This was published Aug. 6, 2023, at the blog of Monasteries of the Heart. The original is available at their website, though (free) membership is required for access. I warmly recommend that you go to www.monasteriesoftheheart.org. If the sorts of things that concern me matter to you, I suspect you will want to sign on for the free membership in this virtual community founded and inspired by my longtime friend, Sister Joan Chittister, OSB.
https://monasteriesoftheheart.org/blogs/monks-our-midst/patrick-henry-benedictine-insights-over-lifetime (Monasteries of the Heart membership required for access)
For the month of August, we invite you to reflect in the same model as Patrick Henry offers in this Monks in our Midst blog. Henry—a monastic scholar, Benedictine seeker, and Monasteries of the Heart community member—offers here the insights he has gained over a lifetime of learning and living alongside fellow Benedictines.
After reading his reflection, we encourage you to consider your own version of this: Who has modeled Benedictine values for you? What are the pieces of wisdom that have guided your life? If you, too, are called to offer your insights to our Monasteries of the Heart community through a future Monks in our Midst blog post, please email us at
Patrick Henry on Benedictine insights over a lifetime
In Joan Chittister’s “Prayer for those who dwell in a Monastery of the Heart,” with which the online gathering on July 11 began, God is asked to “enable us to grow in the Benedictine spirit.” Sister Joan’s prayer identifies some marks of that spirit: “compassionate co-creators of a world in process, creative keepers of the human community, loving listeners to the heartbeat of the world, caring sisters and brothers to its wounded, and bringers of peace to a world in distress.” I’m sure that the more than 200 of us who were gathered on Saint Benedict’s Feast Day could have named at least a thousand ways we have been so empowered.
It has been my good fortune to spend nearly half a century in close association with Minnesota Benedictines – the sisters of Saint Benedict’s Monastery in Saint Joseph and the monks of Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville – and to have been an oblate of Saint John’s since 1976.
What I have learned in these five decades could fill a book – which I have written! – but here I want to highlight four of the encounters that have enabled me to grow in the Benedictine spirit. I hope that reading about my experiences will prompt you, another member of Monasteries of the Heart, to reflect on your own.
First is what Brother Dietrich Reinhart (1949–2008) said when the idea of The Saint John’s Bible was first presented to him. Beset with all the demands that swirl around a university president, Dietrich groaned, “I need this like I need a hole in the head!” Then, immediately, the Benedictine wonder burst forth: “But wouldn’t it be grand!”
Second is a line in one of the poems of Father Kilian McDonnell (who will celebrate his 102nd birthday in September): “All our truths need bungee cords.”[i] This same intuition was portrayed in a different image by Father Columba Stewart: “Being deeply rooted in a tradition, we Benedictines are able to be confident in opening ourselves intellectually and ecumenically because we don’t feel threatened by stuff that’s newer. We’re like a deep-rooted tree – we can sway a bit.”[ii]
Third, Sister Jeremy Hall (1918–2008) lived as a hermit the last two decades of her life but continued to interact with her community. Not a shred of sentimentality. It was said after her death: “Sister Jeremy didn’t tolerate any bullshit when it came to God.”[iii] I hope this can be said of me.
Fourth is a revelatory remark made by a College of Saint Benedict student, shared by her teacher, Sister Linda Kulzer (1929–2022): “We see the world in black and white. We take things for granted. The Benedictine sisters see the world in many colors.” Yes, Benedictines, like Saint Benedict himself, see the whole world gathered in a ray of light, for which the Rule serves as a prism to refract that ray into all its components.
Very soon after I arrived among these Minnesota Benedictines, the Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters began appearing. I have come to see that the monks and sisters I know personally are true descendants of the twelfth-century Cadfael. The author persuasively portrays the monastery as the center of the community, its walls a permeable membrane, its inhabitants a crew who know in their bones, and demonstrate in their lives, that the distinction between “life” and “spiritual life” is a category mistake. This is as true today in Collegeville and Saint Joseph as it was in medieval Shrewsbury.
Because of what I’ve learned at Saint John’s and Saint Benedict’s about the Benedictine spirit, I understand the theological and experiential truth articulated by Emily Dickinson: “I noticed that the ‘Supernatural’ was only the Natural, disclosed.”[iv]
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Some of this material appeared originally under the title “Memorable insights” in – and is reprinted with permission from – the Spring 2023 Abbey Banner (volume 23, number 1), published by the monks of Saint John’s Abbey. Copyright © 2023 by Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.
Biography: Patrick Henry (www.IronicChristian.org) was executive director of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research 1984-2004, and before that was twice a resident scholar of the Institute on sabbatical from Swarthmore College. For an appreciation of his 2021 Liturgical Press book, Benedictine Options: Learning to Live from the Sons and Daughters of Saints Benedict and Scholastica, see Sister Joan Chittister’s July 8, 2021 “From Where I Stand” column, “Benedictine options: an escape or an experience of essence.” There is a brief excerpt from the book at the Collegeville Institute website. Patrick is author also, with Donald Swearer, of For the Sake of the World: The Spirit of Buddhist and Christian Monasticism (1989), and editor of Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict (2001).
[i] Kilian McDonnell, “Then It Is Finished, Done?,” in Swift, Lord, You Are Not (Collegeville, MN: Saint John’s University Press, 2003), 26.
[ii] “A Conversation with 2019 Jefferson Lecturer Father Columba Stewart,” Minnesota Humanities Center, October 3, 2019, https://mnhum.org/blog/a-conversation-with-2019-jefferson-lecturer-fath….
[iv] Emily Dickinson, letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, February 1863, at http://archive.emilydickinson.org/correspondence/higginson/l280.html.