The Monastic Life


JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: Seventy-eight-year-old Sister Phyllis is near death. Over a period of three days around the clock, the sisters have been taking turns keeping vigil at her bedside.

SISTER ANNE SHEPARD (Prioress of Mount St. Scholastica): In our monastery, sisters do not die alone. We stay with the sisters night and day, so that they know, they’re comforted by the fact that they joined a community, and as community they’re going to go home—the real home that we’ve been waiting for.

VALENTE: The sisters of Mount St. Scholastica die much as they live—peacefully, prayerfully, and surrounded by community. It’s a way of life that Benedictine monasteries have shown the world for more than 15 centuries, and it’s a message that still resonates.

post06SHEPARD: When I look at the condition of the world today, I see a world where there’s violence, one where there’s greed, one where there’s selfishness. But also one where there’s a craving for a rejuvenation of family life, a rejuvenation of spiritual life. It speaks to me of the need more than ever of a monastic presence in this world.

VALENTE: Monasteries such as this one stand in contrast to the prevailing culture. They value community over competition, service over self-interest, and in a world of Internet, cell phones, and 24-hour talk, they stress listening and silence.

SHEPARD: It’s a way of life here. It’s an absence of noise and clutter, and we come together first, and we’re just silent. We’re in the presence of God. It’s not a deadly silence. It’s a very reverent and beautiful silence. We don’t need noise to be productive. It’s just the opposite. We don’t need noise to communicate. It’s just the opposite.

Monastic life is a life of living together in prayer and community. We as Benedictines, we monastics—we’re not founded to do a particular work. The particular work of a monastery is community, and believe me, that’s hard work. Living with 165 women is hard work.

Sister saying grace at mealtime: Ever faithful God, bless the food we are about to eat and unite us in mind and heart to your son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

SHEPARD: The common table is central to who we are. You listen, and you listen with the ear of your heart. You listen with what’s inside you. That’s what it means to be a listening person, and that’s going to happen in the dining room.

VALENTE: Sister Anne says these and other practices at the monastery can be applied to family life and even to the professional world.

SHEPARD: You bring in everybody into a decision and learn from the newest members, as well as the wisdom of the older members and everything in between. So you have prioresses and former prioresses and PhDs in English and math doing dishes along with those that just entered, that don’t have those same higher degrees. That’s a radically different way than a top-down way of doing business.

post02VALENTE: The monastery reflects a spiritual way of life, but one that also contains practical wisdom.

SHEPARD: A major countercultural difference is that we hold things in common. That is a major thing, that it’s not the greed, that if I have a computer, if I have a laptop, it’s because it’s for the use of the community. For us, the less we have the more single our purpose. We don’t need things. We need the gospel call, and we need one another.

VALENTE: The sisters do a variety of work. They teach at Benedictine College. They operate a women’s center in nearby Kansas City, Kansas, where volunteers teach money management…

Sister teaching money management class: Budgeting is simple but it will bring, you know, a little bit of the peace of mind to your house.

VALENTE: …English as a second language…

Sister teaching language class: Out? Ought. Ought? Ought.

VALENTE: …and provide child care for mothers taking classes. Others work in the medical profession or in massage therapy. Until recently, one was even a firefighter; another, a funeral director. But the most important work of the monastery is prayer.

SHEPARD: We use the words of the Psalms and of the scriptures that nurture us, that give us life, that give us meaning. Our life is about seeking God together and bringing that God into our hearts. It’s so profound, it’s hard to even explain. But it’s the daily-ness of the prayer. It’s that we need the prayer.

VALENTE: Monastic life began to flourish after the fall of the Roman Empire. Men and women retreated to the desert to live solitary lives of prayer and penance. In the sixth century, Benedict of Nursia, known for his spiritual wisdom, left the solitary life behind and founded communities where like-minded individuals could seek learning, find security, and live a life of prayer. Today, every monastic order in the world, whether Benedictine or not, follows Benedict’s model to some extent.

A young woman comes to the monastery for music lessons from Sister Joachim Holthaus, a composer. Ever since the time of St. Benedict, monasteries have been important centers of learning and culture. This is Sister Paula Howard. Eight years ago, at age 77, she discovered her talent for creating icons, which the monastery then sells. She’s done nearly 200.

post05SISTER PAULA HOWARD: Well, I think all appreciation of beauty lifts your heart—that beauty belongs here. It’s a foretaste of heaven, we hope, and I just think that beauty is an image of God.

