A Rather Radical Monastery
September 21, 2017
As I wrote in my previous post, I traveled out to the Madison, Wisconsin, area last week. The trip was primarily for the purpose of spending time in retreat at a place called Holy Wisdom Monastery.
Getting away for intentional retreat time is something different even from simply having time off. To go on retreat is not only to have respite from the day-to-day, but also to enter into a space of intentionality around the use of time and focus. There are many sorts of retreats and many sorts of places to do them; in a place like Holy Wisdom Monastery (as well as at the Society of St. John the Evangelist, where I will go in early December) part of the intentionality of the time is created by the structure of shared daily prayer services, typically multiple times a day. At Holy Wisdom, all gather each day for Morning Prayer at 8:00 am, Mid-day Prayer at 11:45, and Evening Prayer at 4:30 pm. Communal meals are also shared together following Mid-day Prayer and Evening Prayer. For me, much of the rest of my time while at Holy Wisdom was spent in reading, in reflection, and rest. I also met with a spiritual director on one afternoon.
More than talk about the practice of retreat itself—perhaps I will do so more after my December one—I want to share the story of this rather incredible place where I was, the Holy Wisdom Monastery, and the community that runs it, an ecumenical Benedictine community of women known as the Benedictine Women of Madison.
The Benedictine Women of Madison has its roots in a more typical Catholic Benedictine women’s community founded in Sioux City, Iowa, as the Sisters of St. Benedict. In the early 1950s, the community moved to the Madison area at the invitation of Madison’s Catholic bishop. In the 1960s, though, in the midst and wake of ‘Vatican II,’ the story starts becoming more unique and remarkable. At the priory, the sisters hosted monks from the now-world-famous Taizé Community who were in residence at the University of Wisconsin; Taizé, which was founded by a Swiss Reformed Protestant, is renowned for its ecumenism and for its appeal as a pilgrimage site, especially among youth and young adults. The sisters also began hosting and engaging with the Madison Interfaith Dialogue. By the end of the 1960s, the community’s mission shifted to being the home of an ecumenical retreat and conference center. The 1970s saw the retreat center become the regular home of the Lutherans’ “Summer Institute for Mission,” with significant cross-interaction in both prayer and community between the Lutheran mission personnel and the sisters. And so on… with other such experiences through the 1970s and 80s.
In 1992, the community began what would end up becoming a 14-year discernment and visioning process around the question “are we being called to form an ecumenical monastic community of Benedictine sisters?” An ecumenical board was formed in 1994, and I am told that the UCC conference minister for Wisconsin at the time, the Rev. Fred Trost, was highly involved with this effort. (And as one of those “small world” tidbits, as it turns out, before becoming conference minister in Wisconsin, Trost was the senior pastor of the UCC congregation I would attend while in seminary many years later, St. Pauls United Church of Christ in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.)
In the year 2000, Sister Lynne Smith made her profession to the community as the first Protestant member; Sister Lynne is an ordained Presbyterian minister. Following a change at the wider federation of Benedictine communities to which the community belongs, finally, in 2006, their long-growing vision became a reality their refounding as Benedictine Women of Madison, the first ecumenical Benedictine community of sisters in the US. Today, the community has four professed sisters and one novice, with a wide community of affiliated “oblates”.
The story of the Benedictine Women of Madison is really quite remarkable and, in a way, “radical” in its depth of discernment and strength of courage. Aside from the history, it’s simply a wonderful community—I would say that if we in the UCC were to have a monastic community, it’d probably look a lot like Holy Wisdom and the Benedictine Women of Madison. They have, as the history tells, been long involved in ecumenical and interfaith concerns, and have also been active allies of the LGBTQ community. Their worship—the daily prayer services I took part in, as well as the Sunday Assembly that meets at the Monastery—reflects the structures of the historic liturgy of the hours, but is embodied completely in inclusive language and incorporates gifts from across ecumenical traditions. The sisters clearly value their calling to be an all-inclusive community; when I said that I was a UCC pastor, Sister Mary David commented that how similar the values of my denomination and their community were (even though she’s one of the 2 remaining sisters from their Catholic days, she clearly was well-aware, and appreciative, of the UCC!).
The community has also been very involved with environmental and ecological ministries, with a wonderful native prairie restoration taking up a significant portion of their property.
I encourage anyone and everyone to take a quick peek at their website to learn more about what I’ve shared and beyond… all the other wonderful things this community is committed to: http://www.benedictinewomen.org/
At the end of the week, I made sure to leave one of the SCC “prayer squares” with the sisters as a gesture of my thanks for their hospitality and my hope for God’s blessing and prospering of their continued ministry.
And now some more pictures…
On the wall immediately opposite the entrance to the Oratory, there’s a wonderful series of metal plate sculptures of the Stations of the Cross:
In the Monastery, there is also the larger worship space where the Sunday Assembly — the week-to-week Sunday morning worshipping community affiliated with the monastery — meets. I love the huge flowing-water baptismal font, and its position at the entrance to the space… as the modern hymn puts it, after all, “at the font we start our journey”. I also love the seating “in-the-round”.
 Yes, in the case of this congregation, “Pauls” is correctly spelled without an apostrophe—a nod to the congregation’s German history, since German has no apostrophe (it was “Paulus” in the original German name of the congregation).