From the 4th to the 21st Century: A Young Benedictine Reflects on the History and Present Reality of Women's Religious Life

By Ryan, Antonia | National Catholic Reporter, February 25, 2005 | Go to article overview

From the 4th to the 21st Century: A Young Benedictine Reflects on the History and Present Reality of Women's Religious Life


Ryan, Antonia, National Catholic Reporter


It was 23 when I first began to announce to people that I planned to enter a monastery. My friends and family weren't very surprised. But when I told my intentions to people I barely knew, I often had to have what I called "the 'monastic life' conversation." "What will you do?" asked the nonCatholic parents of a college friend. "I can't understand those orders where all they do is pray all the time," said another acquaintance. "At first I don't understand why people would want to be nuns," said a nonreligious friend of a friend, "but when I think of them as communities of women ..."

So I would explain my decision. People who were worried about my future monastic usefulness grew somewhat appeased when I said that I would probably join a community where I could teach. People who weren't religious at all grew somewhat appeased when they thought of joining a convent as a free choice that I had the right to make.

But I was not primarily concerned with how "useful" I would be; I longed mostly for the rhythm of prayer, the contemplative dimension of monastic life. Benedictines do work--it says in the Rule that "if they live by the labor of their hands, they are really monks"--but there really is no particular work we were founded to do. We are meant to live in community and to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the "Work of God." While in graduate school at St. John's, the Benedictine university in Minnesota, I fell in love with the daily chanting of the psalms morning, noon and evening. I came to cherish going to daily Mass. I wanted to be part of the tradition I was coming to love through my monastic history classes. I eventually took as my patron the hermit St. Antony of Egypt (d. 356), who is known as "the founder of monasticism."

Immersed in fourth-century monasticism and fresh from study of the sixth-century Rule of Benedict, I was fired with the zeal of those early sources. I said during my first months in the community that I had come to monastic life directly by way of the sixth century.

Last summer, I had a chance once again to think about these questions of monastic identity, religious "usefulness" and "contemplation" when I was invited by one of the sisters in my community to present an essay at the Sixth Triennial Meeting of the Conference on the History of Women Religious, held on the grounds of our monastery in Atchison, Kan., in June. The theme was "Crossing Boundaries: Comparative Perspectives on the History of Women Religious." There were presentations on many eras, orders and places in the history of women religious, but most of that history covered the years after the French Revolution--not the ancient times I had studied most.

In the afternoon of June 27, the first day of the conference, I was at Mass with my community celebrating the perpetual profession ("final vows") of one of our members. It's a ceremony that goes back to Chapter 58 of the Rule, during which the newest member professes "stability, fidelity to the monastic way of life and obedience." A few of the conference scholars had come to the profession to see what a real one looked like. Everyone else was attending the opening keynote address of the conference, "A Boundary Crossed: Apostolic Women in Early New France."

I finally got over to the conference for the evening forum: "Invisible No More: Teaching and Writing about Women Religious in the 21st Century." I looked around the room. At 29, I was one of the youngest ones there. It was a diverse crowd: mostly nuns, several lay people and a priest or two, mostly American, but also from England, Australia, Norway and Denmark. (The people from India had been unable to make it.)

The Sister of Charity who was presenting the segment on "writing the history" noted that one-third left her home community during the years of renewal. Some writers "imply or almost conclude that abandoning common prayer, habit and ministry led to our downfall." As she recounted her research into why people had left, she offered many "remember when" asides about what it was like before Vatican II. …

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