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Religious Life

First U.S. ecumenical community for women

Madison, Wis.

Lynne Smith describes herself as a new monastic for the new millennium. Smith is a Presbyterian Benedictine -- not just a baptized Presbyterian, but an ordained minister in the Presbyterian church. She is also a novice in the ecumenical community of Benedictine women of Madison.

When she made her first profession to monastic life in June 2000, she fulfilled a childhood dream of becoming a nun -- but without abandoning her denomination. Along with Sr. Mary David Walgenbach, prioress, and Sr. Joanne Kollasch, director of monastic formation, the three comprise the core of what is thought to be the first ecumenical community for women in the United States.

Smith began to experience her contemplative side while praying with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia, Kan., in 1985 while she served a church in Wichita, Kan. Praying and meditating with a group of lay women, making retreats with Catholic sisters, seeking spiritual direction and opening her life to the Spirit were the ways Smith chose to fill her hunger for elements of a spiritual life that were not part of her own Reformed tradition.

In 1996 her soul’s journey led her to Madison after she read an advertisement in a religious journal about the Benedictine sisters and their invitation to celibate women between 25 and 50 to explore monastic living. Smith brought questions about retaining her denominational ties, about her work, her finances and her future. For two years she made frequent retreats at the St. Benedict Retreat and Conference Center, traveling from Columbus Junction, Iowa, where she was a pastor.

Celibacy was not an obstacle for her. As a pastor for 16 years, she had decided that she could not do full-time ministry and be married. “But I don’t think a person has to be celibate to be ordained.”

Smith was not the only Protestant coming to pray at the center. Twice each month 20 members of the ecumenical Community of Benedict -- some of them ordained, some single, others married -- gathered to pray, eat and reflect on the Rule of Benedict and its application to their lives. The rule and the Benedictine Liturgy of the Hours -- based on the psalms and scripture -- are ecumenical at their core, she said. Both predated the Orthodox split with Rome in the 11th century and the Protestant Reformation in the 16th.

St. Benedict’s rule is credited with having kept civilization alive at a time when barbarians were invading and plundering much of what had been the glories of Rome. The rule provided for the practical governance and the spiritual and material welfare of a community that would attach itself around a life of daily prayer, work and hospitality.

Fifteen centuries later Smith saw how the rule was the cohesion holding the Madison group together. “The rule is very concrete; it gives a focus to your life. It is, as [Benedictine Sr.] Joan Chittister has written, ‘a guide for living the ordinary life extraordinarily well,’ ” Smith told NCR.

Smith’s Eastern Iowa Presbytery supported her wish to pursue a contemplative spirituality while remaining a Presbyterian. Her first months at Madison were filled with communal prayer, study, gardening and helping in the kitchen.

She longed to learn more and began a graduate degree in monasticism -- first on the Internet and then as a resident at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. Erica Thiessen, a Mennonite, hopes to join the community too. She’s currently a student at the Institute of Spiritual Leadership at Loyola University in Chicago. A third Protestant woman has expressed interest and made several retreats with the Benedictines.

Women who join the community will undertake a formation process of three to five years, during which they will journey through ever-deepening stages of commitment. They may start with weekend or brief in-residence visits, followed by more extensive monastic experience and move toward a lifetime commitment.

Kollasch, 71, and Walgenbach, 63, are thrilled that Smith, 48, has joined them. Their delight is not that of women who want to be assured newcomers will replace them. Rather, it is joy at the gift others bring to their community. “When other Christians pray with us, we are opened,” Walgenbach said.

In 1966, long before most Catholics were even talking to non-Catholics, the sisters converted their girls’ boarding school into an ecumenical retreat and conference center. The center became the meeting place for the Madison Interfaith Dialogue Committee.

It also hosted talks between the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran church, which eventually became the Evangelical Lutheran church in America. “For 17 years the LCA, the ALC and Missouri Synod Lutherans held their summer institute for mission here, dispersing from this place all over the world,” Kollasch said.

