I spend a lot of time thinking about Benedicta Riepp. In 1852, at the age of 27, she set out from her monastery in Germany and with two other sisters, brought Benedictine life for women to North America. She had what can only be described as a tremendously difficult time. She entered her community at the age of 19, a few years after it began taking new members after over thirty years of being quasi-closed down by Napoleon. The sisters who had been allowed to stay during those years were few, and were elderly, and by the time Mother Benedicta took her final vows, all the sisters who had been professed before the convent had been shuttered had died. The community needed to change. Maybe they put a lot of effort and "shared visioning" into it, but even if they didn't, they had no other choice. The sisters now were all relatively young and relatively new, and their monastery now existed in a mid-nineteenth century culture that was completely unlike the culture that produced it in the eleventh century. Everything was different.
And so for various reasons, in 1852, the community took the opportunity to send Benedicta and two other sisters, Maura Flieger and Walburga Dietrich, to the U.S. to teach German immigrant children there and to bring Benedictinism to the New World.
And life only got harder.
Disease ravaged the community, and they were very poor, living in inadequate buildings, freezing in the winter. The monks who claimed responsibility for them took their money and micromanaged their affairs. The sisters took in orphans they could barely afford to feed. The anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic culture of the day created a hostile environment. Benedicta, embroiled in a canon law dispute with an American abbot, made a journey back to Europe to plead her case in Rome, and it became clear that her reputation and her ties to her community back home were all but lost. (She would be vindicated, but only after years had passed.) And still she kept on. Founded monastery after monastery, traveled from community to community, a polarizing figure, but one with incredible faith and fortitude. A person that a young woman today might feel good about calling "Mother Benedicta."
This is our community history, but it's also our community present-day, in many ways. Oh, we're not starving and freezing––far from it––but other troubles are much the same. Anti-immigrant sentiments are flaring; squaring a feminist spirituality with a patriarchal Church challenges us; I, personally, worry about how to take care of needy children while being a monastic; our future is hard to visualize; there's even a plague raging across the country, as devastating on a wide scale as tuberculosis was on a small scale in the 1800's. (Please God keep that virus out of this house.)
I'm the same age now that Benedicta was when she came to establish communities here. And I'm nowhere near where she was. I'm a postulant-hopefully-almost-novice, not a perpetually professed former novice mistress, ready to become a founder. But as far advanced as she was in monastic life, she was still young. And I think I can imagine, a little bit, what it would have been like to be in her shoes, how it would feel to look at your sisters and know that your love cannot protect them, nor preserve the simple routines of life you've shared.
Our community is bigger than her original monastery, and barring some major tragedies, the life expectancy of the bulk of the community is more than just a few years. But we've buried nine sisters since I entered––eight of them so far this year––and it's becoming clear that some of the sisters I'm close to will be gone long before I would want. It doesn't take a psychic or a statistician to know that, whether or not we like it, whether or not we sieze some control over it, change is upon us.
We are, of course, planning for it. There are designs in the works, vision statements, direction statements, dreams, ideas. Unlike Benedicta, I'm not a real visionary. I have a good idea about once a year. And vision is a gift that, I think, you either have or you don't––no sense lamenting a lack of vision or trying to force it. But what we are all asked to do, as Benedictines, as people who follow a Rule whose first word is "Listen," is to pay careful attention to the plans that are presented to us, to greet each others' ideas with open minds, and then to embrace them, to rally together to live the ones that can be brought to reality, with intention and purpose. That's what Benedicta was able to do: volunteer for a mission, leave behind everything, and build something new, and confusing, and riddled with problems, and beautiful, and enduring. She and the other sisters envisioned and imagined new communities, new ministries, new ways of being women religious, beyond the cloister. And they brought that into being.
That's what's going to get us through this next phase: listening to each other and to the Spirit. And acting on it.
That, and solidarity with each other. Benedicta made plenty of enemies in her short life, including the Know-Nothing Party and the Benedictine abbot. There was a time when the superior of a monastery that Benedicta had founded was ordered by the abbot not to speak to Benedicta or acknowledge her or her followers as Benedictines. It seems, from the documents we have, that the sisters of the new community struggled with what it would mean to disobey those orders, and how best to take sides in this thorny dispute, and you can imagine how hard it would have been for them. And then you read the superior's letter back to the abbot. She writes, "It is impossible for me not to associate with Mother [Benedicta] ... and if [these demands] must be complied with, I feel constrained to leave..." When the moment to take a stand came, the sisters stood together. There will be hard moments ahead and the choices we make won't please everyone and some of the wisdom figures who have guided us through crucibles before won't be here to talk to. But we will still have each other. And that will get us through this next phase.
That, and faith, I suppose: that the God who has sustained monastics through the ages is still seeking us. That we can still find strength and courage and fuel for our love in praising God.
Shortly before she died, Benedicta wrote, "I am able to look into the future in peace."
So far, I am not quite able to look into our future in peace, exactly. But I can look into the future with hope. And for now, I'll take that.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.