Conversion of Life: Monastic Wisdom for Our Time
Unlike cloistered monastics, Benedictines can work outside the monastery. Many Mount sisters have been college professors. One is a medical doctor, another a funeral director. Still another worked as a firefighter. But within the monastery, everyone from the Ph.Ds to the newest novices takes a turn at cleaning the bathrooms, mopping the floors, and washing the dishes (albeit in an industrial-size mechanical dishwasher). Monasteries, it appears, discovered "servant leadership" long before it entered the lexicon of management gurus. Only here, it isn't merely an empty slogan. Here, humility still equates with its original Latin root, humus, meaning "of the earth." Humility recognizes we're all in this together.
Perhaps the most important word I've learned from the sisters is conversatio. It refers to a vow Benedictines take for "conversion of life." But I prefer the definition Sister Thomasita Homan gives of conversatio as a constant turning, a continuous "conversation" with life. I like this notion of turning because it connotes change, and there is so much about myself I'd like to change, like my quick temper. One day, returning from the monastery, I argued with my wonderful husband. A silly, totally unnecessary, argument. I asked Sister Thomasita why I'm calm and patient when I'm at the monastery, but can't seem to live conversatio in my daily life. "You are living conversatio, she said. "Your struggle, that's the conversatio." Her words gave me hope. I don't have to be a saint. I can just be human.
I used to think monasteries were hopeless throwbacks to the past. Now I see them as windows to the future, a future our world desperately needs—one that stresses community over competitiveness, service over self-aggrandizement, simplicity over consumption, and quietude over constant chatter. It's what keeps me returning to these incredible Benedictine women and this monastery perched on a hill.
For more conversation on Atchison Blue, visit the Patheos Book Club here.
Judith Valente is an on air correspondent for Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on PBS-TV. She is a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. She is co-editor with Charles Reynard of the anthology Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul and author of the poetry collection, Discovering Moons. She has just published a book a book about her experiences at Mount St. Scholastica, Atchison Blue: A Search for Silence, a Spiritual Home, and a Living Faith.