Dilatato Corde 3:2
July – December, 2013


I believe God is bigger than any one religion, and Nostra ætate  confirmed my belief. Susan’s sharing of her life experience of Nostra ætate caused me to reflect on my own experience as a Catholic and a Benedictine, and on what we are called to do in the future.

I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, in a white middle class Catholic family of nine.  When I was small, in my small world, I thought everyone was Catholic. When I started Catholic school, my brothers and sisters and I walked the traditional mile to school—up-hill both ways.  I am not sure if it was when I was in fourth or fifth grade, but I remember that as we walked to school, the public school students would try to spit on us from their bus.  (We didn’t have sidewalks.)  I remember being horrified and wondering why they would they do such a thing. They didn’t know me. Was it just because I went to a different school?  Or was it because I was just different—dressed differently, thought differently, acted differently? This experience taught me that the key to dialogue with non-Christian religions is that we respect the differences, while focusing on the common values that we share.

The Benedictine Sisters taught me about a God of love.  My parents, who valued the philosophy of Teilhard de Chardin enough that my mom did a chalk drawing of him for my father, who placed it in the living room next to the fireplace for all to see, taught me that God was bigger than I could ever understand and that life is a mystery that continues to unfold each day. 

The “open windows” of Vatican II and the culture of the late 1960s and early 70s certainly had an influence on me.  Moon landings, space travel, assassinations, the Vietnam War, women’s rights, drugs, and the technology of 8-tracks, cordless phones, and computers announced that change was here to stay.

Television made Vatican II known to the world in a way that no previous ecumenical council had. It also gave me my first exposure to non-Christian religions.  My father loved westerns, and I always wanted to be an Indian because their way of life showed such respect for creation. In my mind the “Great Spirit” had to be the same as my Catholic God. Some of you may remember the television show, Kung Fu. It was my primer for Eastern religions.  I was totally caught up in the master’s maxims for his student, “Grasshopper.”  My awareness of and respect for the Jewish faith was deepened by movies such as “The Ten Commandments” and “Fiddler on the Roof,”  When I was in high school I worked at Nall Hills Country Club and served many bar and bat mitzvahs, which I likened to the sacrament of Confirmation. 

When I went to Benedictine College in the early 80s, I met people from all over the world: Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Micronesian Islands, France, Vietnam, and many countries in Central and South America.  I thought it was cool to have so many “different” people in one Catholic school.  I read the Bhagavad Gita and Rig Vedas in World Literature and explored new cultures in World Civilization classes.  I studied World Religions both inside and outside the classroom, wanting to understand other faiths, respecting and believing in the truth they had to offer.

After graduation, I taught religion and English for a few years in Kansas City, Kansas. Then I joined the Benedictine Sisters of Atchison.  Early in my monastic life, the late 80s, my community hosted a Buddhist retreat.  The community was informed that the Blessed Sacrament would be removed from Saint Scholastica chapel and that the Buddhists would be using that space for prayer.  Of course, as a curious scholastic, I had to peek in and see what was going on: chanting and walking meditation were what I observed. I was happy that our community was willing to share our sacred space with others who respected it as well.

I taught for fifteen years at our Mount Academy. It was a boarding school with students from many “different” countries, and we respected and highlighted their “different” religions and cultures in the classroom and at our International Day.  After receiving my masters in theology from the University of San Francisco in the mid-90s, I taught World Religions at the Mount Academy and loved sharing the different traditions with my students.

While studying at the University of San Francisco, I had two memorable assignments in a class on dialogue with Buddhists and Hindus.  The first assignment was to participate in a weekend retreat at the  monastery of Ten Thousand Buddhas in northern California.  We followed their schedule from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon: prayers at 3:00 AM, meditation at 5:00 AM, breakfast, prayers, class, work, meditation, prayers, lunch, prayers, class, work, meditation, prayers, supper, prayers and bed. By the end of the weekend, I had a much greater respect for the Buddhist monastic life—and  knew I did not want to be a Buddhist! But it made me a stronger Christian and Catholic monastic.

The second assignment included a day of reflection with Thich Nhat Hanh on mindfulness.  Over a thousand people gathered at a Zen Retreat Center on a hill covered with dry grass north of San Francisco.  After listening to him speak, we did a meditation walk.  I was blown away by the silence and reverence of a thousand people in prayer.  It is an experience that I go back to when life gets “too full.” 

I also took part in two “Nuns in the West” conferences sponsored by the North American Commission for Monastic Interreligious Dialogue.  The first was in Los Angeles and focused the similarities and differences of our respective  monastic observances.  The second conference was at Rock Island, Illinois, and there we focused more on our inner spiritual life. Both conferences were wonderfully enriching experiences.

Today I work at Keeler Women’s Center, one of our sponsored ministries in Kansas City, Kansas. Our mission is to empower women in the urban core through education, advocacy, personal and spiritual development.  We offer counseling, support groups, spiritual direction, and classes on parenting, nutrition, finance, home care, self-care, job skills, literacy, and Easy English.  We have a book club, massages, knitting and crocheting, spa days and retreats.  We have no boundaries.  All are welcome.  Our main ministry is hospitality, and our women say they feel it.  Our midday praise includes closing prayers from all faith traditions.  Our prayer room includes sacred books from many faiths and a prayer rug.  One of our Easy English teachers is Muslim, and she participates in our spiritual direction program with a Christian director.  We also partner with Jewish Vocational Services, which currently helps provide translators and also refers people to us for counseling from its program for refugees who were victims of torture. 

After all this reflection, I was surprised to see how much Nostra ætate had found its way into my life.  With the Holy Spirit as our guide, I think we Benedictines can help continue the dialogue with non-Christian religions.  Especially because of the tensions in the Middle East, I believe it is crucial that we enter into dialogue with the people of Islam. We need to continue to educate Christians about our “common ground” and continue to show an openness and respect for the truth that can be found in all major religions.  We are creative, hospitable, and intelligent woman, and we need to lead our Church in this effort to live in peace with all people of all faiths. 

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