Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mother Johanna: Lessons from the past

In honor of the celebration of our 100 years in Idaho we have been doing “table reading” during the noon meal. So far these have been selections from the Monastery’s official history, “On the Way” by the late Sr. Lucille Nachtscheim. We read 15 minute excerpts during dinner to give people a better sense of our history.

Even in an informal history the magnitude of events that lead three women from an enclosed monastery in Switzerland to travel to the wilds of the Washington and Idaho territories in the 1880’s is a compelling story. Due to the political conditions in Switzerland there was a possibility that their monastery could be suppressed, closed by the government authorities. In case this might happen the abbess decided to send three women to make a foundation, a new monastery, in the mission territory of the United States.

Our founding prioress, Mother Johanna Zumstein did not want to leave Switzerland and come to the United States. She didn’t find the prospect of being a missionary to America the least bit exciting and indeed she made it clear she didn’t want to go. Reading between the lines of history it is not clear she ever really adjusted to being in America although she never returned to Switzerland and is buried in our cemetery.

Perhaps that is the part I ponder. What would it be like to leave your country, community, language, way of life and go where you would rather not go, into an unknown and unknowable future. The cloistered monastic way of life that Mother Johanna knew would never be duplicated in America. It was a new land, a new way of being Benedictine and nothing would ever again be the same, known or settled again. For this woman who was only about thirty years old when she left her home monastery the future she was creating was unknown and frightening.

But perhaps Mother Johanna would recognize our situation after 100 years in Idaho. Our future is again unknown. We are fewer, older, the way monastic life “has always been” is no longer the reality. There aren’t large numbers of young women entering monastic life, there are fewer people to get the work done and carry out our mission. As we look at the future, new possibilities, there are probably those among us, who like Mother Johanna can’t imagine leaving this settled “home” and the way of life we have always known.

But Mother Johanna’s achievement came not from eagerness and a sense of adventure but her willingness to risk despite how she felt. The future wasn’t what she wanted, wasn’t what she had hoped for, and she suffered for it. Perhaps she is a model for all of us today who face the future with trepidation, without understanding why new ways are needed when the old ways seem fine. Johanna came to America because her community needed her to come to America. Today, 125 years later we still need people who can face the future and go where they would rather not go, sometimes confident only that God will need to do the work and provide the faith because they are so lacking. Johanna Zumstein will never be a saint, but perhaps she is our saint for reluctant people in troubled times.

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