Reflection From The Heart

Panel Presentation:
Mentoring Among Monastics Today

Sister Jacquelyn Ernster, O.S.B., PhD

Mentoring in the monastic tradition is an intriguing title. I have read that the concept of mentoring comes to us from the Greek legend, Odysseus. A long time ago, Odysseus, King of Ithaca, entrusted his son Telemachus to the tutor, Mentor, while he went off to fight the Trojan War. The tutor later revealed herself to be the goddess Athena, patron of the arts and history. Thus mentoring was founded.1 As we have come to understand mentoring, the mentor is usually an older, wiser guide who assumes some responsibility as a role model, compatriot, challenger or motivator.

There is a lot of literature available on mentoring because it has come to be seen as an effective way to enable adults to learn methods and skills in the workplace that are the "hidden" reasons why some people excel and others do not. For example it is estimated that over 90% of women executives have had mentors sometime in their careers and that, of those, 80% considered their mentors to be important to their career advancement.2 Over 96% of Fortune 500 executives credited mentoring as an important influence in the development of their professional lives. Why is mentoring important? Probably because it allows us to learn by observation, discussion and reflection. It takes a real life situation and through shared reflection shows us how to meet expectations, respond to situations, multi-task, and ultimately make a difference.

There are different styles of mentoring. Sometimes it is like a bird guiding its young--supporting without rescuing; giving courage to learn through trial and error. Sometimes it is by "sitting by," that is, directly watching the mentor accomplish a task. Or it may be by guided learning, that is some direct reflection time with the mentor as a project is accomplished.

However the mentoring environment is structured, the relationship depends on the right mix of personalities, time and support for it, accessibility to the mentor, and good will. To be a good mentor one must have or develop good listening skills, willingness to give and receive feedback, knowledge of the organization, ability to share, generosity and commitment to nurturing the relationship.

The mentee on the other hand, must also have some openness to be mentored. This is exhibited in such ways as a significant level of self-knowledge, clear goals, a willingness to ask targeted questions, an ability to translate honest advice and praise into new behavior, and a commitment to learning.3

These mentoring characteristics can be applied to monastery members very easily. We are mentors and mentees to each other in our professional lives and in our monastic lives. We are clearly encouraged in this by the Rule of Benedict.4 For example in chapter 4 "The Tools of Good Works" we read "When bad thoughts arrive in your heart, smash them against Christ and manifest them to a spiritual elder." Or in chapter 2 "Qualities of the Abbot" we read, "He should teach gifted disciples the Lord's commands by words, but he will have to personally model the divine precepts for those who are recalcitrant or naive."

In chapters describing specific roles, such as the cellarer in chapter 31, we are made aware of the role of mentor in relationship to the community and the role of mentee in relationship to the abbot. Throughout the Rule we are aware of the special gifts of the elders by virtue of their faithfulness and longevity and of their role to model and share with the young. Chapters 71 and 72 highlight for us the relationships we are called to have with one another throughout the monastery as we "strive to be the first to honor one another."

While that is definitely not a thorough study of the Rule in regards to this topic, it does illustrate that many of the major themes in the Rule fit well with mentoring--listening, turning to our elders, respecting each other. At the July 2002 Federation of St. Gertrude Chapter, Sister Ruth Fox, O.S.B., gave a paper entitled "Our Foremothers: Mentors for our Hearts," and she said, "What formed me in community was the example given in the lives of the elders of my community, as I watched them and adapted to their ways as monastic women. Through them I was formed by a living tradition handed on to me by the sisters of my community."

As I look back on my own life I can readily identify mentors who helped me in a myriad of ways. As a young junior sister I was sent to a rural parish to teach. There were four of us there, three teachers and a cook. The superior was quite elderly and taught first and second grade. She was very stern and scared me at first but as the year unfolded I came to love and respect her. She periodically talked to me about my teaching, but the more lasting impression on me was how she lived her life, how she supported us, dealt with physical infirmities, was faithful to her prayer life, knew how to balance work and prayer and fun; how she was always eager to learn something new even though she had lived most of her ministry life in very limited environments--on the reservation for years and then in small rural schools. She liked to talk about ideas and changes and was always open to try things. She was a mentor to me primarily by modeling. If I can age so gracefully I will be grateful.

