Mutual Mentoring:
A New Paradigm Of An Old Tradition

Rose Mary Rexing, O.S.B.

I am very honored to be asked to speak at the ABA by Fr. Valerian. I recall that he asked me over a year ago if I would share something about vocations. I told him that I no longer was in the vocation ministry but mission advancement. He said that did not matter, he would still like for me to give a presentation. So I asked on what? He said, "Anything that relates to the theme of the convention." Well, I thought, I cannot go wrong. So here is my presentation about anything relating to our convention theme of mentoring.

On a more serious note, what I would like to share are some of my experiences of mentoring from my vocation ministry and then from my reflection on living the monastic life in my community at Ferdinand. I also invited others in my community, including my prioress, to give me their insights to mentor me in developing this presentation. St. Benedict calls the monastic life a "school," and thus we can think of both teachers and students. However, chapter 73 of the Rule St. Benedict encourages us all to keep what he calls this Rule for beginners.1 Now if we are all beginners, then perhaps we are also all mentors at times, and perhaps the ideal of the Rule is that there be mutual mentoring among monks. If monastic life means we are in the school of the Lord's service as stated in the Rule, then we are teachers and advisors as well as students and listeners.

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?

An example of mutual mentoring not happening--we may even call it anti-mentoring--is an incident that has been described by Sister Mary Johnson, S.N.D.deN. Sister Mary has done extensive research on young adults and vocations and has become a popular speaker in regards to vocations. She said this really happened in a community on the East Coast. Three vivacious, talented women had just given up their careers, sold their cars and homes, and said goodbye to family and friends to enter religious life. On the first day of formation class, the director came in, and her first words were "Welcome to a sinking ship." She evidently was not open to the gift and new life these three women could bring to her community.

My favorite example of mutual mentoring happening in my own community is the journey of formation between a young woman from Arkansas and all of us. She is now a perpetually professed member, known as Sister "T". When "T" came to visit, her biggest question was "Can I be myself?" She also kept asking the question "What difference does it make if I become a sister?" She helped us all ask that question of our own lives: "What difference does it make if I am a Sister of St. Benedict?" She would slide down the banisters, whistle in the hallway, and walk up and give an older sister a spontaneous hug and kiss. Over time she mellowed in her expressions--but so did the community. On the day of her profession one of our elderly sisters, not known for her warmth or affection asked me: "You know what Sister "Ts" greatest gift to us is? "I said "No," not knowing what she would say. This sister warmly smiled and proclaimed, "'T' taught us that it is OK to love each other. Yes, "T" taught us and we taught "T," so that both she and we had to give and take regarding our usual ideas of how to do things. Both she and we had to change. Mutual mentoring happened.

Another surprise in my vocation work was the awareness that others outside the community have skills and insights that are needed by us inside community. When I started listening to the laity, even forming a Vocation Advisory Board, I realized the need to be mentored by those outside the community. And the laity have a need to be mentored in understanding our way of life and the Benedictine values.

For all eleven years of my vocation work there were four members of the Vocation Advisory Board who stayed with me through the thick and thin of it. Each one mentored me in a unique way. And I like to think that I mentored them, too! One of the gentlemen owned a local furniture factory and would give me book after book about making sales, marketing, and using the telephone. He told me how honored he was to be able to share his skills with our community and the church. I believe that I, in turn, helped him grow in his faith. I remember his telling me that he had never heard of the word discern and that it was not part of his Catholic upbringing. He began to see that his grade school Catholic education, while very good, was not sufficient to live an adult faith life. A few years ago both he and his wife made a retreat called Christ Renews His Parish. I recall the excitement in his voice as he spoke about the retreat and how his faith had come more alive.

Most of the times when I have mentored others, I know that they have mentored me, too. Rather than thinking of the old idea of mentoring--that one person has the wisdom, usually the older person, and imparts it to the other--I encourage us to think of a new paradigm: that all of us have some wisdom, and none of us has it all, and we all need each other to become more complete and whole in our thinking and living. I want to speak about two kinds of mutual mentoring: that which takes place inside a monastic community and that which occurs between a community and those outside the lifestyle.