VALENTE: Both artistic beauty and the beauty of nature.

SHEPARD: A contemplative life is being in tune with the spirit, in tune with nature, in tune with creation. It’s a communion with all that is around you. It’s a sense that everything we do is significant—the way I plant a garden and care for the garden. Everything that we do has meaning, and it has meaning because we’re intentionally trying to be more prayerful. You can live a contemplative life outside of a monastery. As a matter of fact, that is our hope, that people can come here and find a sense of peace.

VALENTE: The sisters earn some income by offering spiritual retreats. These high school girls are spending several days here. The monastery has 70 lay employees and an annual budget of $4 million. Most of it goes toward operating a nursing care facility for elderly sisters. The monastery also receives donations and bequests and government funding for its nursing home. Another source of income: the salaries of sisters who do outside work, like Sister Mary Palarino, a clinical social worker.

VALENTE: You could do this work as a lay person. I’m wondering what you think being a sister brings to this.

SISTER MARY PALARINO: You know, I really don’t think I could do it as holistically and as comprehensively unless I were a member of my community and living the Benedictine way of life.

VALENTE: Mount St. Scholastica is nearly 150 years old. Some 2,000 women religious have passed through its doors. Today the vast majority of the sisters here are over the age of 55.

PALARINO: I do get concerned about people not joining us, and I don’t understand that, I mean, because it seems like young people today are—they seek, and they have a hunger for community, for prayer life, for social justice issues. They have a hunger, you know, to follow something greater. We have that.

VALENTE: Sister Anne Shepard:

SHEPARD: Where it’s going to go in the future? It’s going to go wherever God takes us. We’re going to be smaller. We’re going to be just as vibrant. But it’s not easy. Any genuine commitment isn’t easy. That gift of unselfishness is the reason we make a promise to be faithful for all our lives, every day of our lives.

VALENTE: These sisters believe that as long as there is a need in the world for quietude, simplicity, balance, prayer, and community, there will always be a purpose to monastic life.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Judy Valente at Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas.

  • Sister Helen Zecha OSB

    Excellent, well done. I had my beginnings at the Mount and I try to get back as often as possible. I’m part of a group of Sisters sent from the Mount to start a new foundation and a girls school in Colorado Springs Colorado in 1963. In June of this year we moved to a new facility North of the City.

  • Cathleen Noll

    With all due respect sister I think the reason your numbers are down is because you no longer wear the habit-You do everything brides of Christ due but you no longer look the part-that is why so many orders that wear the habit are over flowing with new members and your dying off-Just look at the picture you’ve placed with this articule-can you image what it would say and mean to people if you were in your habits-this way you just look like a bunch of nice old ladies gathered for some kind of meeting-Wake up sister before it’s to late-even the Holy Father has asked you ladies to wear your habits-Do you really think God is going to bless you if you don’t even listen to His representive here on earth-I for one and many of our family members would hate to see you disappear because many of girls in our family have attended your school over the years. You are apart of our history.
    Respectfully Yours, Cathleen

  • Sister Helen Phillips,m.m.

    Just watched Religion and Ethics this morning and saw your video from St. Scholastica’s and wanted to say how very well and tastefully done it is! It certainly shopwed all sides of our ‘convent’ life and am sure it will impress anyone who looks at it. Thank you for shraing this with all of us.

  • charlene boone

    a very, very beautiful article. the sisters are right .prayer is very,very important. we all should keep our eyes on God, and stay close toHim and always seek His Will in all things whether they be great or small.

  • Florence Conrad Salisbury, MSSC ’64

    A well done glimpse of monastic life at Mount St. Scholastica where I spent four amazing years in college learning from the sisters and being enriched and inspired by their sharing of their way of life. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without the Benedictine way of life continuing in it each day since graduation. I am renewed with each message from the sisters, with each visit to the monastery, with each contact with a classmate who shared the fullness of life that I experienced there. Thank you, thank you!

  • Dean Cole

    Thanks for the positive memories after viewing “The Monastic Life”. I was taught religion classes by Mount St. Scholastica sisters over 40-years-ago at St. Mary’s Parish in Wymore, NE. I especially grateful to have ad Sister Gabrielle Kocour as my religion instructor. She taught me critical thinking, the value of life and always to take the time to listen to others. Again, thank you for the memories and thank you sisters or sharing your wisdom with a small town boy from Nebraska.

