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Religious Life

Methodist woman founds monastery

Most Protestants don’t know much about monasticism or about Benedictine spirituality. But once they meet Mary Stamps, all that changes. Stamps crisscrosses Minnesota lecturing and giving retreats to Protestants -- most of them United Methodists -- who receive her warmly. That’s not surprising. Stamps is proof that one can be a devout Protestant and a monk at the same time.

She’s an involved member of New Horizon United Methodist Church in St. Cloud, Minn., where she sings in the choir. She is also the foundress of St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery for women, located on property owned by St. John’s Abbey of Collegeville, Minn.

Stamps has lived at the monastery -- a simple house surrounded by woods, fields, a garden and birdfeeders -- for three years. She made her final profession as a Benedictine monk on St. Brigid’s feast Feb. 1, 2001, taking vows of stability, obedience and fidelity to the monastic way of life as set out in the rule of Benedict.

The call to establish the first monastery for women in the Methodist tradition came after 15 years of prayerful discernment, she told NCR. While studying for her doctorate at the United Methodist Seminary at Emory University in Atlanta, Stamps lived two years with the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Clyde, Mo., and two years with Benedictine nuns at Holy Family Convent in Albany, Minn.

In 1987 and 1988 she had the chance to participate frequently in the Liturgy of the Hours while pursuing monastic studies and living on campus at St. John’s University in Collegeville. At that time she met Benedictine Fr. Timothy Kelly, who became her professor and spiritual director. Stamps was surprised to learn that Kelly was working with a group of Methodists who were considering how the United Methodist church might establish a monastic community.

Even more providential than her own contacts with Benedictines, Stamps said, was the fact that two of her professors at Emory were oblates of Benedictine monasteries. Roberta Bondi is a member of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, Minn., and Don Saliers was an oblate of St. John’s Abbey.

The oblate population has “boomed,” spreading Benedictine spirituality through-out the world, Stamps said, pointing to the just-released book, Benedict in the World, co-edited by Bondi and Benedictine Sr. Linda Kulver of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, and published by the Liturgical Press. The book portrays 19 monastic oblates, including Dorothy Day, writer Walker Percy, Christian Family Movement leaders Patrick and Patricia Crowley and French philosopher Jacques Maritain, his wife, Raissa, and her sister, Vera, and Emerson Hynes, a political science professor at St. John’s University and a political adviser to the 1968 presidential campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, a peace party candidate. Also St. Henry II who became holy Roman emperor in 1002, and Frances of Rome, a 15th-century visionary who attempted to set up a monastery for oblates.

St. Brigid’s oblate group has grown to 16 members since the dedication of the monastery on St. Brigid’s feast in 2000. Besides Stamps, it counts another 13 United Methodists, one Catholic and one Disciples of Christ member. The ages of group members range from 23 to 82. One-third of them are men; half are ordained. The community continues to grow.

Not all the oblates live close to the monastery. In September, Stamps, along with another member, conducted a short ceremony by phone for the reception of an oblate novice. The candidate lives in Pennsylvania, where Stamps had already sent her a copy of the Rule of Benedict and asked her to accept it as a guide for living the Christian life.

Naming the monastery in honor of St. Brigid (451-525), a contemporary of St. Benedict (480-547), was Stamps’ choice. “Brigid is a threshold figure,” who helped bring religion to women in Ireland and who founded the first monastery for women -- as well as others for women and men -- in the generation after St. Patrick.

Stamps said she finds following the rhythm of prayer and work and living the Rule of Benedict to be liberating. “God is so much integrated into my thinking,” she said. She prays with the monks of the abbey or with the sisters at St. Benedict’s frequently and encourages local oblates to join one or the other group of Benedictines for prayer at least once a week. Oblates join her for prayer, scriptural reflections and retreats at the monastery.

She is currently involved with a core group of United Methodists who are looking at how formation in a Benedictine monastic context might affect the formation and spirituality of United Methodists. As a Benedictine monk and a loyal follower of Methodist founder John Wesley, Stamps hopes she can share the monastic spirit with many more Protestant Christians.

-- Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003