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About a year ago Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option was making a big splash.  I didn’t read it. I read enough reviews to know that I didn’t want to subject myself to it.

Inspired by the memorable final sentence of Alasdair Mac Intrye’s classic, After Virtue, “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict,” Dreher contends that in light of the barbarism of our age—moral permissiveness, secularism, and individualism—today’s Christians need to follow the lead of Benedict of Nursia (480-543/547 CE), the father of western Christian communal monasticism.  Depending on who you read, Dreher’s call is either for Christians to head to the hills in order to avoid being sullied by society, or to form thick, creative, and resilient communities.

Benedict and Me

Benedict and me. He’s the one with the beard.

I’ll let historians and other experts debate whether Dreyer is accurately appropriating the historic Benedict.  My own experience with Benedictines, albeit very anecdotal, is quite different than what Dreyer depicts. Unlike the usual Protestant prejudice that views monastics as retreating, escaping, or hiding from the world and preferring worship and prayer to “actually doing something,” I’ve found Benedictines to be very engaged with society, in a manner we Reformed might call “world-formative” or “transforming”

Sophie, my wife and co-pastor, is an oblate (associate) at a Benedictine monastery. I’ve accompanied her several times. Certainly the community does worship together—three times a day. But my memory is looking out the window of my room and seeing a small fleet of bland, basic Toyota Corollas, all lined up in the parking lot. Every morning they carry the sisters of the monastery to their jobs as teachers, social workers, lawyers, engineers, nurses, doctors, hospital administrators, even massage therapists. Hardly withdrawing or avoiding the world.

I decided to ask Sophie about her experience with Benedictines—what she notes and appreciates, how Benedictine life has enriched her pastoral work, and about an upcoming opportunity for Protestant women ministers to have a similar experience.

Sophie Says

Could you share a bit about how you became familiar with the Benedictine tradition and your experience with it?

My initial exposure to Benedictine life was reading the books of Eugene Peterson, particularly the books where he describes the pastoral life as a life of prayer, study, and spiritual direction.  More than once he would use Benedictine ideas to describe the life of a pastor. Also, when I was a pastor in upstate New York, the regional synod offered retreats for pastors that would follow the rhythms of the Benedictine life. We stayed together in a lodge, where we would have morning, midday, and evening prayer. We would eat meals either in silence or someone would read aloud. We did manual labor together. We had times of solitude—all of which are drawn from the Benedictine tradition.

Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana.

But my most significant experience has been my association with Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Indianapolis. Fifteen years ago, I came across an advertisement in The Christian Century magazine, for a program of support and renewal for women pastors. I applied and was accepted. And ever since then I’ve been going there regularly for my continuing education and renewal time. It has become an important part of my life.

What would you say are some key Benedictine practices or values?

One of the things I found immediately helpful about Benedictine life was a real emphasis upon balance. There is nothing extreme about it.  There is a balance between prayer and work. Prayer is seen as important work and work is infused with prayer, especially manual work.

There are other balances. Two core Benedictine values are stability and continual conversion. Stability is the vow that Benedictines make that they will remain in this monastery, this community, this place for the rest of their lives. That vow is about not going to chase the latest fad, the more attractive monastery, the better thing. The idea is that if you cannot live your Christian life here and now in this place, any fantasy about doing better in another place is just an illusion. But stability is counterweighted by continual conversion. Benedictines are vowed always to be open to God’s leading in this time. They are open to change.

Likewise, the Benedictine emphasis upon contemplation and solitude is balanced by the value of community. Benedict himself began his monastic experiment as a hermit, but after a few years he realized that community is more important than solitude—even though every monk in community has times of solitude.

How has this affected and helped your life as a pastor?

Pastors in Women Touched By Grace after a time of worship.

Simply the idea that the pastoral life must have balance has been important. I must spend time in study, reflection, and prayer in order to have anything to contribute—from the pulpit and elsewhere.  But that has to be balanced by my being part of a community. I often reflect upon the idea that the pastor’s place in a congregation is not unlike the role of an abbot or abbess in a monastery—that is to make sure that community life is going well.

Stability, too—as a pastor I am called to a particular place, and I am going to be faithful to that place for a long, long time. That is an important reminder when wanderlust sets in. At the same time, stability can’t be staying the same, becoming stuck.  That’s where the call to continual conversion comes in.

We Protestants often think of monastics as withdrawing or escaping from the problems of the real world.  What are your observations?

That is a real misunderstanding of the monastic life. First, one has to distinguish between monastics and “cloistered” monastics.  Cloistered means they remain in the monastery with limited contact with the outside world.  Most Benedictines are not cloistered. They go out to the world.

But more importantly, when you are living in community, it doesn’t matter if you “aren’t living in the world,” the world is very much with you. That is one of the big learnings of the Benedictines. You learn to live with difficult people, to love those who are not easily loveable. You learn to ask for forgiveness. You learn to deny yourself. You learn that the community is dynamic and changes over time. You learn to put the needs of others ahead of your own.

I mentioned that Benedictine life is not extreme but rather characterized by balance. There are other traditions that are far more ascetic. But for Benedictines, living in community is their asceticism. You experience trials, you undergo hardship, and you grow spiritually by living in community.

Our typical image of asceticism is foregoing the comforts of life—eating little or very simply, having few possessions, abstaining from sex, putting on a hair shirt. Benedictine life doesn’t emphasize that sort of thing, except perhaps for a limited time. They understand that it is living in community that scours us, forms us, and is perhaps a deeper form of self-denial than austere asceticism. In that sense, going to a monastery doesn’t mean leaving the world, because the world is going to join you there.

Also, historically Benedictines have not been cut off from the world because of their value of hospitality.  “Every guest is to be received as Christ,” according to the Rule of St. Benedict. The old joke says that when Benedictines hear a knock on their door or the bell of the monastery rings, they mutter to themselves, “Jesus Christ, is it you again?!” From the very beginning, monasteries were places where travelers, the needy, and those seeking sanctuary would come. We think that monastics “left” the world, but in fact, the world came to them. And Benedictines welcomed them and made space for them.

Women Touched by Grace

Tell us about Women Touched by Grace and future opportunities for women pastors.

A group of pastors from Women Touched by Grace

I came to Our Lady of Grace Monastery fifteen years ago, through a program called Women Touched by Grace, designed to support and renew Protestant women pastors. That was a group of 30 pastors who met in Indianapolis twice a year for three years. I was in the first class or group to go through, and there have been two others since. It was all generously underwritten by a grant from the Lilly Foundation.

After my time with Women Touched by Grace was done, I chose to become an oblate at Our Lady of Grace. That means I am vowed to live Benedictine values in my own setting and life. I return to the monastery regularly. I offer the monastery my prayers and gifts.

Recently, Lilly has given a new “Thriving in Ministry” grant which will allow two more classes of pastors to go through Women Touched By Grace. The first of those will begin in November of this year. Applications are being accepted through April 20, 2018. You can find much more about this opportunity on their website, as well as the application materials. I would encourage women pastors to apply, or at least to investigate. Of course if women are interested, or have questions, I would love to talk with them.

My time with the Benedictines has been an experience of being nurtured and prayed for, held in community, and challenged to live out my faith more fully. I hope it could be the same for other women pastors.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


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