  • Lorraine Towle

    I teach Chaucer to my AP12 English and because of the references in the Prologue re: Bernard, I found this interesting and helpful as I’m always trying to make connections to the world today.I am a Jew and none of my students self-identify as religious in any denomination. I watch Religion and Ethics every week. Thank you.

  • Rose Sevenich osf

    Congratulations to Judy Valente and the Religion and Ethics staff for an excellent presentation of the Benedictine Sisters of Mt St. Scholastica.
    So many times I am disheartened by the media portrayal of women religious. This segment “renewed my drooping spirit”! You presented the aspects of being a woman religious monastic in the 21st century with reality and honesty.

    Sister Rose Sevenich, osf
    Vocation Minister for the Sisters of St Francis of Assisi

    Any thought of learning more about the Evangelical/Apostolic women religious?

    Sister Rose Sevenich, osf
    Vocation Minister for the Sisters of St Francis of Assisi

  • Don

    As an Oblate of lay member of this community, and not a Roman Catholic, I can testify that what is presented is absolutely true. Trying to live by the monastic rule for the last 15 years has changed my life for the better. Next to my blood family the sisters are my closest friends, confidants and spiritual partners and companions.

  • Harold W. Berciunas

    Wonderful. We have visited several monastic groups. You captured our experiences and hopes well. The article brought back some fond memories and inspiration to visit again soon. We are also motivated toward our attempts to commit to prayerful and active community in the places we live. Thank you. Grace and Peace, H

  • Zachary Hoyt

    How I love the Sisters of Mt. Saint Scholastica. As a student of Benedictine College I came to admire their amazing lifestyle. God bless them and their vocation.

  • Jeff McKenzie

    What a Great presentation. I am the brother of a Benedictine Sister. When I visit with her and the many sisters, there is an absolute feeling of Peace that flows over me. Since I was an early teen when I visited with my sisters and my other mothers( as the sisters there became) I always felt welcome. I am very Blessed to have the Sisters there at SACRED HEART of CULLMAN part of my life.
    My Love and God’s Blessings to All the Sisters,

  • jean norton

    I loved the story and wished I was there. I am known as a progressive Catholic but as I watch the video I too wished for a habit. Some of the sisters were wearing what I wear or wish I had been able to afford. God bless you all and pray for us please.

  • David naNter

    The Sister’s simple deed of commitment is inspirational. They do the work for the betterment of humanity – there is no greater deed. The serenity of the silence is the perfect waiting room to hear the divine. I am privileged and blessed to know Sister McGuire. For it is her spirit that constantly reminds me to listen and serve.

  • JanetLee Dale

    This is the first fall in a while that I have NOT spent time at the Mount. Watching this wonderful video made me long to be with the sisters I love so much. The Mount is an oasis in a world of chaos. A gift from God to those of us who either can’t take orders or have chosen not to. It is a way of sharing the contemplative life with all who enter there and leave to share with the world. Thank you so much for doing this.

  • Kate

    This feature story was very nicely done and gave a fine glimpse of life at Mount Saint Scholastica. I am deeply grateful to the monastics at the Mount (and others who share their wisdom in books) for their hospitality, generous spirits, and prayerful support. As a Benedictine oblate, I feel called to show people what the Rule of Benedict offers them, irrespective of taking monastic orders. It is an excellent guide for Christian living.

  • Nancy Stewart

    What a beautiful presentation! I was educated by these wonderful women and shared monastic life with them for several years. They continue to inspire me. I visit them on a regular basis and feel very blessed by the peace I find in the monastery. Thank you for this thoughtful and respectful presentation.

  • Charlie Pisitpong

    I have a dear friend, Sister Yvonne Barrington OSB, who passed away on May 19, 2009. Having known Sister Yvonne for over 30 years, I wanted so much to be there with her but because I was so far away (Bangkok, Thailand), I could not make it. It was a comfort reading Sr. Anne in the first part of the interview knowing that Sr. Yvonne were among her family members in her last hours. Thank you.

  • John Wolfe

    The video is very well done and provides a small peek into the very important role you have all played with those so fortunate to have experienced your gifts. Thank you so very much.