by Ann M. Colford

In a culture based on individualism and consumerism, what's the relevance of monastic life? Are the sisters of St. Gertrude's merely naive throwbacks to an earlier era? Not surprisingly, Sr. Mary Kay Henry, former prioress and now director of development at St. Gertrude's, has a lot to say about the importance of monastics and their values in the modern world.

"People often have an image of monastics as medieval people, as this anachronism," she says. "Monastics enter into this prayer, study and reflection and become aware of the values in the culture and then make some kind of a response. Our values in the end come down to asking who bears the burden for a decision and who is empowered? And very often the poor bear the burden, and the ones with more benefit still more. Whether we have very little, a medium amount or a very great amount, the bottom line is how do we put it at the service of the common good?"

The reasons for joining a monastery are as varied and personal as the individuals themselves. Sr. Teresa Jackson moved to the monastery in 1997, but her journey to the Benedictines began several years before. While working as an attorney in the mental health field in 1989, she took a class in the spirituality program at Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school near her home in San Jose. The subject, the Catholic sacraments, seemed strange, but something piqued her curiosity and she continued taking classes. Two years later, she ventured first into an Episcopal church and then to the local Catholic cathedral for Holy Week and Easter services.

"The Knights of Columbus were there with their swords and capes and plumes, and I thought I had gone through the rabbit hole and into Wonderland," she recalls with a laugh. "But something clicked, and that was the Eucharist. I knew then that I would be Catholic, and I even began thinking about a vocation."

For a single woman raised in the Baptist tradition, these were scary thoughts. "In the mental health field, we talk about intrusive thoughts -- thoughts you don't want but you can't stop," she says. "I wondered if I was having intrusive thoughts about vocations."

She read as much as she could about Catholic religious life, and in 1995 came to Cottonwood for a 12-day monastic living experience. Again, something clicked inside. "It felt like family," she says. "I knew this was where I was supposed to be."

After discernment and an extensive application process, she gave up her apartment and her life in California to join the Benedictine community in August 1997. Within a year, she became a novice; as part of the ceremony, she placed her checkbook and her car keys on the altar as a symbol of joining the community. She took her first profession of vows as a Benedictine sister on March 21, 2000, and will make her perpetual profession this July.

"I sometimes wake up and wonder, how did this happen?" she says. "It's a long way from San Jose."

Both Sr. Teresa and postulant Mary Mendez comment on the sense of freedom they feel at the monastery. "There are so many paradoxes," Sr. Teresa says. "Although we live in this 'closed' place, I've had more opportunities here to develop gifts I never knew I had."

Contemplation -- The sisters at St. Gertrude's live according to four core values, says Sr. Mary Kay. The community's mission statement says the sisters "seek God together through monastic profession, and respond in healing hospitality, grateful simplicity and creative peacemaking."

At its heart, the community is contemplative, Sr. Mary Kay explains. That's the meaning of monastic profession, and it translates into members making a daily commitment to read and reflect on the word of God, both individually and communally. This is the aspect of monasticism that most people assume is the whole story -- hours of every day spent in prayer.

Prayer is at the center, of course, but the particularly Benedictine style of prayer known as lectio divina -- or holy reading -- encompasses much more than hours of silent meditation. Much more. Unlike reading for entertainment, there is nothing passive about the lectio divina, which is done in four parts: reading, reflecting, responding and then resting. The emphasis is that this kind of prayer ultimately results in action. Perhaps most surprising to an outsider, it's not silent, though silence plays a role. The community gathers two or three times a day in the chapel to pray together. Scriptural texts form the basis for the liturgy, particularly the psalms and canticles, but the words of contemporary writers are drawn upon as well.

"Essentially, our communal prayer should be boring, in the best sense of the word, of boring down beneath the surface," says Sr. Judith Brower, the liturgy coordinator. "If it's just on the surface, then it's entertainment; it's what our culture likes. Instead, it should be like water going through a canyon, slowly wearing away that surface to go deeper.

