This summer marks several anniversaries, one being the Centennial of our Federation of St. Scholastica, and another, the 50th anniversary of the creation of our Community Philosophy. Although drafted now a half century ago through a Community process, our Community Philosophy has been altered very little over the years and continues to bear witness to the core Benedictine values we Cullman Benedictines are committed to live, some of the very values so needed and desired around the world today. Our Community Philosophy was and remains a Spirit-inspired document.
I stay continually amazed by the durability and prophetic tone of our Philosophy statement. I was a novice in 1972 when the Community first undertook the process of formulating the Philosophy, and I can remember how deeply I was moved by the meaningful discussions we shared in small groups. We were verbalizing to one another, reverently and earnestly, what we believed were the essential, non-negotiable elements of our Benedictine life together. This dialogue was crucial because the Community and religious life itself was at a crossroads: how were we to remain faithful to the Holy Rule and to our particular charism, as the 1965 Vatican II document Perfectae Caritatis challenged us to do? How were we to embody the Benedictine tradition in response to the needs of the 20th century and beyond?
As a novice, I was honored to be so new and still have a part in the process, and so excited that each Sister had a voice in shaping the future, from the youngest to the oldest member. It felt like Pentecost to me, because we were gathered in prayer and genuinely listened with the ear of our hearts for the call of the Spirit. There was fire in the many tongues speaking in love. The words we shared became the basis for crafting the document.
The process the Sisters used to create the Philosophy was a type of “contemplative listening.” We have now learned to incorporate “contemplative listening” as a regular part of our communal decision-making process, but in those years, at least in my memory, the process was somewhat new for our Community deliberations. It was and is a dynamic and affirming approach.
What do I mean by “contemplative listening”? Some have described it as “listening another into speech.” This prayerful process gives the space and time, the silence, and the nonjudgmental attitude that offers another person a “safe container” to express her deep values and understandings.
Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, calls all people to this kind of dialogue and deep listening. He tells us, “The ability to sit down and listen to others… is paradigmatic of the welcoming attitude shown by those who transcend narcissism and accept others, caring for them and welcoming them into their lives. Yet today’s world is largely a deaf world” (Par. 48).
When I’ve used the Community Philosophy as lectio, I am always struck by the profound insights and essential elements it contains, all derived from the Scriptures and the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. It has been the bedrock of my monastic life these last fifty years. And it couldn’t be more relevant and consequential to what we Benedictines and the entire global community are seeking today in our violence-prone, politically-divided, and war-torn world of 2022. Why do I say this?
A good example: I became aware of a series of videos from the Benedictine Institute at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota this past April, with its theme, “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice” or DEIJ. All the presentations given explored what it looks like to approach DEIJ issues from a Benedictine point of view. I found this particular application of the Holy Rule to be fascinating and pertinent to the moment in which we live.
It seems that many organizations today are looking for ways to incorporate these DEIJ values into their workplace, especially since the #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #StopAAPIHate movements have compelled Americans to reflect on the social injustices that exist in our country today. These organizations see their future success based on implementing these DEIJ values in hiring, connecting with, and motivating their employees. This is all the more important because, according to research from Pew Research Center, the “post-millennial” generations entering the workforce will be the most diverse in history.
What this says to me is that Benedictine spirituality continues to be life-giving, and can serve as an antidote to the issues presently challenging us. Our Community Philosophy contains something of these same themes of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice, although it was written a generation ago. The Community Philosophy speaks of the uniqueness of each individual and her corresponding responsibility and accountability to the larger community. We are drawn into the mystery of Christ to live our lives as community, not as individuals, according to the Holy Rule.
Implied is an equity of opportunity, an inclusion of each sister in ministry, prayer, and decision-making. We are called to encounter Christ in every single person that comes to the monastery. Belonging among us is to be a given. There is a de-centering from self in the transforming love of God. There is a commitment to listening in love to God, to your sister, to the stranger, to those who may be different. The center of life is Christ, the expression of love is service. There are to be intentional moments of silence, communal prayer, and frequent pausing in a world of frenzied activity. Love is not for a season but for the long haul. The other person, especially in her vulnerability, is not only tolerated but honored.
Perhaps my favorite line in the Community Philosophy is the last, “We believe that God is here and can be found, and that a diversity of persons bonded into unity shows Christ to a divided world.” The beauty and truth of that statement still astounds me and stirs my heart, even after 50 years.
By Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB