Meeting Young European Benedictine Women
Monastery of Notre Dame, Ermeton, Belgium
June 14 – 18, 2010
From Monday afternoon till Friday morning we formed a mixed community with
sisters from all over Europe: Sweden, Poland, Great Britain, Germany, Spain, Belgium and
the Netherlands. One of us was even born in India. It took some of us some time to get
used to expressing ourselves in English, but Sister Ulrike encouraged us: “Just speak
without fear of making mistakes!” Within no time, we felt enough at ease to be able to
exchange about our vision, experience and questions on the topic of obedience.
Mother Máire Hickey from Kylemore Abbey, Ireland, shared with us her long experience of
monastic community life and gave us insights on spiritual, theological and practical levels.
She invited us to reflect on the meaning of obedience by giving some texts from the Bible
for individual lectio, and to share the fruit of reading and praying in small groups. In fact,
the meeting was a dialogue between mother Máire and the group, and the participants
In this report I give a personal impression on the journey we went together.
Living out Baptism
The starting point of our faith is our Baptism. By being baptised in the death and
resurrection of Christ I become part of his Life. Do I realise enough what that means? In
the Liturgy of Easter we celebrate the renewal of our Baptism by saying Yes to the Father,
the Son and the Holy Spirit, and by saying No to the evil one. During the Liturgy there is
however little time to reflect on this vow and to deepen our commitment.
For Saint Gertrudis of Helfta the renewal of Baptism plays an important role in her
Spiritual Exercises. She gives us the advice to celebrate our Baptism on a yearly basis and
to take a day to meditate on it. She offers help with prayers to renew our awareness of
being a baptised child of God. It can be a great help in the growth of our relationship with
Obedience means living out our Baptism. It‟s the possibility of turning around. Back
to our Creator. Back to our origin. When He gave life to creation, He called it very good.
But, somehow, something went wrong. Men turned away from God. Still we live with the
consequences of this turning away: by thinking we know everything by ourselves, by
acting according to our own opinions, by refusing our own responsibility and blaming
another for what went wrong. That‟s why monastic fathers like Dorotheus Gaza and also
Saint Benedict describe obedience as medicine against our turning away from God. When
we learn to blame ourselves instead of others; when we seek correction for our self-will
and realise that we are creatures and not God, then we come back „in order‟.
Unhealthy and healthy obedience
We all know people – mainly women – who are lacking self-esteem. They are
„obedient‟ as by nature, or were forced to be obedient. That‟s a form of slavery we don‟t
want to encourage. In our time, we learn the importance of a healthy self-esteem. Modern
people want to be assertive. We cannot respond to our vocation as Christian when we
keep our light under a bushel.
Mother Máire tells about discussions in the Church of Ireland. The publicity on
account of sexual abuse raises questions. Why were the people concerned so „proper‟ and
compliant in staying silent about what happened? In the group discussion we heard about
situations of abuse in religious communities: a prioress with some weird spiritual way of
thinking destroying a congregation, a novice-mistress falling in love with her novice and
starting a relationship, a priest using confession for sexual approaches…
Most situations are not so extreme. Often abuse of power and influence in religious
communities take the form of dependency. When someone doesn‟t have much self-
esteem, she can try to build a relationship where she gets the confirmation she longs for.
As a price, she gives up her own freedom. Sometimes people in responsibility use the
decent members of their community to strengthen their own position. Other people in the
community who don‟t have direct influence can also try to seek emotional support. These
relationships are often caused by lack of communication.
Dependency blocks a free response. It is not healthy for the person nor for the
community. Christ invites us to a mature response to the Gospel. We can only give
ourselves when we know who we are. So first we must develop a personality. Then we
can learn to listen, to communicate and to answer the invitation to give up our own
insights, to give our time, our capacities for the Kingdom, the community, the person who
Healthy obedience therefore presupposes a mature personality. It asks from the
community also the skill to communicate in an open and honest way. For people living
with each other in a religious community that‟s not easy. It needs courage, respect and
patience to express yourself and to listen to each other, and to understand what is
happening in the communication. But difficult as it is, it is also the chance of growth that
St. Benedict is offering us in our monastic way of life.
The struggle with obedience
In monastic life we have a desire for conversion, for the way back to God by
responding to his will. This is a process of transformation. But although it is our deepest
desire to live in accordance to God‟s will, it is not without effort that this will be brought
about. There is indeed much in us that resists God‟s will, his love. Wanting to live in the
order of Gods creation, we think, feel and act often against his law. Our thoughts and
emotions are often in a disorder.
When we study the doctrine of St. Benedict on spiritual life, we have to know a bit
of his background. For example, the teaching of the desert fathers on the „thougts‟.