When I speak of the mutual mentoring that happens within a community, I want to cover three types of mentoring relationships. Probably the most important mutual mentoring relationship in a Benedictine community is between the abbot or prioress and the individual community members. Next, I would like to discuss the mutual mentoring that happens between the old and the young, the different generations. And finally, I will describe the various kinds of mutual mentoring that are possible between any two community members.

Benedict proposes a special type of mutual mentoring when he talks about the role of the monastic leader. We hear in chapter 5 of the Rule, about obedience, that monastics are to carry out the superior's order as promptly as if the command came from God.4 However, we also hear that: "As often as anything important is to be done in the monastery, the prioress or abbot shall call the whole community together, and explain what the business is; and after hearing the advice of the members let them ponder it and follow what they judge the wiser course. The reason why we have said all should be called for counsel is that the Spirit often reveals what is better to the younger."5 So the abbot or prioress should be open to being mentored by the members of the community. This sounds like mutual mentoring to me.

I admire my present prioress, how she constantly seeks the wisdom of others and does not try to make decisions on her own. She calls the deans together and listens to them and asks them at each meeting "What are the concerns or issues out there that I need to be aware of now?" She has house meetings, and council meetings, and chapter meetings, and administrative staff meetings, and so forth. . . . At the end of these meetings she always takes time to debrief--what went well, what could we have done better. She never assumes that she runs a perfect meeting. I was very touched by her humility in her first two years as prioress. She did not assume she knew what her role or tasks were as prioress. Her humility and honesty helped me to be OK with not knowing exactly what I was doing after moving from eleven years of vocation ministry into the position of director of mission advancement.

When I asked her about mutual mentoring, she talked about various community members and how they have mentored her by their example. She spoke first about a sister in our community who named her alcoholism and asked for treatment years ago, when those secrets were not openly discussed in a community. This sister tries daily to be honest with herself and to call others to their own honesty. I believe that this sister has mentored not only the prioress in honesty and freedom, but our entire community. In turn, this sister marvels at the understanding, acceptance, and encouragement she has received over the years to be the Benedictine woman she is today.

Another example that my prioress gave me was novice Catherine. Catherine makes an effort to get to know both the young and the old in our community. She has struck up a relationship with our oldest member in community, Sister Carla, who is ninety-eight, and often you will pass by the community room and see the two playing checkers.

Benedict seemed to recognize the mutual mentoring that needs to transpire between the younger and the older members in a community when he said in chapter 4, "The Tools of Good Works," that everyone is to respect the elderly and to love the younger (RB 4.70-71). And again, in chapter 63, verse 10 he wrote: "The younger monks, then, must respect their seniors, and the seniors must love their juniors." I marvel at the mutual mentoring that I see happening every day between our younger members and our elderly sisters.

When I was in vocation work and would put a team of sisters together to be with the women who would visit us for a weekend or a week in the summer, I learned quickly that the women want to share with the elderly members as well as the young near their age. One summer one of our sisters, who was over ninety at the time, asked if she could be on the team. Well, I thought, why not? She was the hit of the week. The women would sit at her feet at night and listen to her stories. She, in turn, had an entirely new image of what we were trying to accomplish by having interested women visit us for a week. I think this helped her see the younger women who were looking at religious life in a new light. This ninety-plus sister also sold the rest of her age group on our vocation program. She told others, "They are not playing games all the time. My, they have deep discussions and really share about deep matters." She felt enriched by being part of the week and asked to help the following summer. I believe that our vocation weekends and vocation weeks have been wonderful opportunities of mutual mentoring.

Many of our new members will spend a lot of time visiting our elderly and infirmed sisters. In fact, we just began a companion program in which a younger sister is matched with a sister who can no longer drive and get around on her own. We also have prayer partners within the community. We mix young and old at the common table so there is mutual mentoring happening all the time.