In the 1980s I received a Bush Leadership Fellowship to do an internship in college administration. I had the good fortune to spend that year at the college of Notre Dame in Baltimore, Maryland, working with Sister Kathleen Feeley, S.S.N.D. She had been president of that college for about ten years at that time and was well known and well respected. Again she mentored me by modeling the best in academic leadership but also by directed reflection. We met weekly to review what had happened the previous week and to set the schedule for the week ahead. She was a marvelous mentor because she could analyze and summarize situations so well and was willing to take the time to share, to solicit my ideas and to challenge me to think outside the box so to speak.

One of the benefits I found of a good mentor relationship is the lifelong friendship that emerges after the formal time of mentorship is over. All the characteristics that made the mentorship possible also sustain the friendship. The ability to listen, to respect each other, to provide mutual encouragement made these experiences worthwhile.

I have also had the opportunity to mentor others. As a college administrator I was able to assist others in articulating their professional goals and then help them to make plans to achieve them. I particularly enjoyed being able to do this with women colleagues. As one example of this opportunity, I met a young woman who was working at the bank and at a club meeting she shared with me her frustrations because of the work schedule and her role as mother of two young boys. After some thought I was able to offer her a position at the college which gave her a bit more leeway in scheduling and which eventually led to a perfect position which had flexibility and professional promotion for her. It is a joy to see how she has matured in that role.

In my role as prioress I am able to mentor in these same ways and in other ways. As sisters come, perhaps burned out from the demands of their ministry, we are able to talk through the issues, make a plan, and work out the details that will assist them in reaching their goals and in integrating their ministry with their commitments as Benedictines.

In our monastery, as I am sure in yours, we have a variety of programs that enable the elders to mentor the younger. For example, we have a "buddy" system which matches someone physically more capable with someone physically less capable. The original reason for starting this system was to help with physical disabilities, but we have found the benefits extend far beyond in that bonding occurs between the buddies and great wisdom is shared. It has been a rich exchange for us. We also have an annual prayer-partner program within the monastery which matches the sisters up as prayer partners which also has led to rich sharing in times of need and in general. We change our prayer partners every year and that has broadened our circle of deeper friendships. One of the great mentoring areas that evolves from these systems is in the area of preparing for aging and all that goes with that, and, in the case of our elders, in preparing for death. It is a sacred walk with them and one we will all follow. How blest we are to be mentored by them and to learn by their modeling what grace really is in our lives.

Over the years I have observed new members entering religious life, going through formation where they learn lots but not everything. When they re-enter the workforce there are many new challenges, many unwritten rules, many gray areas. When there is someone on their mission or back at home who takes the time to talk reflectively with them, model religious life for them, and challenge them on the various choices they make, they mature in religious life quicker and become stronger members. This is a "companion" or "mentor" role, not a formation team role. This person is able to model and to guide in gentle but persistent ways. Just as the business community sees the advantages in the use of mentors so do we as monastics benefit from mentor relationships. Whether it happens formally or informally it enhances our lives and brings into actuality some of the admonitions of the Rule of Benedict.

Empowerment is a result of good mentoring. As the literature says, " a mentor's role is to support without rescuing." This takes time and commitment. It involves encouragement, support, self analysis, risk, and reflection. The rewards are great and deepen our sense of who we are as Christians and as Benedictines. The well-being of our new religious depends on our ability to mentor them through the often tumultuous times that follow formation.

In Scripture we read there is a time for everything; so too in our lives. There is a time to be mentored and there is a time to be a mentor. And because life is not as progressive and linear as we would sometimes like it to be, we are sometimes both mentor and mentee at the same time. The beauty of monastic community is that it allows us many opportunities to play both roles. Over time we get to know each other very well and as we enter new phases in our lives we know we have resources in our communities to help us.

I think it would be helpful to acknowledge the positive role of a mentor and to encourage our newer members particularly as they begin their ministries to seek out a formal mentor relationship. This is another form of community development as we "strive to be the first to honor one another" (RB12).


1Sandra Hagevik, "What is a mentor, who's a mentor?" Journal of Environmental Health 61:3 (October 1998) 59. return

2Margaret H. Bahniuk and Susan Dozler Hill, "Promoting Career Success through Mentoring," Review of Business 19:3 (Spring 1998) 5. return

3Hagevik 60. return

4Timothy Fry, O.S.B., ed, RB 1980: The Rule of Saint Benedict in Latin and English with Notes (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press 1981). return

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