"We pray rhythmically, with a pattern of speaking and silence, of one choir praying and the other choir listening," Sr. Judith continues. "So there's a back-and-forthness. It's a model for ourselves to show that's how prayer can be, but also how life can be. To trust that the community will be there."

Sr. Judith selects the readings and the music for each liturgy, and she says she's inspired by St. Augustine, who said the primary ways God speaks are through scripture and creation.

"One of the joys is to find readings that push our buttons just a little bit," she says. "Scripture is our primary source, but there's also the lectio of [TV's] Nightline, the word of God in the snow today, or praying about acid rain, or President Bush's talk, or in walking in the woods. All of those are places where God manifests."

A contemplative way of life extends beyond the walls of the chapel and into the sisters' work life. Sr. Wilma Schlangen formerly directed the community's kitchen and gardens; now, she makes jam and other preserves. Working alone in the big commercial kitchen, she has time for contemplation as the jam bubbles and boils on the stove. Likewise, Sr. Placida Wemhoff, whose primary job is directing maintenance and operations of the monastery, takes quiet time during the winter months to work in the bookbinding shop, creating journals that are sold in the gift shop and repairing antique books sent to her from all over the world.

Even the form of leadership at the monastery reflects the contemplative dimensions of the community. Current prioress Sr. Jean Lalande was elected in 1999, following a prayerful discernment process that included the entire community.

At the last election, the community decided to move toward a more collaborative form of leadership, so Sr. Jean selected two co-leaders. Sr. Meg Sass serves as assistant prioress, overseeing budget and long-range planning issues, as well as managing the corporate ministries; Sr. Emagene Warren carries the wonderful title of procurator, working with the "temporal goods" of the community through the kitchen, the grounds, housekeeping and the infirmary. In addition, the community chose four others to serve with the three leaders on the leadership council. The leadership team at St. Gertrude's makes decisions based on what will serve the greatest good, both for the monastery and for the broader world.

"People have different gifts," says Sr. Meg. "Benedict valued the gifts of individuals, and one of Jean's primary directives, as spiritual leader, is to find the gifts of each individual in the community and help them develop each gift and use it."

Healing Hospitality -- Benedictines are famous for their hospitality. Right there in the Rule of Benedict, the founder says, "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ." That's a tall order, especially from one who wrote during times of great political upheaval and violence, but Benedictines have traditionally invited guests to come in and share the gifts of the community. Some stay for just a few hours while others linger for many months, but the welcome is always the same. The sisters at St. Gertrude's share fresh-baked bread, homemade soups and plenty of fruits and vegetables from their gardens. They also share jokes and laughter at every meal except for breakfast; during the morning meal, sisters in the dining room maintain a respectful silence. But even then, the community allows an exception; those who wish to converse may simply move to another room and visit there.

Benedictine hospitality merges with ministry in the work of the spirituality and retreat team, which offers workshops and retreats for both groups and individuals. Some groups simply use the monastery's facilities while other retreats are led by members of the St. Gertrude's community. In addition, the monastery does an outreach ministry, bringing retreats to groups outside the monastery. The newest outreach effort is an Internet-based retreat available through the community's Web site .

"It's a way of reaching folks who may literally have difficulty getting to a retreat," explains Sr. Teresa Jackson, the outreach coordinator. "But it's also for people who might not quite be ready to show up in person to a monastery. That can be kind of intimidating. So hopefully this is a nice low-key, non-threatening way for people to learn a little bit more."

The spirituality and retreat team is led by Kathy McFaul, who is not a Benedictine. "As an outsider, one quality of this community that I find compelling is the balance of being deeply rooted in the monastic tradition and the faithfulness to that tradition, combined with an openness to listen to the spirit, and the different ways that is expressed," she says. "I find this community a marvelous model of being grounded and solid and yet open to finding new and different ways to do things."

Hospitality does not simply translate into welcoming people within the confines of the monastery, however. Sr. Mary Kay says Benedictines are called to find ways to carry their values out into the world.

