Monastic culture comes alive for secular students

by Elizabeth Hyde
Special to The Leaven

ATCHISON — Are you struggling to achieve a good work/life balance?

If so, you might be interested to learn that students from two branches of the University of Missouri went to study that very thing at the feet of the masters — an ancient religious order founded on balancing the most important things in life: “ora et labora,” or “prayer and work.”

Yes, two secular university professors and eight college students traveled to the monastery of the Benedictine Sisters in Atchison to spend five days learning about monastic culture — both past and present.

Led by Dr. Rabia Gregory and Dr. Virginia Blanton, the UMKC and MU students ate with the Sisters, explored the grounds and queried them on a host of topics. On one day during their stay, they also observed regular prayers with the Sisters.

For students like Lindsey Weishar, the experience combined aspects of faith and learning. Weishar, currently a graduate student studying creative writing, is Catholic, originally from the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.

Weishar, like so many other young people, struggles to find the balance between life as a student and a modern Catholic. She said she appreciated time to retreat from the real world and focus herself on study and prayer.

“It was great to just be in a place where [the] Eucharist [was celebrated] every day,” Weishar said. “During the school year, I don’t have time to go to Mass each day. But when it’s connected to your home and it’s part of your workday, it becomes much more routine.”

“I love the Benedictine idea of the balance between work and prayer,” she continued. “I really want to incorporate that somehow into my own life as a student because that can be really difficult to do.”

Weishar was not the only one to appreciate the quiet routine of Mount St. Scholastica. Marie Whelan, a UMKC student who did not grow up in a strong faith tradition, also found the monastic lifestyle restful and nurturing.

“I’ve had some self-realization time in the past couple weeks,” said Whelan. “And it was nice to sit and think, and not have to worry about the outside world. It was so great to take that quiet time away.”

Not only was this a spiritual experience for some students, it also provided an unparalleled learning experience for all.

Students from the two campuses came from a variety of academic departments, like creative writing, English, and medieval studies, and this gave them the chance to experience aspects of monastic culture typically unobserved by the outside world.

Students met with different Sisters during their stay to learn about calligraphy and bookbinding, and visited the rare books room at Benedictine College and the archives at the Mount. They also met with Sister Paula Howard, who began her ministry in iconography when she retired in 1999. From these experiences, students chose a topic to make the focus of their ethnographic report.

While the college credit was the primary motivation for many students’ trip to the monastery, undergraduate UMKC student and practicing Lutheran Michaela Wiehe also had inspiration from her favorite childhood movie.

“As a child, I was obsessed with ‘The Sound of Music,’ and was convinced that I wanted to become a nun,” said Wiehe. “Part of it was childhood intrigue, but I’m also so fascinated by ascetic life and spending all your time devoted to God.”

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