PC(USA) clergywoman embraces contemplative life as a Benedictine

 — Jan. 13, 200913 janv. 2009

When Lynne Smith was a girl growing up in El Paso, Texas, she said she wanted to be a nun.

by Jerry L. Van Marter, Presbyterian News Service

And so Smith followed the more conventional path … to ordained Presbyterian ministry and a first pastorate in Dodge City, Kan. But the yearning for a more contemplative spiritual life was never far from her mind.

While in Dodge City, Smith went on a spiritual retreat in 1985 sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph, “and had a deeper experience than I’d ever had before,” she told the Presbyterian News Service in a recent interview here. “It really changed my spirituality toward the contemplative.”

Smith began searching for additional outlets to satisfy her hunger for contemplative spirituality. Her quest began at about the time of renewed interest in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual disciplines.

Graduate courses at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va., and articles in HORIZONS — the magazine for Presbyterian Women — and Hungry Hearts Newsletter, a publication of the PC(USA)’s Office of Theology, Worship and Education, nurtured her spiritual hunger.

Her spiritual search led her to Madison, Wisc., in 1996, where a small order of Benedictine sisters invited celibate women between the ages of 25 and 50 to explore monastic living. For two years, Smith returned repeatedly to St. Benedict Retreat and Conference Center, traveling from Columbus Junction, Iowa, where she was serving as a pastor.

Celibacy was not an obstacle. As a pastor for 16 years, Smith had decided she could not do full-time ministry and be married.

In 1998, with the blessing of East Iowa Presbytery, Smith joined the monastery and in 2004 made her final profession as a Benedictine while retaining her identity as a Presbyterian. She is a member in good standing of John Knox Presbytery.

Sister Lynne Smith is now one of three sisters in the Benedictine Women of Madison, along with Sister Mary David Walgenbach, and Sister Joanne Kollasch, both Catholics. She is the community’s director of membership.

That such a step was even possible is as remarkable a story as Smith’s own spiritual pilgrimage.

The Benedictine Sisters established St. Vincent Hospital in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1901. Fifty years later they moved to Madison, where they opened a school, using the proceeds from sale of the hospital to endow the new ministry. In the early 1960s they began interfaith dialogues at the monastery and in 1966 closed the school and opened the Saint Benedict Center, which welcomed spiritually-minded women of all denominations.

In 1992 Walgenbach and Kollasch launched a radical visioning process that 15 years later led to the founding of Holy Wisdom Monastery, the first ecumenical monastery in the world. [Editor’s note: a few other ecumenical monasteries exist, including Taizé in France and Bose in Italy.] In 2006, the sisters negotiated an agreement with the Vatican allowing the monastery to renounce its “canonical” status in order to accept members who are not Catholic. It was the first traditional Catholic Benedictine monastery to make that switch.

St. Benedict founded the order in the 6th century and the Rule of Benedict is credited with having kept civilization alive at a time when barbarians were invading and plundering what had been the Roman Empire. The rule provided for communities devoted to a life of daily prayer, work, and hospitality.

“It fits me,” Smith says of the Benedictine monastic life. “The rhythm of life — work, prayer, hospitality, leisure — fits with who I am as a Presbyterian,” she says.

The sisters gather for communal prayers five times a day. The rest of their time is spent offering spiritual retreats, hosting groups at the center, and restoring the 130 acres on which their monastery sits. More than 300 groups use the retreat center each year. Holy Wisdom employs about 30 people.

“St. Benedict told his followers: ‘Receive your guests as Christ,’” Walgenbach once told the National Catholic Reporter. “We don’t ask our guests ‘Are you orthodox?’ Or ‘are you bona fide?’ only, ‘Are you searching for God?’” Kollasch added.

“When I became a monastic, I brought with me the richness of my Reformed tradition with its stress on Bible study, education, and ecumenism,” Smith said. “Of course there are differences between Catholics and Presbyterians, but there are no conflicts, because they are both ways of living out the Gospel in a Christ-centered way.”

Smith’s faith journey has found reinforcement in the writings of renowned Presbyterian author Kathleen Norris, whose encounters with Benedictines have been chronicled in best-sellers such as Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

“It’s a bold experiment. I’m proud of them,” Norris has written about the Madison sisters. “Throughout their history, Benedictine women have always been the radicals.”
Smith simply considers her new life as a Benedictine sister a natural evolution of her life as a Presbyterian minister. “Sometimes I miss serving a church,” she said, “but I’ve learned that everything I did as a pastor I now do in the monastery.”

Posted: Jan. 13, 2009 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=7281
Categories: PCUSA NewsIn this article: spiritual ecumenism
Transmis : 13 janv. 2009 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=7281
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