A New Paradigm Of An Old Tradition
I surmise that the best way conversatio happens on a daily basis is when we are open to being mentors and being mentored by another. Change in our own behavior happens when the words or example of another calls into question whether we are living the monastic life fully. Sister Joan Chittister, in her book Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, says: "To live community life well is to have all the edges rubbed off, all the rough parts made smooth. There is no need then for disciplines to practice. Life itself is the discipline."2 I believe that a community life that is filled with opportunities for mutual mentoring is a life that will truly smooth out our rough edges and bring us closer to Christ.
I searched the Internet for information about mentoring and I found a book entitled Mentor Teacher by Rita Peterson at the University of California's educational site. In her book on mentoring Peterson gives the history of the word mentor and also talks about mentoring relationships being reciprocal. I would like to read three paragraphs from chapter 1 entitled "What is a Mentor."
The concept of mentoring has a long history, one that comes to us from Greek mythology. In Homer's Odyssey, Mentor was the teacher of Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. But Mentor was more than a teacher. Mentor was half-God and half-man, half-male and half-female, believable and yet unreachable. Mentor was the union of both goal and path, wisdom and personified.
Today, some 3500 years later, mentoring relationships are still valued. In many professions mentors are thought to enhance if not ensure the professional development and success of talented newcomers. Increasingly, mid-career professionals seek mentors when they wish to develop new levels of expertise and to advance in the profession.
Yet, if mentoring were only a means for aspiring young professionals to gain a career foothold or to be given a boost up the career ladder, mentoring would be a one-way street. Common experience tells us that one-sided relationships do not work as well as reciprocal relationships where there is an even exchange of some kind. In fact, mentoring relationships most likely are reciprocal if they achieve their fullest potential.3
There is no doubt that we need mentors for those who are looking at religious life today. We need those who have lived the monastic life and speak from experience. We need prudent and experienced advisors, advising by both word and example. In my eleven years as director of vocation ministries for the Sisters of St. Benedict at Ferdinand, I found that seeing the whole community as potential mentors for those discerning a vocation was my greatest insight for moving the vocation program to a new level.
What I did not expect to find was the fact that women visiting our community and sharing time and their experiences with us would mentor us in turn. These women helped advise us as to what women are truly looking for today in religious life. By their continual questions and comments, they helped us to look at how we are living the monastic life and at times to see the community with new eyes. Someone once said that being vocation director is not always a popular position in the community because it is like holding a mirror up to the community. I really believe this is true. When women come to visit us, they are quite honest, if asked what they observe about the community and what they think about it. Are we, as religious, willing to be open to being mentored by those looking at our lifestyle? Or do we feel we have all the wisdom and just need to tell them how it is and what to do? After all, that is the way it happened for us, isn't it?