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Wisdom of the Benedictine Elders:
Thirty of America's Oldest Monks and Nuns
Share their Lives' Greatest Lessons

by Mark W. McGinnis
Bluebridge, 2005

review by Heidi Schlumpf

The old adage to “respect your elders” is easier to follow after you’ve read Wisdom of the Benedictine Elders: Thirty of America’s Oldest Monks and Nuns Share Their Lives’ Greatest Lessons. Although their Depression-era childhoods, attraction to religious life at a young age, and decades of living in community may seem foreign to 21st-century readers, the insights of these spiritual seniors will resonate with seekers of any age.

Author and artist Mark W. McGinnis, a lay member of a Benedictine community in North Dakota, traveled to monasteries around the country seeking out Benedictine monks and nuns in their 80s, 90s, and even a few past the century mark. He painted their portraits, interviewed them, and then edited their stories into readable, first-person narratives. He prefaces each chapter with a story about the subject and some description of the monastery. Also included is a black-and-white reproduction of each person’s portrait.

Born between 1901 and 1925, these remarkable men and women speak candidly about their decisions to enter cloistered life, the struggles their communities went through during the 1960s and ‘70s, and their fears about the future of religious life. But they also share the joys of a peaceful life balanced by the rhythm of work and prayer, their hopes for the future, and the lessons learned from years of living according to an ancient way of life.

For example, Father Vincent Martin from St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California, who died in 1999 at the age of 87, gave this advice about finding happiness: “Joy is a by-product and not something I search for. The search for happiness has no meaning. If you search for it, you will probably never be happy.”

Instead of pining for worldly happiness, these holy men and women look for God. Says Sister Lillian Harrington, 77, of Mount St. Scholastica Monastery in Atchison, Kansas: “Sometimes I yearn so strongly for God that it is painful. But I guess if I found God completely, the search would be over, and the whole thing is about the search for God. I don’t think we can ever wholly find God, or we would be God.”

Much of the wisdom comes from reflection on the Rule of St. Benedict, the sixth-century document that all Benedictine nuns and priests live by. “Benedict teaches reverence for all things,” shares Sister Victorine Fenton, 85, of Mount St. Benedict Monastery in Crookston, Minnesota. “We are to treat the pots and pans as if they were vessels of the altar. We have a reverence for the earth. We have a reverence for all people.”

Other elders talk about the rule’s emphasis on humility and hospitality, about tolerance for those different from themselves, about finding the holy in everything, and about the need for hope despite disappointments and sorrows. One nun even finds losing her sight to be a blessing because it removes distractions and allows her to focus on prayer.

McGinnis doesn’t idealize his subjects, but rather paints them (literally and figuratively) as regular men and women striving to live lives dedicated to God. I read one or two of their stories each night before bed, and I came away inspired—and wanting to know more about Benedictine spirituality. My only wish is that McGinnis’ portraits could have been reproduced in color.

Copyright ©2005 Heidi Schlumpf

Wisdom of the Benedictine Elders
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