I think mutual mentoring is about respecting the other sister or brother, seeing Christ in her or him, regardless of education, age, background, or experience. Mutual mentoring is about respecting ourselves, believing that we are a vessel of the Spirit and believing that we have something to offer. Mutual mentoring seems to involve humility--knowing our limitations and our giftedness. Mutual mentoring also involves mutual obedience, mutual listening to one another. Mutual mentoring brings about the daily conversion that Benedict encouraged within a community.

Terence Kardong, in one of his early commentaries on the Rule, says that respect is the word used for what is owed to human persons. The concept of respect is based on the idea of a careful look at someone or something. To respect someone is to give him or her our full attention.6 I would add, to respect someone is to allow ourselves to be mentored by that person, to be guided by that person. Terrence also says that it is probable that Benedict regards respect as a type of love, since it the first example given for "fervent love" (RB 72.3-4).7

Sister Mary Benet McKinney is a Benedictine woman who visited our community and mentored us in using a process at community meetings that builds on the respect I have just described. Sister Mary Benet calls this "sharing wisdom." It is a model of church she has worked with and developed since the early 1970s.8 I remember her saying that each person has a piece of the wisdom and no one has it all. Thus, we have to be open to listening to one another, to being mentored by another.

As a result of Sister Mary Benet's mentoring, at all our chapter meetings, we have what we call "stable tables." We put six to eight sisters of various ages and randomly selected around the same table for a year--hence the term "stable." All discussion takes place at that stable table. It is where each person can share her piece of the wisdom and listen to others. Often we hear a report from each of the tables. This model of mutual mentoring, or sharing the wisdom, has truly worked well for us.

The process of ongoing formation is another way that mutual mentoring happens among members of my community. Shortly after the changes of the Vatican Council when our community was feeling very lost, the prioress appointed one of our sisters to be head of personal and spiritual development. We began to realize that formation is lifelong, that we continually need to be formed in the monastic way of life. We continually need to be mentored by one another. We opened ourselves to being mentored in classes on Scripture and prayer. We also had summer classes in communications, healthy community living, and group dynamics.

Another way that we have mutual mentoring happening among community members is through our deaneries, or small living groups. When we renovated a significant part of the monastery from 1993 to 1995, we intentionally set up space for small living groups. Each set of twelve rooms has a living room, TV room, and kitchenette. This small living group is where we celebrate each others gifts and challenge each other to grow. We have been asked to spend at least one evening a week together as a deanery, or living group. Our group of fourteen, which includes three sisters in temporary profession, will often have faith-sharing and shared prayer as part of our time together. In this process, I feel that others have mentored me and I have mentored them. Perhaps the most important way that mentoring happens is by our example, our daily faithfulness to the monastic life.

Our liturgies have been another wonderful opportunity to mutually mentor one another. We have been inviting sisters to take a turn sharing their reflections on the Sunday readings with the community at our Saturday evening prayer or at the vigil for major feasts. Often afterward, discussion about the reading or reflection will take place at the dinner table, so there is more mutual mentoring happening. At our wake services, we reflect on the life and love of a deceased sister and how she mentored us. In the sharing, we hear what is valued by each other, and we are mentored. The prayer leader for each week is invited to write the prayer petitions for the office. With these petitions we are mentored about what we hold sacred and what we need to focus on in our prayer.

I have shared various examples of where and how I consider mutual mentoring has happened in my community. I am sure you all have similar examples. I would like for you to take a few moments of silence and reflect on some of the most meaningful mutual mentoring experiences within your own community that you have experienced. After you have had time to do that, I am going to ask you to select one to share with the person next to you.

Now I would like to reflect on the mutual mentoring that happens between community members or the entire community and those outside the community. My favorite example from the Rule is in chapter 61, "The Reception of Visiting Monks."

