedict

In 1852, Benedicta Riepp set sail with two other Benedictine nuns for America. They had volunteered to leave the cloistered and protective confines of their 900-year-old abbey in Eichstatt, Bavaria, to educate immigrant children in St. Mary's, Pennsylvania. Their experience set in motion the changes that would help define American monasticism.

For one thing, the orderly life of European nuns was quickly altered by the sometimes chaotic and perpetually changing needs of small children. And space limitations did not permit separate quarters for the nuns and their charges: the cloister was modified, and monastic American Sisters came into being.*

Today, most American Benedictine Sisters' communities follow Mother Benedicta's model, by living both active (working outside the community) and contemplative (pursuing communal and private prayer) lives. But the spirit of monasticism has remained unchanged since St. Benedict's time. It is predicated on common life, work and prayer.

"The word mono means one," Sr. Charlotte Sonneville, OSB, explains. "Monastics come together as one to seek God. Our basic desire is to pray and work in community, in whatever way we can help others to seek God and know peace. Monasteries have always been centers of prayer, education and hospitality, nurturing reverence for God, people and nature. People come seeking those values."

In fact, St. Benedict prescribed those values clearly in his Rule 1500 years ago. Written as a guide for monastics, The Rule of Benedict calls on monks to prefer nothing to the work of God, receive others as Christ, and cherish and care for one another, from young to old.

"Monastics are like sequoia trees," Sr. Marlene Miller, OSB, says. "Tall and strong, and with roots that intertwine with one another. We support one another in community. We support one another in prayer and in work. Prayer is our prime calling. It's what we give to the world. Our prayers ripple out, like gentle waves from a stone dropped into water. Whether you see them or not is immaterial. They are there. They are touching the world around them."

The Benedictine Sisters at St. Mary Monastery gather three times daily to pray the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) at Lauds, Noon and Vespers. Facing each other in two choirs, the Sisters pray the psalms slowly, thoughtfully, reverentially. Once each day they celebrate the Eucharist, and engage in personal prayer, such as Lectio, as well.

"(Prayer) nourishes your awareness of God's presence in your life and in the world," writes Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB, in her book, New Designs. "This awareness of God's presence will always be the filter through which you think and act and pray. This presence will always stand between you and over you and around you in everything you are doing."

After prayers, the Sisters go to their ministries, refreshed, as teachers, social workers, campus ministers, and parish ministers, to name a few. When they return, they gather again for prayer, and for the camaraderie and support they give and gain from one another. Evenings find them reading, watching TV, playing games or taking a stroll.

"We are a family in some sense," Sr. Marlene says. "There is a lot of give and take, and the intergenerational dynamic is similar. Our monastic profession reflects our commitment to community. We promise to be faithful and committed. We promise to accept life's changes and to deepen our relationship with God and each other in so doing. And, we promise obedience, which doesn't mean we give up our own wills or blindly obey. To obey means to listen, and to honor the needs of others in community. It's a matter of maturity: to go to choir practice at the appointed time; to attend the meetings you're requested to attend; to do your part as a community member every day."

The ordinariness of monastic lives might surprise some visitors. Monasticism author Patrick G. Henry says, "Sometimes (people) are not sure what they expect to find, but they expect ... it will be unusually, maybe spectacularly, holy. What they find is people going about the business of daily life. If they stay around long enough, these visitors may begin to realize that it is the very ordinariness of monastic life that is dazzling ... (and) charged with the glory of God."

Indeed, how to go about the ordinary business of living together is the theme of the Rule of Benedict, and Benedictine spirituality is about relationships with God through others: "There is a good zeal ... which members must foster with fervent love: They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other (Rom. 12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another's weaknesses of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No monastics are to pursue what they judge better for themselves, but instead, what they judge better for someone else." RB72

Those relationships extend beyond the monastery walls, as well, into the greater community. Noting that a monastery is almost never without guests, St. Benedict advises monastics to practice hospitality by receiving all as Christ. "We are called to nurture all the variety of God's creation," Sr. Charlotte says. "People are searching for God and peace and loving respect. We are called to aid in that search." Sr. Marlene nods. "We are a witness to those values," she says. "We don't wear habits anymore, so maybe we're not as visible. But when people come to the monastery, they are moved. They feel it. We welcome any who wish to come and see." To schedule a visit to St. Mary Monastery, call Sr. Charlotte Sonneville at (309) 283-2100.

*A few American Benedictine communities are cloistered, as are several other monastic communities, from Trappistines to Cistercians. Their members are still referred to as Nuns.

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