After three years of absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our oblates returned to the monastery October 7-9, 2022 for their long-awaited annual retreat weekend. As Oblate Director, I was most grateful for Zoom technology so that we could stay connected through frequent check-ins, video discussions and the virtual presentation of the annual retreats. At the conclusion of any Zoom gathering, I always heard a closing comment like “Thank you Sister, for the opportunity to stay connected, but we can’t wait to return home (meaning to the monastery) and meet in person.”
At the beginning of every opening session, the first words out of my mouth when the oblates arrive are always “Welcome home!” But this year, the words carried an awesome, jubilant tone: “WELCOME HOME!!! What a gift to be together once again. Alleluia! Alleluia! I hope you, like me and all the sisters here at Sacred Heart Monastery, are looking forward to a blessed time of renewing our Benedictine hearts through learning and sharing. The past two years and seven months amidst the pandemic and the violent world events we have experienced have most likely broken our hearts open in deeper prayer for all. Hopefully, we have been brought to a greater transformation in ways we are not yet aware.”
Our monastery is one of seventeen Benedictine women’s monasteries of the Monastic Congregation of St. Scholastica (formerly known as the Federation of St. Scholastica) founded in 1922. The General Chapter celebrated its Centennial in June 2022 at Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas. I chose as the theme for this year’s oblate retreat “100 Years of Gratitude: Grace for the Future” in order to share our history and some of the Chapter content with the oblates. Three of our Sisters (Sister Elisabeth Meadows, Prioress; Sister Therese Haydel, Chapter Delegate; and Sister Lynn Marie McKenzie, Congregation President) that attended the Chapter were invited to speak to the oblates.
Sister Elisabeth shared that the theme of the Chapter was “Radical Hospitality of the Heart: El Camino de la Portera.” Sister Judith Sutera (Atchison, Kansas) presented this topic from the perspective of the Rule of St. Benedict and Sister Maricarmen Bracamontes (Torreon, Mexico) presented from the perspective the Scriptures, Church history, and the encyclical of Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti.
Sister Elisabeth summarized the content of Sister Judith’s presentation. She began with an exercise that Sister Judith used at the Chapter, posing the question to participants, “What was your experience of hospitality in your early life, both in giving and receiving hospitality?” The insight to be gained by this exercise was to show the impact of our life experiences on our attitudes toward hospitality. Sister Elisabeth also noted Sister Judith’s message that Benedict’s teaching on hospitality is part of his broader teaching on listening. We have to be listening all of the time, even to guests who arrive, because Christ is in all. It was pointed out that St. Benedict’s chapter on the Porter was likely to have been the original ending of the Rule. If this was the case, then the porter/portress embodies the role of “protector of boundaries” between life inside and life outside of the monastery. The porter/portress is the gatekeeper whose wisdom and discretion determines both coming in and going out.
Sister Therese shared a summary of Sister Maricarmen Bracamontes’ presentation on “Radical Hospitality.” Sister Maricarmen observes: “Hospitality runs like a thread through the entire fabric of the Scriptures.” In the whole of Scripture, the People of God are presented as a pilgrim people, often on the move and in need of hospitality. As such, hospitality was not only valued but also was regarded as a necessity for God’s Chosen People. The Genesis scene of Abraham and Sarah welcoming the three strangers is an example of radical hospitality from the Hebrew Scriptures. In Revelation 3:20, we hear the promise of a shared meal for those who open to the Divine knock: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into her house and dine with her and she with me.” Sister Maricarmen describes this encounter as an example of symmetry (or equality) being formed between the One who knocks and the one who opens the door. The relationship becomes “gratuitous mutuality,” a bondedness, that does not exist prior to the encounter. Radical hospitality changes both parties in a shared recognition of mutual giving and receiving.
Sister Lynn Marie shared the following excerpts from her Presidential Address to the General Chapter: “100 years is a long time – at least here in the USA which has only a less than 250-year history. But for us, 100 years as a group of monastic communities which sprang/were birthed from a sole monastery in Eichstatt, Bavaria [in Germany] as a place to come together as representatives of our monasteries to keep exploring what we are called to as followers of the Rule of St. Benedict, as women now of the 21st century still seeking God in the school of the service of God, 100 years is a long time, even in light of our over 1,500 year history since Benedict left Rome and became a hermit in Subiaco and later a founder of many monasteries…Even as communities are shifting and exploring what the future will hold (and all the emotions and experiences that are part of that journey), there is a spirit of resilience that propels communities forward, touches the lives of others, and creates a lasting legacy of Benedictine life.”
As I listened to our Sisters’ presentations and as I looked around the room, I became aware of total engagement by the oblates and several other Sisters that joined the gathering. Their facial expressions radiated total attentiveness, peace, joy, and a “so glad to be here” countenance. As the oblates shared their life experiences, I was most edified to hear how they are living the Benedictine way of life in their homes, parishes, and workplaces. They are part of us. We are part of them. Together, we continue the Benedictine journey. Within our hearts, we welcome each other home, weaving St. Benedict’s way of life into the future.
By Sister Priscilla Cohen, OSB
For more information about the Oblate way of life: https://www.shmon.org/oblates/