Centuries before technology would connect our world in unprecedented ways, St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, reported having an extraordinary vision.
According to one account, “Standing at the window and praying to almighty God in the middle of the night, (Benedict) suddenly saw a light pour down that routed all the shadows … A wonderful thing followed … for as Benedict reported later, the whole world was brought before his eyes as if collected in a single ray of sunshine.”
In works of art, St. Benedict often is depicted holding a small globe of the world in the palm of his hand, illuminated by a steady stream of light. It would have astounded him just how “small” and inter-connected our world has become.
Through advances in communication, we can watch events happening on the other side of the globe unfold in real time. Likewise, if the rapid spread of the COVID virus across national boundaries has taught us anything, it is how inter-related we all are.
St. Benedict’s vision of “the world in a single ray of light” was the driving metaphor behind an online conference I attended this weekend, organized by the American Benedictine Academy. The group aims to connect monastic values with contemporary life. For the past six years, I’ve served on the ABA board.
I joined the conference feeling conflicted by some recent developments involving my church. I came away from it feeling renewed hope.
Last week, the Vatican called on bishops to report allegations of sexual abuse to civilian law enforcement authorities, but did not require it. If teachers, social workers, and even co-workers can be mandated to report abuse, why not our bishops — especially in light of all we have learned about their propensity to ignore and cover up these incidents in the past?
The Vatican also decided last week to designate as a basilica (meaning a holy site for evangelization) a church in Ventura, CA named in honor of St. Junipero Serra — an 18th century Spanish missionary. Indigenous people have criticized St. Junipero for pressuring their ancestors to convert, preventing them for practicing their ancient traditions, and turning a blind eye to violence perpetrated by Spanish colonizers.
The announcement came within hours of a vote by Ventura city officials to remove a public statue of the saint.
My purpose isn’t to debate the missionary work of St. Junipero Serra. He was a man of his time. There is little doubt he believed he was saving souls, and California missions he established continue to serve Catholics to this day. My point is the tone deafness of certain church leaders in taking this action amid the difficult conversations that are taking place on the history of race in the U.S.
In light of those developments, the American Benedictine Academy conference felt like a gust of fresh air amid the current mid-summer heat wave. A recurring theme was how much we can learn from other countries with whom we are joined in St. Benedict’s single ray of light … if we have the humility to recognize those lessons.
Sister Pia Portman is currently the prioress of Norfolk Priory in Nebraska. She worked for many years in Tanzania. The grounding metaphor of her comments was a traditional African wood sculpture known as the Ujamaa “Tree of Life.” Its intricately carved, interlocking human figures represent unity, continuity and interdependence.
The sculptures are meant to be visual companions to the familiar African motto: “I am because we are.” If we ever needed such a reminder of the need to come together as community for the well-being of all, it is certainly now.
Father Joel Macul, the leader of Christ the King Priory in Schuyler NE, spent many years in Kenya. He recalled a lesson he received on the importance of “presence” in African culture. He had just returned to his monastery after a hospital stay in Nairobi , and lamented to a young African monk that he was unable to work during his period of recovery.
“I don’t understand your problem,” the young monk told Father Joel. “You’re here. That’s what matters.” In other words, being present has an intrinsic value over anything that one does.
Offering hospitality to strangers is a major monastic value. In the African culture, “receiving a visitor is considered a blessing,” Father Joel recalled. Even the poorest of families will offer a visitor something to drink.
It’s a generosity I find myself reflecting on as our world continues to marginalize the refugee, and our country turns away the asylum seeker.
I was also touched by a story told by Sister Ann Hoffman, U.S. director of AIM, the Alliance for International Monasticism. In Cordoba, Argentina, the Benedictine women’s monastery has lost virtually all of its income sources because of the current pandemic. With the southern hemisphere in the midst of winter, the sisters are unable to heat their monastery. They wear overcoats inside during the day, and heat their beds at night with water bottles.
The monastery’s prioress wrote Sister Ann that the Argentine sisters consider themselves fortunate. “Many of the people who live on the streets,” she wrote, “do not have coats to keep warm.”
Words to ponder whenever we’re tempted to complain about the inconveniences we are experiencing during the pandemic in the U.S.
The writer, Sister Mary Lou Kownacki of Erie, PA, has written a beautiful prayer for the international monasteries. We used it to open the conference this weekend. I offer some lines from the prayer as one we might consider praying this week, and for the remainder of this pandemic.
O Loving God …
Help us to become people of prayer and peace.
May we be visible signs that strangers
can live together in God’s love.
Give us hearts wide enough to welcome
the traveler, the outcast, the neighbor.
Enable us to listen to and learn from
the people we serve, especially the poorest.
May our communities be models of wise stewardship,
of dignified human labor, of sacred leisure,
and of reverence for all living things.
Here is a link to the Alliance of International Monasteries, if you would like to learn more or help. https://www.aim-usa.org/