November 3, 2017

Vocations Supplement

For Sisters of St. Benedict, prayer is ‘our main work’

The Sisters of St. Benedict of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove pray during a service in July in the monastery’s oratory. (Submitted photo)

The Sisters of St. Benedict of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove pray during a service in July in the monastery’s oratory. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

“Ora et labora.” It means “prayer and work,” and it is the motto by which Benedictine monastic communities live.

The works of the Sisters of St. Benedict of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove can be seen throughout the Indianapolis area: in the St. Paul Hermitage home for the aged that they operate next to their monastery; in high schools where they teach; in parishes where they serve, and elsewhere.

But the motto is “prayer and work,” not “work and prayer.”

(Related: Sisters of St. Benedict invite all to pray with them at their monastery)

So what of the prayer life of these monastic sisters? How does prayer play a role in the daily life of those religious who live in community?

The Criterion spoke with two of the sisters of Our Lady of Grace Monastery to learn about the importance of both communal and individual prayer within their order, and how their community models both forms of prayer for others.

‘We try to pray as one’

Communal prayer “is of utmost importance,” says Benedictine Sister Marie Therese Racine. As the liturgist for the community, she coordinates all liturgical worship at the monastery, including Masses, the twice-daily communal Liturgy of the Hours, special events and rituals. She also plays the organ and leads the monastery’s schola cantorum (ecclesial choir), hand bell choir and other musical groups.

“Our main work as Benedictines is to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, to pray together for the Church and the world,” she continues. “Our community prayer is what provides the framework for our day, so we have a rhythm between prayer and work.”

The Liturgy of the Hours, also known as the Divine Office, is an age-old custom of prayer in the Church, described by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as the official set of prayers “marking the hours of each day and sanctifying the day with prayer.” The prayer consists of psalms, hymns, Scripture and antiphons.

In the morning and evening, the sisters gather to share in this prayer as a community.

“As we gather for the hours of prayer and the Liturgy of the Eucharist each day, we present the gift of ourselves to God at that moment,” says Sister Marie Therese, who at 57 has been a professed sister for 14 years.

“And our presence at these liturgies is also a gift to one another, as we support each other in our seeking God both individually and communally in this monastic life.”

Praying the Liturgy of the Hours is crucial to the Benedictine way of life, she explains. Indeed, chapter 43 of the Rule of St. Benedict states that, “On hearing the signal for an hour of the Divine Office, the [Benedictine] will immediately set aside what [is] in hand and go with utmost speed … for indeed, nothing is to be preferred to the work of God.”

Through these sanctifying prayers, says Sister Marie Therese, “We can become more and more who we were created to be, more and more the body of Christ. We’re all on a path of conversion, so our time together in prayer helps us in that transformation.”

That time in prayer is not just for the benefit of the sisters. All are invited to join them daily for morning and evening prayer, as well as for Mass. (See related article.)

Even those who cannot be present physically can still be part of the sisters’ community prayer.

“Many people ask us to pray for them, people we minister to or people we know,” says Sister Marie Therese. “We bring intentions on our hearts that, as we pray the Psalms, those are added to our prayer.”

Prayer is not reserved for those in the religious life, she says.

“One thing I’ve come to understand—our Christian life is centered in God, but God plants desire for union with him in our hearts,” she notes. “Our deepest desire, whether we know it or not, is to seek union with God.”

‘Where God talks to me’

Such union with God through prayer is not limited to communal experiences in the Benedictine life. Individual prayer is equally important.

“To me, individual prayer and communal prayer fuel each other,” says Sister Harriet Woehler, 86, who has been a Benedictine sister for 66 years and was one of the founding members of the monastery in Beech Grove in 1955. “[It’s] that spark that comes from being just ‘me and Jesus.’ That’s the individual prayer for me—the time when God lights our fire, the Holy Spirit lights our fire.”

Sister Harriet talks of praying her way through the morning. She rises early for individual prayer, then moves to the oratory (“the little room with the big crucifix,” she explains) for quiet meditation with a few other sisters, then joins with all of the sisters for the Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.

“I love the morning darkness, the time before dawn when you can just see the light, and everything is shadow and silhouette,” says Sister Harriet of her individual prayer time in her room at the beginning of the day.

She likes to start her day with a form of prayer called “lectio divina,” or “divine reading”—reading a Scripture passage and then reflecting and meditating upon the text.

“I mark mine up something fierce,” she says of the booklet she uses that contains the current month’s daily Mass readings. “That’s where God talks to me. God drills [the Scripture] into my memory. And that gives me the fuel for when I go down for Mass or for the [Liturgy of the] Hours.”

In the oratory before the Divine Office, she participates in centering prayer with a few fellow sisters.

“We sit for 20 minutes in silence and just look at the crucifix, and just rest and let [the] morning prayer soak in,” she explains.

There is even individual time built into the Liturgy of the Hours, “a minute or two of silence [between each psalm] to reflect upon what you just said,” says Sister Harriet, who once served as the community’s liturgist. “It’s like time for the psalm to wash over you, time to sit in the peace of it all without rushing on.”

In addition to lectio divina and centering prayer, Sister Harriet likes to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the rosary.

But individual prayer can look different for each person, she notes.

For instance, while Sister Harriet prefers her individual prayer time indoors, she notes that others “like to go outside for a walk—we have beautiful gardens.” The monastery’s outdoor Stations of the Cross and cemetery—both of which are open to the public—also offer space for quiet prayer.

The monastery’s adjoining Benedict Inn Retreat & Conference Center is a natural place for people to get away to pray, she adds—and not just during a retreat.

“The path through the peace and nature garden [at the retreat center] is just lovely,” she says. And people are often seen quietly praying on the center’s labyrinth, a replica of the one created circa 1220 in the stone floor of Chartres Cathedral in France.

Whether the rosary or lectio divina, inside or outside, individually or in community, prayer is something Sister Harriet says is a “hunger” in today’s world.

“There are some people so hungry for it,” she says. “I know a lot of good people that really do want to come to prayer and are intent on it, but rarely give the time to pray.”

Not so for the Sisters of St. Benedict.

“It’s our light that we live by, it glows out from us—it just has to,” says Sister Harriet. “It’s what ignites us.”
 

(To learn more about the Sisters of St. Benedict of Our Lady of Grace Monastery, go to www.benedictine.com.)

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