Dispatches from the Monastery: Expanding the Invitation
by Katie Gordon
“All you holy women, come and be with us.”
While I was raised Catholic, I stopped identifying that way as a teenager. A monastery is the last place I expected to find myself at home. But a deep dive into the Benedictine tradition is showing me what millennials like myself can learn from monasticism.
This summer, I’m living with the Benedictines Sisters in Erie, PA. My brief visit to this community last year left me yearning for more. In particular, I was drawn to their commitments. The ‘vow of stability’ which roots them to one place, one community, can teach rootedness to a transient generation. The ‘vow of conversion,’ a commitment to growing and changing every day, can show us how to embrace constant change in our own becoming.
So this summer, I am back here living at the monastery, following these curiosities, contributing to the sisters’ ministries, and imagining new ways we can learn from one another. Every day, I learn new stories from the history of this community that reveal pieces of an inspiring future.
In June, the community held their annual retreat. Sister Joan Chittister—a prolific writer and prophetic leader here in Erie and around the world—led the retreat. Our days were spent in silence, except for Joan’s daily sharing about sisters from the community’s rich history. We learned about the spiritual qualities these women embodied, and the psychological, social, and communal implications of those spiritual traits. Learning about Sisters Rosemary and Mary Regina, for instance, allowed us to reflect on the intellectual curiosity and close friendships that can open our minds and spirits to the future, both individually and collectively.
Over dinner one night, Sister Linda Romey—a Benedictine sister, friend, and co-dreamer with Nuns & Nones—shared her thoughts about the future of religious life and of the Benedictine tradition. From her perspective, the story of this future is not the overused narrative that this way of life is “diminishing,” or even that it is simply evolving. In fact, it’s expanding.
Expansion. What does this look like? It looks like many things. It looks like the recent wave of young women moving to Erie in order to be closer to these Sisters. Some have chosen to join the community, others work in their ministries, and others yet live nearby and come for community events or long weekend retreats. Catholics, seekers, queer women, and activists have all found their way to these women. What they know is that they want to be a part of this community and this tradition.
So how does the monastic tradition make room for people like this—those who want to commit to community, to place, to tradition, in non-traditional ways?
Thankfully, the Benedictine tradition is used to questions of reinvention. Founded in the 6th century, it’s already been around for almost 1500 years. Yet, as Joan Chittister reflects, it is new in every generation. As she wrote in her 1990 book Woman Strength: “Because you are continuous, you can change…It’s a chain of memories that makes the future possible.”
We can’t re-imagine what it means to be Benedictine without understanding the history and tradition that formed its present moment. We can’t re-imagine what it means to live a committed life without understanding the ways our ancestors and elders have made their own commitments. And yet, each age can pull on that chain of memories in the way most needed by the times.
Twice a week with the Erie Benedictines, we recite the Prayer of Vocations, which celebrates the seekers in our midst and blesses them on their way toward becoming and belonging. Whether that lands people in the monastery, or in loving relationships, or in a new calling, none are excluded from the blessing of this community.
Following this spirit, how we can we all continue to expand our sense of community? In religious life, in spiritual communities, and even in civic spaces – how can a sense of expansion help stretch our hearts and our traditions even deeper?
“All you holy women, come and be with us.” We sang these words every day at retreat, to invoke deceased community members into our presence. And I wonder how to extend this invitation – to those women today, as we search for a deeper way of being, with oneself and in community.
Centered on community, guided by those in vowed religious life—yet still opening doors to seekers exploring new ways of being—I am grateful and excited to continue to hold these questions with the Erie Benedictine Sisters, and with our growing Nuns & Nones community.
If you’re also interested in these questions – a few opportunities might speak to you!
Linda Romey, OSB, is beginning to write about her vision of the ‘expansion’ of religious life, with articles coming out soon. Keep your eyes peeled!
In June 2020, the “Being Benedictine” conference will explore ways of being Benedictine in the 21stcentury and beyond. Find more info here.