Visiting monastics from far away will perhaps present themselves and wish to stay as guests in the monastery. Provided that they are content with the life as they find it, and do not make excessive demands that upset the monastery but are simply content with what they find, they should be received for as long a time as they wish. They may indeed with all humility and love make some reasonable criticisms or observations which the prioress or abbot should prudently consider; it is possible that God guided them to the monastery for this very purpose.9

We have found that listening to the reasonable criticisms and observations of those who visit us or serve on committees or boards has mentored us to a totally new level of understanding and growth. We recently established an Executive Advisory Council, which will serve as an overall advisory or mentoring group to the prioress and the monastic chapter. Here are some ways that members of this council said they could mentor us:

  1. Help the sisters prioritize the challenges facing them;
  2. Help identify people who may be able to help in some of the key challenges;
  3. Challenge the sisters from the outside in a loving way;
  4. Be a link to other people in the public sector;
  5. Think outside the box;
  6. Be a sounding board and validate direction;
  7. Help the sisters know how to market their uniqueness.10

We, in turn, have mentored these Executive Advisory Council members in our Benedictine way of life. We invited them to pray with us, eat with us, and learn more about us. One of the gentlemen who has owned businesses all over the world said that the best thing about the evening was praying Evening Prayer with the sisters. We will continue to give them articles and books about the Benedictine way of life.

We are all familiar with Benedict's admonition to see Christ in the guest and the stranger visiting the monastery. In a book entitled Letters to My Brothers and Sisters, Living by the Rule of St. Benedict, author Denis Huerre, when speaking about guests, says:

Unless we treat a guest with all the respect due to a human being and in the faith that God is manifest in this encounter, our hospitality will not be monastic. We need to remember that all travelers, whether on foot or flying by jet, are disoriented and dislocated. Health, hygiene, habits, mental composure, all need to be met with understanding, or the new arrival will feel himself inferior to the host and inferior to his own usual self. But the monk, too, has an equilibrium and rhythm in his way of life, and unless he can present himself in his own character as a monk, he can be of no value to the guest. Benedict wants each to be himself so that the encounter will be a gain for each and not a de-spiritualizing experience.11

The best example I can provide to depict this true monastic hospitality, a truly spiritualizing experience that involved mutual mentoring, is the story of our Sister Francine, who used to minister at our retreat center in her retired years. One weekend a gentleman named Bob came to Kordes for a workshop and met Sister Francine. She asked him questions about himself and, in the midst of the conversation, he said that he had just lost his last living relative, his godmother. She obviously had meant much to him. Francine immediately offered to be Bob's "adopted godmother." Bob accepted gratefully and happily. A relationship was born. Francine mentored Bob in the Benedictine way of life and soon Bob became an oblate. Bob, in turn, has mentored the sisters in the love of his culture, Welsh. He now invites the sisters to spend time at cabins that he owns and rents and he offers to us and to others who visit the hospitality that he experienced from Sister Francine.

I would like to share two very favorable experiences with the media. Yes, believe it or not, we have had some very rewarding and positive encounters with members of the media, during which I experienced mutual mentoring happening. One involved a company called Context Media out of Providence, Rhode Island. The staff members had such a reverence for our monastery, for our way of life and for each sister. They often asked if it was all right to place one of their cameras on a table or floor. For every interview, the director told us that if we were not comfortable with the question or our response, she could pull it and not use it. I recall that during my interview I was saying that I did not feel I could fully explain my vocation, that part of it is a mystery. The cameraman jumped in at that point and talked about the mystery in his marriage and said that he is Catholic. The deep conversation about vocation and faith and God left us all mutually mentored.

The other example is more recent, involving a gentleman who worked as director and editor for "The Young and the Restless" for 22 years and has twelve Emmy Awards. Dan decided he had enough fame and wealth and started his own production company called "Miracles Do Happen" to help non-profit groups raise funds. We are working on producing a video for high- definition TV with Florence Henderson as our host. Dan brought a crew of four people and collected more help from the area TV stations and universities. When I saw this crew of people give their "all" to making this production for us, I was in awe. Dan has taught me what it means to be generous, to care about others, to sell all that fame and wealth and come, follow Jesus. He is a deeply spiritual person. The day the crew left, Dan asked me if he could thank the sisters for their cooperation and hospitality. He did this by writing a prayer and praying it for us in our dining room. Dan has taught me so much about not being afraid to proclaim my faith in Jesus.

