Psalms, Benedict, Sisters

The amazing sisters of St Gertrude’s deserve a beautifully written article. This blog post will be longer than others I have written this summer, perhaps only semi-coherent, but hopefully readable. Now that I have lowered your expectations, let me begin.

Anger, violence, sadness, praise, awe, images of creation, fear, hope, regret, calls for justice, gratitude, remembrance–that sums up the contents of the Psalms we pray through reading and singing during morning and evening prayer at St Gertrude’s and, I assume, every monastic community that uses some adaptation of Benedict’s psalter. It is not formatted numerically but thematically–he really did a brilliant job. Here, we read or sing three psalms at morning and evening prayer. Every prayer service also includes a canticle from scripture, read or sung. In the morning we have a reading from the Rule of Benedict. The sister in charge of leading prayer for the week also reads either the assigned scripture reading or chooses something of her own interest. My first few days here we heard portions of an article from Catholic News Service by Sister Gallares, Sowers of Prophetic Hope for the Planet: A Biblical Perspective. “Wow!” I thought to myself. “This is going to be a great three-weeks.”

Lest you begin to wonder if Benedict was stuck in the Old Testament, nothing could be further from the truth. Morning prayer ends with the Canticle of Zechariah and evening prayer ends with the Canticle of Mary. And we celebrate the Lord’s Supper nearly everyday! At 11:30 am we celebrate Eucharist everyday but Tuesday and Saturday. On those two days we substitute Midday Praise, which is the service that helps us tackle the lengthy Psalm 119. Although on Sundays our gospel comes from Luke, our weekday gospel text is from Matthew. St Gertrude’s follows the three-year lectionary for Sunday readings and the two-year lectionary for weekdays. Our Old Testament weekday lessons are semi-continuous as we were in Deuteronomy when I arrived and now we are in Ruth.

Excursus: We also get to recognize saints who have gone before us. I was particularly excited for Aug. 20, St Bernard of Clairvaux, because after a horrible experience in Dr Bernard McGinn’s History of Christian Thought II course, I took him again for a great seminar and ended up writing a paper on Bernard of Clairvaux. During evening prayer and at the noon meal we also recognize sisters and oblates–birthdays, anniversaries of vows, and anniversaries of deaths.

And so, what is the effect of praying through scripture multiple times a day? These sisters know the old old story of our faith, that is to be sure. Their lives, both at the monastery and out in their previous work places, to me seem to reveal a particular hermeneutic (way of interpreting scripture). I asked the priest, a Benedictine himself from the monastery in Jerome,  Idaho if there is such a thing as a Benedictine hermeneutic. He was not sure. The monasteries I know about–St Gertrude’s, Holy Wisdom in Madison, WI (both of my parents have been there and still receive their publication), and St. Benedict’s in St Joseph, MN (which I visited on a college field trip)–all have similar commitments to peacemaking, serving the marginalized, and working towards church unity.

The longer I have stayed here, it has become obvious that the hermeneutic they share is St Benedict’s Rule, even the more traditional monasteries. Benedict’s rule was all about living together in community. Reading through its summary called to my mind Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together (encouraged preparatory reading for my first summer working at Camp Christian in Montana).

In her book, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister’s writes ” The difficulty with understanding Benedictine spirituality comes in reading some sections of the rule without reading the entire document. The fact is that Benedictine spirituality is not based in dualism, in the notion that things fo the world are bad for us and things of the spirit are good. We are not to pray too long but we are to pray always. Self-discipline is a given, but wine and food and the creature comforts fo a bed with bedding are also considered necessary. The rule is for everyone, including the abbot or prioress, and yet everyone is a potential exception to it.”

When I have thought about Benedictines, I always thought about hospitality. In her commentary on Chapter 66: The Porter [doorkeeper] of the Monastery, Chittister writes, “If there is any chapter in the rule that demonstrates Benedictine openness to life and, at the same time, models a manner of living int he midst of society without being consumed by it, this is surely the one. Guests are welcomed enthusiastically in Benedictine spirituality but, at the same time, life is not to be frittered away on work, on social life, on the public bustle of the day. The community is to stay as self-contained as possible so that centered in the monastery they stay centered in their hearts. More, this balance between public and private, between openness and centeredness on interior growth is to be remembered and rehearsed over and over again: ‘We wish this rule to be read often,’ the rule says plaintively so that the monastic never forgets that the role of committed Christians is always to grow richer themselves so that they can give richly to others.” The woman can write!

I was thinking deeply, on my drive up two weeks ago, about how various monastic orders have different charisms or emphases. I served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) in Syracuse, New York between college and graduate school and learned a bit about that order, founded by St Ignatius. The four tenets of the JVC are Social Justice, Community, Simple Lifestyle and Spirituality. (See, it should not surprise anyone that I ended up spending three weeks in a monastic community.) The museum at St Gertrude’s has an excellent display explaining the similarities and differences between different orders:


I do believe that the Benedictine emphasis on praying through the psalms and lectionary readings would do us all well. We cannot share the Gospel of Jesus Christ if we do not know and love the Gospel ourselves. We cannot tell a story we do now know. And one way to learn it is to read it again and again at different stages of life while we are in different stages of faith.

However, I do not think we all need to cloister ourselves off; live in isolation. Jesus himself tried to get away from the crowds but he was never cloistered. Times of rest and renewal are incredibly valuable, writes the pastor in the middle of her sabbatical. The sisters who founded St Gertrude’s came from Switzerland and intended to be cloistered but it never happened. “We had to make a living!” one sister responded to me at dinner when I asked if they had ever been cloistered at St Gertrude’s. (The following photos are also from the monastery’s museum).

Then 43 years ago, the summer I was born, something tremendous happened and I think the ripples are still felt today. The spirit of this place can be traced back to how they received what came out of Vatican II.

And still, the sisters here today are not isolated. These sisters open their doors to visitors every day of the week for worship, retreats, and hosted events. Over 30,000 people come through this place in a single year I was told. There are over 80 oblates (lay members) affiliated with St Gertrude’s. The sisters here are living out their mission faithfully: “Eager to welcome God’s transforming power in ourselves and our world, we seek God together through monastic profession and respond with our core values: Healing Hospitality, Grateful Simplicity, Creative Peacemaking.”

I return to the reading of the psalms, day in and day out, without getting to skip any. What does that do to a community, when you all know that you are not just praying the prayers written so long ago, not just praying the prayers passed down from generation to generation? These are, after all, our prayers too.

I will close with this reflection on praying the psalms by Benedictine Oblate Kathleen Norris, from her book The Cloister Walk, “But to the modern reader the psalms can seem impenetrable: how in the world can we read, let alone pray, these angry and often violent poems from the ancient warrior culture? At a glance they seem overwhelmingly patriarchal, ill-tempered, moralistic, vengeful, and often seem to reflect precisely what is wrong with our world. And that’s the point, or part of it. As one reads the psalms every day, it becomes clear that the world they depict is not really so different from our own; the fourth-century monk Athanasius wrote that the psalms ‘become like a mirror to the person singing them,’ and this is as true now as when he wrote it. The psalms remind us that the way we judge each other, with harsh words and acts of vengeance, constitutes injustice, and they remind us that it is the powerless in society who are overwhelmed when injustice becomes institutionalized.”






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