I’m on retreat this week as I am every year in June. Since I entered the Benedictine Sisters of Erie in 1959, which means I’ve been attending the annual retreat for 60 years. It’s a great anniversary retreat since it’s being led by our own Joan Chittister. She’s using the theme, “All You Holy Women,” and is building every conference around nine of our deceased sisters who exemplified a quality essential to monastic life.
This morning she presented Sister DeSales Austin who died in 1987, as a woman of serenity. Joan talks about DeSales for a few minutes and then tells us why her gift to the DNA of the community was serenity. Next, she explains the social and psychological dimensions of serenity and then explains its significance to healthy spiritual development. She is going to do that in every conference using a different sister and expounding on her special gift.
I copy down many things that Joan says but this one sticks with me, “Serenity does not mean you are without disturbance, it means nothing can disturb you.” I think of the story of the monk who was revered by the whole village for his holiness. People flocked to him day and night for prayer and advice. When asked to respond to this adulation, he always shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Is that so?” Then a teen age girl in the village got pregnant and fearing the wrath of her family if she identified the father, accused the monk of attacking her. The village descended on the monk’s hut and hurled the girl’s accusations at him. “Is that so?” the monk replied. The villagers beat the monk, threatened his life and exiled him into the mountains. A few years later, the young woman, who could no longer carry the burden of guilt, confessed her lie to the entire village and asked forgiveness. The villagers journeyed into the mountains, explained the situation, apologized to the monk and asked him to return to them. “Is that so?” the monk said, picking up bag and following them down the mountain. Now, that to me is serenity.
The other sisters we were reintroduced to during retreat were: Sister Alberta Steineck and her gift of beauty; Sister Marie Claire Brandt for self-esteem; Sister Eleanor Kelch for vitality and resurrection; Sister Bernadine Goebel for compassion; Sister Eileen Connelly for self-containment; Sister Genevieve Heinrich for wholeheartedness; Sister Josephine Zimmer for realism; Sister Rosemary Braeger and Sister Mary Regina Flanagan for intensity of life and relationships.
These ten sisters were salt-of-the-earth members of our community, ordinary sisters who lived the life extraordinarily well. All of us retreatants, of course, were left to ponder what gift we are contributing for the inbreaking of the reign of God. The retreat also reinforced the belief that one tenet of the Creed that I will never question, let alone abandon, is “I believe in the communion of saints.” I love surrounding myself with the stories of saintly people. No matter how bizarre the biography, there is always some quality or story that I clasp tightly, something that urges me on, that whispers “hope” in a starless night. This morning, for example, I read about the founder of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Apparition, St. Emily de Vialar. I had never heard of the order or Saint Emily. How happy I am to meet this aristocratic French woman who defied her widowed father and brought neglected children into their home, eventually turning that calling—to care for the poor, especially children-- into a new religious order that spread to Algeria, Tunisia, Malta, Greece, Australia and even Jerusalem. In its first 22 years, there were 40 houses of Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition—I mean, think of it, two new foundations a year for 22 years. “Mother Emily’s energy and persistence in overcoming all obstacles was nothing short of amazing,” writes Robert Ellsberg. You bet that single-mindedness was amazing, and I want to remember her when things seem a bit tough.
Along the same lines, I’m loving the book I chose for retreat, Witness: Lessons for Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger. I never had the honor of sitting in a classroom taught by Wiesel, but I’ve read enough books by him to list him in the top 10 teachers in my life. Definitely part of the communion of saint that I pray to.
In my dream I saw
the spring wind gently shaking
blossoms from a tree;
even now, though I’m awake,
there’s motion, trembling in my chest.
In my dream I saw
the dead poet Mary Oliver writing
a poem dedicated to me:
she folded it carefully and called,
“Open the door.” I never did.
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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.
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