Three monks from the ecumenical community of Taizé, France, became guests for two years. They conducted retreats with the sisters, attracting laity and clergy.

Never without guests

In the 1970s women from India resided at the center for six years. A Vietnamese boat family came in the late 1970s. A refugee family from El Salvador followed. Later a Chinese couple and their young son spent six years at the center while seeking asylum as religious refugees. The sisters also hosted a number of Benedictine nuns from Africa and Asia, and others studying in the United States. The monastery was never without guests.

The Dalai Lama visited. So did Jewish groups and Christians from almost every denomination, including Assemblies of God and Quakers. “Methodists call this home. Presbyterians call this home. I call it home,” Walgenbach said.

The sisters were “spiritually enriched” by their guests, she said. “St. Benedict told his followers: ‘Receive your guests as Christ.” A guest always comes with a different bag than you have,” Walgenbach said. “We don’t ask our guests: ‘Are you orthodox? Are you bona fide?’ only, ‘Are you searching for God?’ ” Kollasch added.

The sisters make no effort to homo-genize spirituality. They try instead to recognize the uniqueness of each guest and of each person’s beliefs. Smith proudly places the letters OSB -- Order of St. Benedict -- after her name. She loves the equalitarian nature of the community. “There’s no hierarchy in the rule.”

Lay and ordained persons are chosen to lead the Liturgy of the Hours. Smith, who has degrees in Christian education and theology, leads retreats and gives spiritual direction, as do Kollasch and Walgenbach, who have been professed more than 40 years.

Smith maintains links with a local Presbyterian congregation. When she became a monastic, she brought with her “the richness of my Reformed heritage with its stress on biblical study, education and ecumenical work.” She points to the white marble fireplace in the sitting room just off the center’s Oratory. Its inscription: “That All May Be One” reflects her longing to be one in Christ and to share her gifts.

The community recognizes the differences that exist among Christians concerning the Eucharist. The sisters encourage those coming to the center to have access to the eucharistic celebration of their respective church traditions, according to their needs and desires. Capuchin Fr. Ken Smits serves as the center’s pastoral minister. He offers Mass on Sundays, gives retreats and counsels those afflicted with addictions.

“Where public liturgy is concerned, the Eucharist falls more directly within the bishop’s domain,” said Walgenbach, adding that there are still “some tugs” over this issue. The bishop, who has attended vespers -- at which Walgenbach and Kollasch sat on either side of him -- “has some rights; so does the community,” she said. “Where Benedictine community life is concerned, there’s much autonomy in how we conduct our life.”

Both nuns have “weathered storms together” and have seen drastic changes in religious life and in society. Each has served two terms as prioress, guiding the work of the monastery and nurturing the spiritual growth of each member. Another three members of the community live in retirement in Sioux City, Iowa, where the Benedictines once ran a hospital. Funds from the sale of the hospital in 1977 have gone toward supporting the Madison operation, which employs some 30 persons.

“We could have merged with another religious community. We could have sold the place, put our heads in the sand and sat on the porch and cried,” Walgenbach said. “But we picked up our load and carried it,” she said, adding: “So many have helped us.”

Hands and heads together

It was in 1980 during worldwide Benedictine celebrations of the 1,500th anniversary of St. Benedict’s birth that the two Iowa natives got the idea for their ecumenical community. It happened around a symposium sponsored by the University of Wisconsin’s history and English departments that brought together the late Benedictine monastic historian Fr. Jean Leclercq, Benedictine scripture scholar Demetrius Dunn, and Chittister, an expert on the Rule of Benedict and author of a book on that topic.

The symposium convinced the sisters that Benedictines could support an ecumenical community. “We could do this for the church and the world,” Kollasch said. The sisters put their hands together in prayer and their heads together to discern what such a small community could do. In 1990 they handpicked a dozen monastics from the Benedictine federations of Ss. Scholastica, Benedict and Gertrude; from the Missionary Benedictines and from the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and invited them to Madison.

