I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Julie Ferraro’s reflection “As Observer and Participant.”
Over the course of 30 years, I’ve visited many Benedictine monasteries – as well as Trappist – across the United States. From the first time I stood in the chapel at Our Lady of Grace in Beech Grove, Indiana, praying with the Sisters using inclusive language, I’ve been “hooked” by the way St. Benedict’s balanced approach to life is manifested in this modern era.
Since June, 2021, with COVID-19 causing all sorts of disruptions around the world, I’ve had the good fortune of working with a community of Benedictine Sisters, sharing their lives and spirituality via still photography, video and the written word on social media, the internet and in print.
In addition to being on the scene for events such as profession of vows, the Triduum and Easter, jubilees of as many as 75 years in religious life, I share the noonday meal with the Sisters, listening to their stories, their insights, their jokes. I’ve sat in on a class covering the history of how Benedictine women came to America in the 1850s and spread out to serve the people and evolve monasticism according to the needs of the locales where they settled.
My position as an employee, combined with being an Oblate, gives me unique access to the activities within the monastery. Some mornings, I climb to the loft above the choir chapel, snapping pictures of the Sisters at prayer. When one of the Sisters whips up a birthday cake, brownies or pecan pies in the small kitchen, I not only get to smell the delightful aromas, but capture the acts of kindness digitally.
Almost on a daily basis, a serenade of organ music wafts along the corridor, providing a pleasant background to editing video, or laying out the periodicals the Sisters publish.
For the most part, except when I drive the few miles to my apartment – and, even then, mostly – I practice a simple monastic lifestyle not unlike the Sisters themselves. Benedictine women religious today, I’ve observed – even those past the commonly-accepted “retirement age” – perform multiple duties as part of ministries that vary far beyond just teaching or nursing. So, too, when not at my paid job, I volunteer my skills to support other groups within the Benedictine family. These tasks can involve proofreading articles to uploading retreats on social media, creating graphics or updating websites.
When it comes to mirroring the Benedictines at prayer, sources include the internet or the more traditional print mode. The Erie (Pennsylvania) Benedictines, for instance, offer their five-week psalter for sale via the Benetvision website. The standard Liturgy of the Hours used by many in the Catholic Church, has its own mobile app these days, as well – more than one, actually, depending on which version is preferred.
Sitting quietly in a comfortable living room chair, sources for lectio divina are available by typing the words into any number of search engines. For me, reflections written by the Sisters and shared with the community on special feast days and during the liturgical seasons augment my own reflections, enriching my spiritual journey to no end. I don’t merely get to format them for inclusion on the website’s Prayer page, I get to ingest and savor them like a special treat on a holiday.
Capturing the extra-special moments through the view finder of my cameras – a new Oblate signing their paperwork at the ambo, the prioress affirming the promises with her own hand; a woman in initial formation slicing a portion of meat for one of her elders during a Holy Thursday seder; hands with a talent for carpentry lovingly assembling a wooden urn to hold a Sister’s cremains – is a spark for my own prayer that can’t really be equated to any other using the written or spoken word.
A casual observer might notice that my posture isn’t “properly” prayerful during solemn liturgies. My head isn’t bowed, because my eyes are focusing on ways to preserve that transcendent moment for posterity. My fingers aren’t entwined; they encircle the lens – regular or telephoto – ready to zoom in on a poignant facial expression or eloquent gesture that, when people see it, will convey the truth of Benedictine hospitality, spirituality, charism, without needing a complex explanation.
As for many monastics, my work is directly linked to my soul’s own quest, and that quest inspires my work. To say I consider myself lucky to have been hired for this job is to sell the Holy Spirit short. In all my travels through life, the inspiration to submit my resume, to visit a certain monastery, to make the acquaintance of a particular religious, has provided link after link in what has been a profound, delightful and extensive journey.
I agree with those who purport there are no coincidences, when one keeps eyes and ears open to see and hear what the divine wishes to show us – and respond accordingly!
Julie A. Ferraro is a mother, grandmother and has been a writer for 50 years, as well as a journalist for more than three decades. She is a Benedictine Oblate and lends her skills to supporting many projects within the Benedictine family.