American Monastic Newsletter

Volume 28, Number 1, February 1998


The Lesson of Assisi

In August of the past year I was expecting a quiet autumn at home in Atchison. Then came a phone call from a friend who runs a nearby Lutheran retreat center. It seems that a friend of hers in Colorado had called to say that she had been talking to someone who had just recently read a book about women saints and become fascinated. This other woman was raised Texas Baptist, had rejected most of the Christian tradition as patriarchal and misogynist, but was currently attending Quaker meetings, and had almost no sense of women's varied roles in Christian history. Fascinated and curious, she had shared the book with several other professional women with whom she worked in different parts of the country. Since several of them had plans to be in Europe for corporate tasks or meetings, they had begun to entertain thoughts of visiting some of the sites of these women's lives to further their exploration.

When one of the five who were planning the trip came to Kansas City, this friend wanted her to come and spend some time with me to get some background. What I heard from her was something which has been a problem for many women who begin to look at the saints from outside Catholic tradition. The initial encounter with these women, especially as interpreted by modern feminist writers, is very positive. Then one begins to learn more about their lives. With no understanding of the historical period, the spirituality, the symbol system, etc., the modern reader often becomes hopelessly lost. To read a selected writing by a woman who seems to be doing very contemporary things is exciting; to find out she also licked the wounds of lepers or walled herself into the side of a church building is something else entirely.

The eventual outcome was that, having more financial assets than time or background knowledge, they asked me to accompany them as a sort of mentor/guide. Early in the adventure, I learned a couple of important things of which I had only been marginally aware before. The Catholic tradition certainly has its share of misogyny, but some other traditions have given women ordination into a hierarchical system and little else. Female pastors of other faiths often remark at the pictures of women leaders (our prioresses) in the monastery halls or images of women saints in our worship places, types of images which are absent in their environments. The traveler who had assumed that women had always been suppressed and disregarded in all of Western culture had to come to grips with pre-renaissance churches filled with female images and towns like Siena, whose very heart is the memory of a woman. If this had been all I learned from the trip, it would have been important enough, but God was not finished with me yet.

On a pleasant evening in September we admired the beautiful art works in the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. That night I awoke to a bed pitching as if we were still sleeping in the train berths of previous nights. The next day, unaware of the closing of the basilica and its precarious condition, we explored the ancient monastery of St. Clare just below the city and stopped to sit in an olive grove for our discussion time. As the earth began to rock again, we assumed it to be aftershocks and, securely seated on the ground, continued our reflections until we began to hear the sirens and see the helicopters. Returning to the basilica we found reporters, emergency crews and construction bobcats carrying scoops of rubble rock out the front doors.

We left Assisi the next day, each carrying a small piece of wall tile we had picked up after the quake from the floor of a public restroom we had left only minutes before the earthquake. We were among the last humans to see works of art which generations had viewed and taken for granted as permanent. They are lessons we often forget about so many things in life. Wherever I am, the earth can shake, the walls collapse. If I had only known what the next day would bring, I surely would have looked more deeply at what will never be seen again.

Judith Sutera, OSB


Contents February 1998



ABA. Newsletter (February 1998) / © Copyright 1997-2009 by American Benedictine Academy / Managing Editor: Renee Branigan OSB, Box 364, Sacred Heart Monastery, Richardton, ND 58652 / HTML version: Tom Gillespie OSB /