Benedictine Life in the 21st Century
Young adult volunteers at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Wisconsin connect with God through nature and community
Connection. It is something everyone desires and in today’s world it seems to happen 24/7 through the Internet and social media.
But there are people who yearn for a different, deeper connection — with God, with nature, and with each other. Sara Jo Emmerich, a 30-year-old who lives in Washington, D.C., found that connection at Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton, Wisconsin.
It was there, as part of the Volunteer in Community program, that Emmerich discovered a solution for the breakdown between her spirituality and the rest of her life that she was experiencing.
“I was in seminary at the time and feeling a real disconnect between the academic study and the actual living out of my faith,” Emmerich said. “I remember walking out of one class really feeling this discomfort when I saw an advertisement for the Volunteer in Community program on the bulletin board.
“The images of working in the prairie, in the garden, and gathering together in community for prayer spoke exactly to what I felt was missing. I have always been interested in monastic life, and this felt like a safe place to explore that interest.”
Emmerich said working with other women on prairie restoration, landscaping and gardening were moments of spiritual growth.
“We all felt we were growing and empowered as we rode around in pick-up trucks, dug out invasive plants and split wood,” said 30-year-old Sara Jo Emmerich.
It might sound strange that these physical chores inspire a deeper spirituality. But balanced with daily prayer and life in community they are the embodiment of the 1,500-year-old Benedictine tradition in the 21st century.
“We all felt we were growing and empowered as we rode around in pick-up trucks, dug out invasive plants and split wood,” she said.
It might sound strange that these physical chores inspire a deeper spirituality. But balanced with daily prayer and life in community they are the embodiment of the 1,500-year-old Benedictine tradition in the 21st century. And Emmerich’s sense of longing for a deeper relationship with God was her reason for trying out Benedictine spirituality.
“There is a spiritual hunger that many of us carry, and sometimes the institutional church does not fill that hunger,” she said. “While Benedictines have been around since the 500s, the lifestyle is counter-cultural enough to shake us out of our spiritual ruts.”
“What women experience is a way to bring prayer, simplicity, balance, hospitality and care for the earth into their lives, or to deepen those values,” said Sister Lynne Smith, OSB, director of membership and monastic formation at Holy Wisdom Monastery. “Participants find time and space to reflect on their lives, to nurture their relationship with God and to serve in community.”
Emmerich’s family and friends were ultimately supportive of her decision to participate in the Volunteer in Community program in 2009 and 2011, but they definitely had some questions.
“They did not quite understand why I wanted to stay there,” she said. “Many of my friends were a little jealous and others were merely interested in what the experience would be like. A few were surprised that the sisters did not wear habits nor were they cloistered from the world.
“Many were a little miffed when they saw that I could still do things like send e-mails and get on Facebook at the end of the day,” she added. “It was hard for them to place monastic life within a world that looked very much like the world we all live in.”
While they still had access to TV and the internet, Emmerich said she was much more unplugged from her typical routine — because of daily prayer as well as spending the day working outside — and “able to more intentionally interact with the world on a more real and vibrant level.”
Spirit of hospitality
The volunteer programs at Holy Wisdom Monastery provide young women with moving experiences of how the sisters live out another important part of Benedictine spirituality: hospitality.
“That hospitality is expressed in reverence and respect for all people,” Smith said. “Benedictine communities often have retreat centers where people are welcomed for rest and renewal.”
“Our own community has welcomed immigrant and refugee families to live with us as they move to this country,” she added. “It is the practice of hospitality that led us to become an ecumenical community.”
In addition to the short-term Volunteer in Community program, Holy Wisdom Monastery also offers the Benedictine Sojourners program, a chance for extended time living in community at the monastery.
“Benedictine Sojourners is an opportunity for single women to live, learn, pray, and work with us at Holy Wisdom Monastery for six to twelve months, even up to two years,” Smith said. “Women will live with the sisters, pray and eat with us and serve in our work and ministry.”
Benedictine Sojourners participate in daily communal prayer and may also become prayer leaders if they have skills in that area. In addition to sharing in reflection on spiritual reading with the community, the Sojourners work 30 hours per week at the monastery and take part in discussion on aspects of spirituality. They also work in the gardens, orchards and the prairie, depending on the time of the year.
An experience living the Benedictine way at Holy Wisdom Monastery might be the answer to a sense of spiritual imbalance and might help young women seeking a more intentional faith life. For Emmerich and others like her, it certainly has.