October 30, 2020

2020 Vocations Awareness Supplement

Benedictine sisters stay connected in prayer to broader world during pandemic

Benedictine sisters process in prayer on Aug. 25, the date of a federal execution, outside Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove. The monastery is closed to visitors due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the sisters are finding ways to continue the work of prayer and social justice. (Submitted photo)

Benedictine sisters process in prayer on Aug. 25, the date of a federal execution, outside Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove. The monastery is closed to visitors due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the sisters are finding ways to continue the work of prayer and social justice. (Submitted photo)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

When the monastery stopped receiving visitors in March, the sisters felt the void. As a community built on the Rule of St. Benedict, hospitality is engrained into the mission of Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove.

“St. Benedict says that guests are to be received as Christ and that there will always be guests in the monastery,” explained Benedictine Sister Mary Luke Jones, the monastery’s director of development.

The spread of COVID-19 was too great a risk in a place where all the sisters live in community, share meals and bathrooms. There are 43 Benedictine sisters at Our Lady of Grace; the oldest is 97.

Several of the sisters also serve in their on-campus retirement and nursing facility, St. Paul Hermitage, which houses about 100 elderly residents.

But it will take more than a pandemic to prevent the Benedictines from living their vocation. The sisters are finding ways to live out their call to hospitality, prayer and social justice even while the monastery is closed to visitors.

First, they began to digitally host guests by livestreaming their regular communal prayer. Those broadcasts have continued to grace Facebook daily since March 21, the day on which they and other Benedictines celebrate the feast of St. Benedict.

“We’re all connected to one another through the Holy Spirit. We hope that the positive nature of our coming together will go beyond our walls and that our prayer goes beyond our walls,” explained Benedictine Sister Marie Therese Racine, the community’s director of liturgy.

As their prayers go beyond the walls, the sisters have also discovered ways to bring the sufferings of the world back into their prayer.

Deeply concerned by the disease’s deadly spread, Sister Mary Luke looks up the number of Indiana residents who, during the previous day, passed away from COVID-19. She posts that number at the entrance to the sisters’ chapel. At the end of each evening prayer, one of the sisters tolls a hand bell for each Hoosier lost.

As she listens to the haunting toll, Sister Mary Luke prays at each chime, “May you rest in peace.”

“I sit with my palms open, and as the last bell tolls I close my fists and I say, ‘and may God embrace your families,’ ” she recounted, speaking on Sept. 30 to The Criterion in an interview via Zoom.

Evening prayer on Oct. 20 marked the highest number of Hoosiers lost to that date. The bell tolled 48 times.

“Our hearts cry for them and their families,” the sisters posted on their Facebook livestream. “Let us remember all those who have died and who continue to suffer during this pandemic.”

For Sister Marie Therese, a phrase found in Psalms 75:5 and 89:47 are especially relevant in light of all these sufferings: “How long, Lord?” The sisters pray psalms during each prayer service, and Sister Marie Therese uses the biblical words to bring the world into her prayer.

“I ask God to show me, ‘Whose words are these today?’ and then pray in their voice,” she explained on Oct. 8 via Zoom. “So, we pray for the world, but ‘for’ can be understood in a different way. Pray for, as intercession, but we pray for, in their place.”

Even more petitions are uttered by these Benedictines as they pray to God for the end of racism, the protection of refugees and that the recently restarted federal executions will be halted. Special prayer services, in addition to their daily prayer, have been held for each of these intentions.

“Now we are educating ourselves on racism, seeing what steps we need to take as a community,” explained Benedictine Sister Julie Sewell, vocations director at Our Lady of Grace. “I would call this part of a cycle for us—prayer, study, more prayer, action.”

Small actions were possible even in the most restrictive lockdown: cleaning the windows of St. Paul Hermitage to allow for window visits with friends and loved ones, processing in prayer through the gardens, contacting those who live alone to offer digital company and holding up signs to encourage the health care workers.

Now the sisters have cautiously opened their doors to allow private individuals to spend time at their retreat center, the Benedict Inn, though communal spaces are still closed to guests.

Yet the prayers and the hospitality continue.

The sisters invite Catholics across central and southern Indiana to participate in a special upcoming service related to All Souls Day. On Nov. 14, the Benedictines will livestream a holy hour held to remember all those who have died. Everyone is invited to virtually join the sisters, and donations can be made to memorialize a deceased loved one.

All submitted names will be projected on the wall of the sisters’ chapel during the holy hour and held by the sisters in prayer.

“This is our way of supporting [others]. What we do as Benedictines is pray,” summarized Sister Marie Therese.

“It’s the best thing that we do,” concluded Sister Mary Luke. “It’s our first and primary work, the work of God, the Opus Dei.”

(Katie Rutter is a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington. More information about the service, called the Celebration of Light, and a link to the sisters’ Facebook page can be found on their website, benedictine.com.)


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