At the meeting they presented their history to the group and their thoughts about the future. The visiting nuns scrutinized their options, narrowing them to seven. “What we heard was our ecumenical work being affirmed,” Kollasch said. For the next year the pair met with a consulting group chosen from among the dozen who had come to Madison.

In 1999 the sisters won support for their vision from the 17 other autonomous Benedictine communities that comprise the Federation of St. Gertrude, to which the Madison community belongs. The move was historic as it allows any monastery in the Federation of St. Gertrude to form a non-canonical, ecumenical dependent monastery.

Aware of the difficulties they had faced in previous decades -- when Catholic clergy questioned their commitment to the church -- they sought the expertise of Benedictine Fr. Dan Ward, a canon lawyer at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville. He assured them that their vision was within the traditions of early church monastics.

“The way we’ve chosen to grow is to grow with the laity,” Walgenbach said. “If we’re growing inwardly, it’s because our monastic charism is touching the minds and hearts of those we live among.” One of the ways this happens is by creating a monastic environment “inside and outside. There’s a hospitality of space here,” she said, noting that some come for the simplicity and peace the center provides. The furnishings are simple, made of natural wood. Open spaces invite dialogue while the chapel, oratory and other rooms welcome silence and meditation. Cell phones are banned.

More than 300 groups, the majority of them religious and/or nonprofits, use the center in the course of a year. Many combine spirituality with care of the land, water and wildlife. In recent years, the overarching work has been the re-storation and preservation of the 130-acre-property.

When four Benedictines came by train from Sioux City in 1953 to find a location for a girls’ college prep school, they planted religious medals in a pasture near Lake Mendota and noted: “This is the place.” They returned in 1954, located the owners, bought the land and began to build on a hillside overlooking the lake, the University of Wisconsin and state capital -- five miles from downtown Madison.

Over the years, the farmland perimeters of neighboring properties have been dotted with $500,000 homes and an 18-hole golf course. “Sisters teed off at golf course,” read a headline in the Madison Capitol Times in the mid-1980s, when a developer wanted to build a course on the land and erect his home on “God’s hilltop.”

While the offer was a “generous fair market price,” the sisters weren’t budging, Neal Smith said. Neal Smith, who is not related to Lynne Smith, has assisted the sisters for 30 years, first as their auditor, later as a consultant and negotiator during the 10-year land deal, and as chief administrator since 1986.

“Care of the land is deeply ingrained in these sisters and in Benedictine tradition,” he said. In October the sisters won a $2,000 environmental award for helping to improve the Lake Mendota Priority Watershed, for restoring endangered ecosystems and for working with civic, governmental and environmental groups and hundreds of volunteers.

The sisters chose to restore the land to its natural prairie grasses and native wildflowers and to build up a pine and oak savannah. Their action has resulted in new wetland/detention areas that have eliminated silt and chemical runoff from 200 acres of nearby land. It has also significantly improved the quality of water flowing into Lake Mendota.

The restoration of Lost Lake, a tiny glacial body of water on the property, has similarly enhanced its capacity to handle runoff in its drainage basin. A local dredger removed more than 5,000 truckloads of sediment from the lake, much of it used as topsoil for the nearby prairie. And he did it all for only $75,000, the sisters noted.

“We have lots of backers,” Walgenbach said. She listed the wildlife conservation group “Ducks Unlimited” among them. The center supports itself with donations and earns modest retreat and conference rental fees, she said.

In this ecumenical enclave in Wisconsin, monastics, visitors and guests can gratify their senses by picking apples in the center’s orchards, preparing vegetables fresh from its garden, harvesting seeds, tending one of the center’s 25 bluebird houses or getting a closer look at the recently returned eagles and blue herons.

Lynne Smith recalled the summer day here when “I gave my life publicly to God through this community. I was held up by this whole community,” she said, lifting her arms aloft, “just as God is holding us all up now.” St. Benedict’s Monastery is a place for women who are willing to take risks, who are called to the contemplative life and who hunger for a deep prayer life, she said. “The monastery is my heart’s home.”

Patricia Lefevere is an NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003