A Benedictine Spirituality Course Reflection

As I drove from my home in Bowling Green, Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee, to catch my plane, darkness surrounded me. My husband made coffee, filled my mug and sent me on my way.   I was eager for our class on Benedictine spirituality, but I had no idea what wonderful connections and what new learning were waiting for me at Conception Abbey.

Our arrival at the abbey was an inviting and hospitable welcome to seminary and to Benedictine spirituality. We were greeted warmly by Dr. Molly Marshall, president of Central Seminary. In my guest room I was welcomed by a sign letting me know that my bed had been made by the last retreatant and a special blessing had been said for me. We do not need to think alike to love alike. Indeed, we do not. The sign also communicated that I would return the favor. This making of the bed, this blessing, would come to mark not only the end of my week at the abbey, but the beginning of my deep appreciation for my new interfaith friendships, ones that will no doubt continue to flourish.

Before I began my application to Central, I spoke with Dr. Sally Holt, Central’s Nashville Site Coordinator. I was concerned that Central Baptist Theological Seminary might not be a good fit for me, a Unitarian Universalist. Dr. Holt assured me that Central is an ecumenical seminary and that I would be fully welcomed to the program. Even with this assurance, I was still a bit skeptical that the match would be a good one. Before our arrival at Conception Abbey, I read all the required texts, wrote the assigned paper, kept an open mind, and perhaps most importantly, I kept an open heart. Thankfully, my fellow seminarians and other classmates did too. Our conversations were filled with grace and justice and inclusivity, with a Christ-like care for one another.

Father Donald was most inspiring to me during his lecture and our ensuing discussion on interfaith work. His presentation to our group helped me see the reaching out the monks do to honor their calling. The monks, though cloistered, remain connected to the world beyond the border of the monastery to live out their faith. That was a new learning for me. I know there are many people who have taken monastic vows and then work in the larger community. Sister Simone Campbell and Sister Helen Prejean are among those that come to mind who do the work of justice in the name of love. Now I can add Father Donald and the monks at Conception to this list. His lecture changed the way I think about monastics and about the Catholic church as a whole. For this, I am grateful.

Abbot Gregory’s lecture was a highlight of my week. He had a light and a grace about him that was evident when he entered the room. His non-anxious presence and the obvious care he took when answering our questions were glimpses into his leadership within the abbey. For these and all the glimpses into life among the monks of Conception Abbey, I am grateful.

The intentionality of our time and experiences at the abbey has remained with me, too. The rhythm of the day, the quiet we enjoyed, the space and time for reading and for reflecting and for connection was welcome in my life. The juxtaposition of the natural and timeless beauty of the abbey and surrounding area paired with the progressive wind turbines struck me. The monks are so joyfully rooted in the history of their tradition, but they also embrace progress. All of these lessons continue to resonate with me and bring me to new understandings.

As I have had time to reflect on our week at Conception Abbey, I have come to realize the idea of stability in the like of the monastery can be likened to the stability Sister Helen Prejean commits to with her work to end the death penalty and to minister to those on death row. It can be likened to Sister Simone Campbell and her work with “Nuns on the Bus” to bring attention to issues that are important to people in need of affordable healthcare and financial reform, among other issues of social justice. It can be likened to the stability that is required to enjoy a healthy and fulfilling marriage. Monastics and non-monastics alike do well by themselves and the broader community when they commit to one issue, one relationship, one community, and give it all they have.

When one of the monks was speaking to us about the analogy of the years in the monastery, communal living day by day by day, and likening it to a rock tumbler, I thought about the gentle influence of cloistered life on the individual. The image of flawed human beings choosing that community in which to serve and to grow, to wear away the sharp edges, religious vocations such as the monks, their reasons for choosing this life take on a deeper meaning for me.   It is those imperfections in our lives that can cause us to be less than our best selves and it is the community that can provide opportunities for growth and accountability to help us become what we can be. This image brought to mind that of the sea glass in a story by Mark Nepo. He writes that we are “worn to who we are meant to be.” Cloistered life causes that wearing away, that smoothing out, of our selfish desires so that we may be called to our most authentic selves and serve our communities, our churches, and our families with honor and integrity.

Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Forrest Church, once wrote, “God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.” I believe what is present in each of us, our common humanity and our desire to make living more meaningful for ourselves and one another, is what calls me to chaplaincy.

Jennifer Thomas
Central student in the Women’s Leadership Development Program – Central Tennessee