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Religious Life

A way to nourish a contemplative seed in a Protestant heart

Dean Ryerson drives 100 miles after work to meet with fellow members of the Community of Benedict. The group meets at the Benedictine center here 20 times each year. To fit the group into his life, Ryerson with forgos dinner parties and some social life in his own community of Wisconsin Rapids where he is school superintendent.

“I like the intentionality of living in a non-residential, ecumenical way,” Ryerson told NCR during a recent gathering of the community members in Madison. “We care for each other. We pray for each other daily and help each other with our inner journeys.”

Ryerson tries to connect his spiritual life with his work life and with ethics. “The Rule of Benedict anchors me, along with the Benedictine biblical tradition,” he said. “I can be an authentic part of this community while still worshiping in the Lutheran church.”

The group brings a diversity of religious traditions, ages, hometowns, marital status, professional backgrounds and family commitments. Membership is limited to 20 so that each member can know the others well. “There was great discussion about that,” said founding member Shirley Beers, of the United Church of Christ.

“We have archives. We go back,” she said, recalling the struggle to write a covenant suitable to all, after the group sprouted during a weekend retreat here in 1980. “We quibbled for months over language and content,” she said, noting the battle royal between a theologian and an English teacher.

When the covenant was finally adopted in 1986, it called each person to nurture the “inward” and “outward dimensions of each one’s spiritual journey. … The inward dimension is nurtured by common prayer, contemplation and the exploration of the biblical basis for our vocations.” The outward dimension is nurtured by “sharing experiences in our specific ministries, directly related to our work, our family lives, our political and social action and our life together,” according to the covenant.

Beers had been visiting the Benedictine monastery and grounds for 16 years before she became part of the Community of Benedict. Her two daughters loved to ride horses on the large, hilly property overlooking the city of Madison and Lake Mendota.

Her husband, the Rev. Ed Beers, a retired campus minister at the University of Wisconsin, arranged for a group of monks from Taizé, France, to lead a retreat for campus ministers in 1965. During the retreat the Benedictine sisters asked if any of the ministers would like to go horseback riding.

Beers recalled the day as if it were yesterday. “When I gazed over my shoulder and saw the nuns in full habit riding with us, some kind of curtain just dissolved. I didn’t see a nun on horseback, I just saw a human being riding alongside us.”

A United Church of Christ minister, Beers said his own contemplative seed began to grow that day. “But what do you do with a contemplative seed in your heart as a Protestant” whose leaders, Martin Luther and John Calvin, rejected monasticism half a millennium ago?

For him, it was the sisters’ invitation to make a retreat that “began to nourish my contemplative heart,” Beers said. He has found solace in those “silences” that Benedictines place around the scripture. “Benedictine spirituality is the core of my life,” Beers said.

His wife acknowledged that their marriage has been nurtured by the spirituality that both find in the Community of Benedict. “I understand his need for meditation and contemplation,” she said.

For Ryerson, the trip between home and the Community of Benedict pays off in nontraditional ways. He said he is glad for the discussions and for the sisters’ vision. “There’s no ‘drivenness’ here,” he said. Just the way the Psalms are recited lets him know: “I don’t need a big house. I don’t need to live this busy life. I can slow down.”

-- Patricia Lefevere

National Catholic Reporter, February 21, 2003