Two women, two continents, one ancient promise
by Laurie Ghigliotti
ATCHISON — In a ritual that has remained virtually unchanged over 1500 years, two women on two continents came together through time and space to make their perpetual vows of profession in the Order of St. Benedict.
The Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison welcomed Sister Elizabeth Carrillo on the feast of Epiphany, Jan. 2, in their chapel.
A few weeks earlier, at the monastery the Sisters had founded and still support in Mineiros, Goiás, Brazil, Joselaine Ferreira made her final monastic profession on Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent. The monastery is called Mosteiro Santa Maria Mãe de Deus, or Holy Mary Mother of God Monastery.
Sister Anne Shepard, OSB, prioress of Mount St. Scholastica, was present at both liturgies and noted the significance of both to their respective communities and the larger monastic community.
“They are choosing a life of humility, discipline, fidelity, community and prayer, when some of their peers are invested in individualism, competition, consumerism and self-reliance,” said Sister Anne. “Our newly professed are saying to us that our community is as viable and credible as ever. By their witness, they will invite others to join us, and we are so grateful to them.”
Sister Elizabeth found her way to Atchison in 1997 after an Internet search for a retreat experience. What she found was even better than a retreat, she said.
“It was an eight-week volunteer opportunity,” she said.
In her reflection preceding Sister Elizabeth’s profession, Sister Anne called Sister Elizabeth a seeker who followed a star with a URL — www.osb. org.
“She set out looking for a men’s monastic community,” said Sister Anne, “where she could make a retreat, but mysteriously, this star led her to www. mountosb.org.”
Sister Elizabeth’s journey, like that of the Magi, was long and with its own difficulties.
“Whatever difficulties came in her way, she knew the star was still there,” said Sister Anne. “Her heart has never given up the search.”
Baptized Catholic as an infant, Sister Elizabeth was not raised in the Catholic Church. But throughout her high school and college years — and even beyond — she was continually drawn back to aspects of it.
In high school, for example, she read the “Confessions of St. Augustine” during a time when she and her friends began searching for the meaning of life. In college, she read the Rule of St. Benedict.
“It struck me that this was a document from around 600 A.D., but that people still live it today,” said Sister Elizabeth.
She read about the Orthodox monks on Mount Athos in Greece. Twenty monasteries flourish there, 1600 years after the first monks arrived during the fifth century. As Sister Elizabeth read about these monks, she was faced with a question that demanded an answer. “What have they found?” she remembers asking herself. “What explains the contentment and happiness on their faces?”
Before coming to Mount St. Scholastica, Sister Elizabeth had previously made a couple of retreats at a men’s monastery, she said. Serving as a volunteer at Mount St. Scholastica that summer was Sister Elizabeth’s first experience with Sisters.
“They were down-to-earth, real people,” she said. “And I love the [Divine] Office and the beauty of our chapel.”
After that positive experience, Sister Elizabeth returned to the monastery in 1998 and stayed for two years. During that time, she entered fully into the life of the church, receiving her first Communion and confirmation in the monastery chapel. At the end of her two-year stay, she approached the vocations director.
“It felt so right, so like home,” said Sister Elizabeth. “Everything within me resonated with the rhythm of life in the monastery.”
Sister Judith Sutera noted that Sister Elizabeth is probably the only person who ever received first Communion and confirmation in the monastery’s chapel and then made her profession in the same chapel.
A continent away, Sister Joselaine made her final profession in her parish church instead of a monastery chapel, but the ceremonies, according to Sister Anne, were similar since the rite of monastic profession is the same worldwide.
“Each asks to be received into the community, each receives the blessing of community members present, as well as the blessing of the priest in the name of the church,” said Sister Anne.
“Each ceremony has the same traditional elements: the church community that calls down the Holy Spirit while the Sister holds a baptismal candle, the pall placed over her to symbolize her movement from death to new life, the three- fold monastic profession formula, the ring as a sign of her life in Christ and her perpetual profession to the Benedictine community of Mount St. Scholastica.”
Sister Elizabeth, who teaches science at Visitation School in Kansas City, Mo., believes that being a Benedictine Sister brings a deeper dimension to the work.
“One of the main Benedictine values is to reverence the Christ in other people,” she said. “The idea of Benedictine hospitality — receiving all who come to us as the presence of Christ — it’s about getting out of my own way so that what’s truest can come out to serve the other Sisters and the community.”
Sister Joselaine’s various ministries include working for the parishes in Mineiros, providing commentary for the monthly Masses that are broadcast on the radio, serving as a proprietor in the parish gift shop, facilitating youth groups, and helping out in whatever other ways she can. Sister Joselaine first encountered the Benedictine Sisters in Mineiros through her sister, who was considering a religious vocation.
Both women will now move forward on their journey as Benedictine Sisters, having made the threefold promise of conversatio (fidelity to the monastic way of life), stability and obedience.
Sister Elizabeth believes that, after 1500 years of Benedictine monasticism, monastic life is still relevant in our modern times.
“It appeals to something intrinsic in the human spirit,” she said. “Monastic life will continue in some form or another. There is an adaptability of monastic life because the archetype of the monk is in the heart of every person: union with God.”