Sister Aquinata Böckmann's
This past summer, Benedictines around the United States were privileged
to have the opportunity to study the Rule of St. Benedict under the tutelage
of Sister Aquinata Böckmann, OSB. A sister of the Missionary
Benedictines of Tutzing, Germany, Sister Aquinata lives at her community's
generalate in Rome and has given instruction to Benedictine sisters participating
in the Rome renewal program sponsored by the Conference of American Benedictine
Through that group, arrangements were made for her to give a week-long workshop
at communities in different parts of the country so that as many as possible
could share her wisdom. According to Sister Mary Agnes Patterson, former
president of the prioresses' group, "The prioresses realized how
much the sisters in Rome were benefiting from Sister Aquinata's instruction
on the Rule. We realized that the only possible way for many American
sisters to experience her unique method of teaching was to invite her
to come to us."
Benedictine women and men from many communities were
able to attend presentations at Lisle, IL; Atchison, KS; Covington, KY; Colorado
Springs, CO; and Weston, VT. The following is an interview with Sister Aquinata
to give those who were unable to attend a small taste of her wisdom.
How did you get interested in studying the
It was just needed. I was doing ongoing formation
for our congregation in the 1970s. We were putting aside some of our "traditions"
but this left a void. We were lacking the study and understanding of our source,
the Rule of St. Benedict. We had become focused on the ascetical practices of
the nineteenth century but needed to understand and reinforce our whole charism.
I became involved in the practice of exegesis,
the slow process of discovering the depth of the text. I had studied literature
and loved studying text in and of itself. It was a breakthrough to discover
Vogüé, who was both historical and critical. I dived into it, applying both
the biblical and the poetic methods of criticism. I began to stay patiently
with the words and to let them speak. There are different steps to looking at,
studying and "owning" a text.
With all your familiarity with the text, how do you see Benedict? What
do you think he would most want us to get from the Rule?
It's hard for me to picture him. I
would portray him as having many ears, or maybe just one large one listening
everywhere. He would have great eyes looking mercifully and more deeply than
just our miserable reality. His contemporary eyes would look to all, but especially
with respect towards the least. He would have an expanded heart, a communal mind
and a radical love of Christ. He would not water down the Gospel. He would have
his feet firmly planted, have a well-integrated feminine side, and his arms
around the whole world.
He would say to us, I think, that his
essential message is the radical love of Christ. He would want us to run together
with Christ. He would remind us that lectio and silence
are not to shut us off from others, but to respect them. They give us the space
to see Christ in our culture. He would want us to use our creativity. It is
harder to know what his model for our action would be.
Many would say that all this
analysis of the Rule is just so much scholarly debate about nuances of words.
Why do you care and why should "ordinary" Benedictines care about this kind
From the beginning, I realized that
there was a human author, fascinated by Christ, behind the text, and that both
he and Christ were living and speaking to me with spiritual wisdom through the
text. The better we can see the message as it was given, the better we can see
our own situation. As missionaries, we sometimes tended to see the Rule
as a "hindrance" to our work, for example. The more
I read the chapter on hospitality, with its sources, the more I see Benedict
as enthusiastic for openness. Thus our Rule is a help, not a hindrance. I realize
that Benedict's Rule is more about love and community than it is about little
details of behavior. It has opened me a lot and Benedict brings me back to essentials
in times of crisis.
The scholarly debate does touch us.
Look at the way we have come to understand conversatio and change our translation from "conversion"
to some notion of fidelity to the monastic way. I think we are all happy for
the more integrated approach. We used to talk about "zeal for humiliations,"
which could be a kind of masochism. It helps to know that opprobrium was not such a negative, but that the word referred to the
daily tasks which bind a community together. We know now that "boisterous laughter"
in his language really meant ambiguous or sexual humor and not that we should
never laugh. These all have practical consequences in community so that we don't
end up following a distorted way.
You said in your presentation that we must "let the sixth-century
text challenge us today, when we like it to say what we want it to say."
What do you think are some of the challenging passages for us?
It is easy to become totally disassociated
from the text and to say that, since we don't do some of these things anymore,
we can put them away and have just a skeleton spiritual text. We like to squeeze
it until it is the shape that fits. I think it is better to be challenged than
comfortable. So we don't practice the office of vigils—what is the value that
was being expressed there? These obstacles that the text puts to our understanding
can make the text more alive. We can then occupy ourselves with looking for
the meaning instead of just thinking about the practice. Leave the letter as
it is and let it challenge our thinking.
It's like a trellis. Some things wither; new sprouts come out. We need
to learn to think for ourselves and concentrate on reading and experiencing
the text before we read about it. We can always add to our knowledge later,
but we have to go to the source, to drink from the fountain.
Why do you think Benedictinism is so popular with the laity today?
First of all, some eminent people have discovered it and made it known
to others. There are also new communities forming around the spirituality that
are attractive. It is a very human and Christlike wisdom. It is Christ-centered
and is about how to live well with each other. The dignity of humans is so important
in our time, this hospitality vs. xenophobia. The balance of it is also attractive.
The essential values are radical but moderate, and the world seems to need that
kind of orientation. Mother Teresa did great things, but her way wasn't the
most practical for lay people. The Benedictine way can be applied to families,
to everyday life.
What are some of your impressions of American monasticism?
I admire the honesty and the courage to seek and to be challenged. Some
of the European monasteries with longer histories are at risk of being too static.
I like the way you treasure the healthy tradition but open the door to the future.
It is hard in this country because of the focus on individualism. The Rule is
based on relationships, on protecting those relationships by the rhythm and
asceticism and discipline. Americans can tend to want community that's not so
"costly." You have to dive in, and not be wishy-washy. It's not always nice
and smiling and comfortable, and that is countercultural.
It is always amazing that people continue
to come and persevere. There are new ways of spreading the charism and even
new forms of community. I believe that as long as we are needed, there will
be Benedictines in the church in some form. We can't be assured that any one
particular congregation will last, but Benedictines will still contribute in
some way if it is the will of the Spirit.?
[Sister Aquinata's frequently revised "Bibliography
for Students of the Rule of St. Benedict" is online at