"In our own culture, we see a lot of violence, using people as stepping stones to success," she says. "We see isolation, racism, age-ism -- all of those inhospitable ways of being in the world. As monastic people, we need to live an alternative to that. We're products of our culture, but we say, 'How can we live our life in a way that can be a statement, showing that people are valuable, and things are valuable, and that hospitality is important?' "

Grateful Simplicity -- How much stuff does a person need to live a simple but comfortable life? Benedictines are not ascetics; denial of legitimate basic needs was never part of Benedict's agenda. For the sisters of St. Gertrude's, simplicity begins with finding the sacred in the everyday.

"Benedict said all things are sacred vessels of the altar," Sr. Mary Kay explains. "For us, that means taking good care of our buildings, our equipment, and our land."

Stewardship of resources forms a large part of the community's ministry, from organic gardening and sustainable land practices to treasuring the history of the monastery and the surrounding region in the Historical Museum at St. Gertrude's. Sr. Carol Ann Wassmuth is chair of the committee for stewardship of the land and executive secretary of the social justice ministry, and she sees the two aspects of her work as parts of a single whole.

"I think social justice and ecology are the same thing," she explains. "Social justice means giving due to everything. And we are so interconnected with other species. You can't take care of humans and ruin the planet; caring for the two has to be done together."

The monastery owns 1,000 acres of forest land on Cottonwood Butte, and Sr. Carol Ann developed a long-range management plan for the land that calls for thinning and clearing out areas with disease, then replanting with species suitable for the climate.

"We're working toward a future dream of a healthy, sustaining forest," she says.

The community grows vegetables and herbs in a large organic garden, and the sisters are now working on recovering the orchards started by the founding sisters. By growing much of their own food and sharing what they have, the sisters strive to live lightly on their land. They also have begun speaking out, both individually and as a community, on social justice issues related to women and poverty.

"As a community, we've connected with the Idaho Women Northwest and the Women of Color Alliance," Sr. Carol Ann says. "We're working on the campaign for a death-penalty moratorium in Idaho, and we also work with peace groups in the area. We're isolated, geographically, but we do what we can from here."

The value of grateful simplicity underlies all of these actions, says Sr. Mary Kay. "When you watch our media, so much of it is about consumerism," she says. "That can use up a lot of resources, and it can turn creation and other people into objects rather than friends. Out of our contemplation and working together, we look at how to use our resources to raise up the issue of distribution. How is it that a few percent have 95 percent of the wealth? And how is it that we're making decisions about who has access to education, who has access to medicine, who has access to social services? Those are issues in our culture that as monastic people we need to understand and then hold up the value of reverence and the honor of people."

Creative Peacemaking -- Living in peace and harmony, both within the community and in the larger world, is not always possible at the monastery, but that is the goal. A sense of creative peacemaking permeates everything the sisters do, from attending peace rallies to working on plans for the formation of new members.

Like most religious communities in the U.S., the monastery faces an aging membership, with far fewer new members joining the fold. Of the women currently in formation, the youngest is 40 and the oldest in her 60s. Some of the newer members are mothers and grandmothers; one worked for several years as an attorney. Sr. Agnes Reichlin, director of formation, has had to adapt the formation process to the needs of women with more life experience. As one important step, each new member must write her own life story in depth and share it.

"The story class becomes quite involved," says Sr. Agnes. "We look at family of origin, the search for God, sexuality, our work story and our education story, along with the story of our community and the story of Benedict."

In her role as director of vocations ministry, Sr. Janet Marie Barnard travels extensively, bringing the story of the monastery out into the world. "Vocation is about the work you'll do, but it's also about lifestyle," she says. "We're looking for healthy people who have the desire to be more for themselves and to serve more in the world."

In a broader sense, the sisters work from their core values to engage with the world and speak their truth through prayer, work and community living. And in doing this, they find that they have a role in the larger world that they've seemingly left behind.

"Our world is so violent," says Sr. Mary Kay. "Through prayer, study and interaction, we try to understand that. How does this group of women name what's happening in the culture? And how do we work for justice and work for people? That's a risky thing to do."