Once again, I am sure you have many, many examples of mutual mentoring that have happened for you with someone outside the community. I would again ask you to take a few moments of silence and to recall some of those mutual mentoring experiences with people outside the religious community. Now I want you to choose one experience and share it with the person next to you. If possible, this time select the person on the opposite side of you.

There is one situation where mentoring is not mutual--and that is with Christ, our Master Mentor. This alone could be the topic of a full presentation but I could not end without mentioning this special type of mentoring.

Christ mentors us through the gift of the Spirit, who has been sent as our guide. In the Gospel of John 16:12, we hear Jesus tell us, "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come."12 It is the Spirit who prepares the human heart for listening, for the ability to be mentored, and "makes the human heart desirous of welcoming the Word."13 We need to sit daily with the Scriptures and to encounter Christ in the sacraments in order for us to become good mentors for others.

The saints who have left us their written words and the example of their lives can also mentor us continually throughout our lives. I know that Teresa of Avila has helped me many a time when I have prayed to her for help and guidance. I often pray to one of our former prioresses, Sister Mary Walter, who was killed in an automobile accident shortly after she finished her term as prioress. Often I ask my sister, Carol, who died of breast cancer at age thirty-six, for her advice. I have her picture facing my desk and anytime that I have a difficult call or am struggling with what to do, I say, "OK, Carol, help me," and she does.

Mutual mentoring seems to underlie so many of the values in the Rule--listening, respect for others, humility, seeing Christ in the monastic leader, in the guest, and in one another, and knowing that we are just beginners in this school of the Lord's service. I believe mutual mentoring is at the heart of the Rule. Let us hear that call to be mutual mentors of one another as I end this presentation with chapter 72 of the Rule:

Just as there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life. This then, is the good zeal which members must foster with fervent love: "They should each try to be the first to show respect to the other" (Rom.12:10), supporting with the greatest patience one another's weakness of body or behavior, and earnestly competing in obedience to one another. No monastics are to pursue what they judge better for themselves, but instead, what they judge better for someone else. Among themselves they show the pure love of sisters and brothers; to God, reverent love; to their prioress or abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.14

Return to 'Mutual Mentoring' Index


1Timothy Fry, O.S.B., ed, RB 1980: The Rule of Saint Benedict in Latin and English with Notes (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press 1981) 295. return

2(New York: Harper 1990) 167. return

3Rita Peterson, Mentor Teacher's Handbook, May 3, 1996 <http://www.gse.uci.edu/doehome/EdResource>. return

4Joan Chissiter, O.S.B., The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad 1995) 56-57. return

5Chissiter, The Rule of Benedict 48. return

6Terrence Kardong, O.S.B., Commentaries on Benedict's Rule: II (Richardton, ND: Assumption Abbey Press 1995) 91-92. return

7Kardong 98. return

8Mary Benet McKinney, O.S.B., "Being and Building Church: A Rough Climb Up the Mountain to Genuine Collaborative Decision Making," 30th Convention of the National Association of Church Personnel Administrators, November 11, 2001. return

9Chittister, The Rule of Benedict 158. return

10Minutes of the First Executive Advisory Council, Sisters of St. Benedict, Ferdinand, IN, April 20, 2002. return

11Dennis Huerre, O.S.B., Letters to My Brothers and Sisters Living the Rule of St. Benedict, trans. Sylvester Houédard, O.S.B. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press 1994) 54. return

12NRSV. return

13Prepared by the Theological-Historical Commission for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, The Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of Life, trans. Agostino Bono (New York: Crossroad 1997) 25. return

14Chittister, The Rule of Benedict 177 . return

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