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Religious Life

Benedictine values assist judge in her work

When Jean DiMotto was elected Milwaukee County Circuit Judge, she realized that her childhood dream of becoming a priest was being fulfilled. “I view my judgeship as my vocation. My ordination was my investiture. My courtroom is my church. I wear a vestment -- my robe,” she told NCR.

When DiMotto enters the courtroom from her chambers -- the sacristy behind the courtroom -- and ascends to the bench, people stand as they do when the priest processes to the altar. She views the court’s public gallery much as she does the pews of a church.

Attorneys are allowed to enter the inner sanctum of the courtroom, which is in front of a railing not unlike the Communion rail of old. Her staff serves as acolytes, assisting her as she performs the rituals of her role.

These are but the externals of her job. Her real work comes in the greeting she gives to all -- even in Spanish to Latino defendants. She ends the sentencing rite by wishing each person good luck. When felons “sincerely ask me for forgiveness, I give it,” she said.

In recent years DiMotto has begun to see that the values she brings to her judgeship are named in Benedictine spirituality: mindfulness, listening, hospitality and attention to each person. DiMotto may have to deal with 70 to 100 cases a day. In most of these she is performing two judicial rituals -- hearing a guilty plea and sentencing.

In the course of four or five minutes she asks a series of some 20 questions to satisfy herself that the defendants fully understand what they are doing and that they are in fact guilty of the crime to which they are voluntarily pleading. She may take another two or three minutes to hear from the prosecuting and defense attorneys and to allow the defendant to speak before imposing sentence.

“When I first took the bench five years ago, I viewed my process in these rituals as being laser focused and absorbing information like a sponge,” DiMotto said. “But these are mundane metaphors” for what she now understands to be the Benedictine values of mindfulness and listening. As an oblate of the Sisters of St. Benedict of Madison, she and 98 other oblates are part of an intentional ecumenical community, whose members have found practical spirituality in living the Rule of Benedict.

Spiritual seekers of many denominations come to the monastery from surrounding states and from as far away as Virginia, Florida and Texas. During a year of candidacy, they are expected to come to Madison every other month for retreats and spiritual formation and to get input from experienced oblates.

The oblate program began in 1997 and is under the guidance of Jody Crowley Beers, director of spirituality. Oblates try to “nurture the monk” in each person by integrating Benedictine spirituality into their prayer, work, leisure and study.

The program has grown by word of mouth, said Crowley Beers, a Catholic. Members range from their late 20s to age 87. About 15 percent of oblates are men -- “all men who aren’t afraid of women,” said Crowley Beers’ husband, the Rev. Bill Beers, an Episcopal priest and hospital chaplain.

“So much of the rule is trying to under-stand humility,” said Beers, who de-scribed himself as argumentative. The chaplain, who grew up in the 1960s, said he questioned everyone and everything. “Here everything is questioned because it is sacred.”

Oblate Claudia Greco said she now orders her day around morning, noon and evening prayer, “not the other way around.” The simplicity of monastery life and “the way the sisters model the rule,” led Greco to move into a smaller space with her children. She has also changed how she greets people. “I really want to be present to them.”

A Madison therapist who specializes in counseling addicts, Greco has brought clients to the monastery for the five-day TIME (Together in Monastic Experience) retreat, during which they tend the garden and orchards, as well as their spiritual life.

Katie Kretschman occasionally accompanied her mother, Carole Kretschman, to the monastery. On one visit she heard Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister of Erie, Pa. A year later Katie became one of the youngest oblates. A musician, she has soloed on her trombone at the monastery.

The physical surroundings and simple furnishings of the monastery are what first attracted Carole Kretschman, a mother of four. Kretschman said she’d long “thought of the church as something you did or a place you went; I did not see it as something to fulfill my needs.” But during a trip to the Netherlands to visit Katie, “I saw the richness of the culture and history of the Dutch church … When the oblate program arrived, I was ready to take my life to a higher level.”

That higher level was apparent to DiMotto when she first visited 10 years ago. “I felt something almost palpable. It immediately opened me to the Spirit.” After years of spiritual journeying, DiMotto said she went up to her room and wept. She said that Benedictine Sr. Joanne Kollasch, director of monastic formation, once told her: “We had our eyes on you the moment you walked in the door.”

Kollasch said: “Some people possess an awareness of an inner life to a heightened degree; others take years to uncover it.” The challenge is in knowing “when to blow on that ember and when to leave the person in a quiet space for it to develop.”

-- Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003