A 1500 Year Tradition -- Benedictine monastics, including the sisters at the Monastery of St. Gertrude, follow the way of life laid out in the Rule of Benedict, a series of 73 chapters that outline rules for communal living. Although the Rule is 1,500 years old, its dictates -- countercultural when written and certainly countercultural now -- guide an estimated 1,400 communities of professed Benedictine and Cistercian religious, both men and women, along with countless laypersons around the world.

Benedict of Nursia was born in 480, during the waning years of Roman rule. In his day, those who wished to live a spiritual life withdrew from society and lived as hermits. But Benedict saw the need to live in community, and he wrote his rule as a handbook of sorts for those who chose to follow the same path. He emphasized simplicity, hospitality, study and contemplation, all springing from the Christian scriptures.

"I'm not sure if, in our culture, we get how radical that was," says Sr. Mary Kay Henry, former prioress and now director of development at St. Gertrude's. "Benedict said that people could be drawn together to a common purpose, and each one respected."

Some sections of the Rule may seem mundane to us now, but consider something as simple as sleeping arrangements. At a time when most families lived in a single room and usually slept together, Benedict called for each monastic to have his or her own bed. Monastics were encouraged to read for a time every day, during an era when literacy was a rare gift. Everyone was to do a fair share of the work and receive a share of the community's food and wine according to need. Every member deserved respect, whether a noble or a peasant. During the 6th century, each of these prescriptions stood in sharp relief to what one would expect outside the monastery.

Chapter 53, the Reception of Guests, may be the most often quoted section of the Rule: "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ... Proper honor must be shown to all..." As the noted Benedictine sister Joan Chittister says in her commentary on the Rule, "Benedictine spirituality is not based in dualism, in the notion that things of the world are bad for us and things of the spirit are good... The message to the stranger is clear: Come right in and disturb our perfect lives. You are the Christ for us today."

A Refuge In The Wild -- The Benedictine sisters who founded St. Gertrude's in 1907 first arrived in the Northwest in 1882, following an arduous journey from San Andreas Abbey in Sarnen, Switzerland. They traveled first to Gervais, Ore., where they helped minister in the Grande Ronde Mission. Because the women's living quarters were not ready when they arrived, the sisters spent a few months living in rented rooms in town -- above Matt's Saloon. In 1884, three of the sisters struck out for Uniontown, in Washington Territory. There, they founded St. Andrew's Convent, dedicated to serving the largely German Catholic immigrant population in the area and following the Rule of Benedict.

Within a decade, the sisters needed to expand, so they moved three miles down the road to Colton, where St. Scholastica's convent and academy were built. In 1907, the sisters founded the first convent in Cottonwood, and the community officially moved its motherhouse to St. Gertrude's in 1909. Construction of the imposing stone chapel and residence began in 1920, using basalt quarried from the sisters' land. During the 1930s, the sisters began serving in nearby healthcare facilities and established St. Gertrude's Academy, a high school next door to the cloister.

The mid-century years were a time of growth for the community, with the number of sisters in residence exceeding 150. A brick annex was added to accommodate the sisters and to serve as dormitory space for the girls of the academy. Then in the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council ushered in an era of rapid change, not just at St. Gertrude's but among religious communities everywhere. Gone was the habit, the trademark garb of the sisters. The outer change symbolized a new openness. At the same time, however, increased opportunities for women in other church ministries drew some away from the vocation of religious life. In the early 1970s, the academy closed; the building is now used as the local public high school.

As the sisters moved away from their traditional services of education and healthcare, a new vision for the community evolved, one rooted in the strong Benedictine traditions of hospitality, service and living for the common good. Spirituality and retreat programs, the Historical Museum at St. Gertrude, and the stewardship of the monastery's land are now the primary ministries of the community, with some individual sisters working in education, healthcare, pastoral ministries, social services, domestic services and preservation of history. Through it all, the sisters strive to live according to the Rule of Benedict while serving the needs of the 21st-century world around them.

Publication date: 03/20/03

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