Forty-five minutes north of me, in Rock Island, Illinois, there is a Benedictine Monastery where the Sisters of St. Benedict live and run a retreat center. I have known of this monastery ever since I moved here and have even referred people to the sisters for spiritual direction, but never (in six years) had I gone there myself. Recently, though, I realized I could benefit from a spiritual director, or a conversation partner in faith. So I made an appointment to meet with Sister Margaret and made the trip this past Thursday.
The monastery was so easy to get to. I turned right off the highway into a neighborhood of typical Midwestern ranch homes. Then I turned left onto a quiet street that opened up into an expansive view of the monastery set on the edge of a hill, overlooking acres of beautiful hardwoods just beginning to turn in color. I rolled down the windows of my car to take it all in—the crisp air, the view, the sunlight highlighting it all. I felt a sense of peace just driving into this beautiful, unexpected nook in Rock Island, and I hadn’t even stepped through the monastery doors.
Ever since I discovered that monasteries are open and welcoming of visitors seeking spaces of spiritual respite and renewal, I have sought them out. Reading books like Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain, and Henri Nouwen’s The Genesee Diary, encouraged my exploration. I spent a week, once, at a Benedictine Monastery in Cullman, Alabama and I have taken church members on retreat to a monastery in South Carolina. Guest house accommodations are typically very simple and you are, oftentimes, welcome to eat and worship with the community. I recommend a book called Sanctuaries that lists monasteries all across the country that welcome guests for a modest fee, or sometimes just a donation.
Sister Margaret met me at the door of the monastery, dressed in a white sweater, a pretty blue scarf and a pair of comfortable-looking blue pants. They don’t wear habits anymore. After we sat down in her office, she began our session with lectio divina (sacred reading) and a prayer. Then we got to know each other. Sister Margaret is 75 years old, but still gets around easily in spite of knees that she admits are wearing out. As we spoke she referred to scripture, but also quoted Ghandi and a Zen master. I liked her right away. She encouraged me to practice centering prayer, which she described as a practice in which you simply “let God look at you.” I described my sense of call for her and how I had always felt drawn to God from a very young age. It was good to remind myself of this in conversation.
Before I left, Sister Margaret handed me a piece of paper with the following scripture verses printed on it:
“You are precious in my eyes; I love you.” Isaiah 43: 1-11
“God loved us so much he gave us his only son.” John 3:16-21
“God is love.” 1 John 4: 7-21
“I have called you by name.” Isaiah 43: 1-7
“I have written your name on the palm of my hand.” Isaiah 49:1-16
“With an age old love I have loved you.” Jeremiah 31:3
“Give thanks to God; good indeed is the Lord, whose love endures forever, whose faithfulness lasts through every age.” Psalm 100
“God’s love endures forever.” Psalm 136
Her message to me was clear. I look forward to the next chance I have to be loved by Sister Margaret.
[Feature Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.]