Pontius Evagrius is one of the thinkers of early monasticism who wrote about this theme
in a very clear way. His teaching can help us to discern what is happening in us when we
are not in peace with God, ourselves and our neighbours. The eight thoughts that disturb
our emotional equilibrium have to do with:
1. food and drink,
2. sex and affection,
3. money and material goods,
4. anger and aggression,
7. vanity and
The first three thoughts have to do with our basic needs, the second three with emotions
(for example when something strikes our basic needs), and the last two with how we
perceive ourselves in relation to God and others.
For spiritual life and growth in obedience it is important to recognize our thoughts
and motivations. We have to understand why we are feeling and behaving as we do
before being able to change our behaviour.
Praying the Psalms and reflecting the mirror
Self knowledge brings us closer to the knowledge of God. When we pray the psalms
we look in the mirror and recognize who we are: with faith and fear, gratefulness and
anger, willingness and resistance. In the Psalter we discover all human feelings and
moods. Maybe in some cases, as in the „cursing psalms‟ it will cost us time to admit that
such „bad‟ feelings are in us. But when we are honest with ourselves and with God we
know that this is also the truth about us. And by recognizing and admitting this we learn
to pray more honestly for conversion.
In the mirror of the Psalms we not only recognize ourselves: we also learn to
recognize the loving Face of our Lord. We look in the mirror of his forgiving love, his
patience, his faith in humanity. When we pray the Psalms we let the Word of God speak to
us, his Spirit changing us. Our own mind and spirit become clearer and soften to the
working of God in us.
Praying the office is put us in touch again with the original harmony of creation.
The order of the choir, the rhythm and the melody of the singing are elements that help
us overcome the disorder in our thoughts and emotions, and also help us to come in
harmony with our sisters, although we all know that as we sing together it isn‟t alwys easy
to be in musical harmony.
The monastery as a school of the Lords service
What are the characteristics of this school? Saint Benedict tells us his Rule is meant
for beginners. That‟s what we are till the end of our lives. In every new situation we make
a new beginning. In every stage of our lives we walk our way and reach points where we
have to turn around to come back on the way of our Lord. In the beginning it is a narrow
way. It is difficult to renounce our self-will. But when we learn to listen and turn our
hearts to God and to our sisters, St. Benedict promises us that our hearts will widen, and
that it will become much easier to give up our own priorities and fixations. We will become
more open and free, so that we can run in stead of heavy climbing the way to his
The school of St. Benedict is not meant for theoretical education, but for practical
training. It is a school for workers. We are not supposed to sit still in praying and listening.
Often in his Rule he asks us to run. The work we have to do is physical as well as spiritual.
When he describes the steps of humility he tells us that in difficult situations we have to
descend into our hearts to the qualities of Christ to endure, to be patient, to be obedient.
So it is not a place where we can expect to feel happy and comfortable all the time.
Nevertheless St. Benedict invites people who want to be happy, who desire life in its full
meaning. It is a way to eternal life, which starts here and now in a life, soaked with the
abundant love of Christ.
Coping with injustice
When we are lucky to have a good relationship with our superior and when we are
asked to do things we appreciate, it is no problem to obey. There is some minor difficulty
when our days are already filled with things we like to do… That‟s a recognizable problem
for most of us. The question rises whether we can say „no‟ when we have made the vow
of obedience. In fact it is important to be honest and make clear that we can‟t do
everything. But within a relationship of trust we can explain that we are willing but not
able to do the job we are asked for.
St. Benedict however is realistic enough to know that the mutual understanding and
trust are not as ideal as we would hope and expect from a Christian community. He talks
about enduring injustice, and of the duty to obey even when it seems for some reason
impossible to do as we are asked. What we do when explaining the impossibility doesn‟t
help? What do we do when we feel victimized? Chapter 68 tells us: „when the Superior
persists in her decision and command, let the subject know that this is for her good, and
let her obey out of love, trusting in the help of God‟. Most of us don‟t feel capable of such
a degree of obedience. Mother Máire suggests to reading this chapter as a description of a
really mature monk or sister. She has no fear of losing her own identity. She is free to
respond in words and deeds, honest but not compulsive. In this way we can read it as an
invitation to grow.
Living in a monastery is not a way of living peacefully for its own sake. We are
there to seek God. We long to model our personal and communal life on the life of Christ.
Like Baptism tells us, it is a way of dying and resurrection. Enduring injustice, obeying an
impossible demand, staying patient in difficult situations: we can know Christ by our side.
In our own suffering, and in suffering with others, we can commemorate his love for the
Father and his love for us. We can trust that our particular cross can bring us to new life,
with our risen Lord.