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Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. (left) working with Breanna Mekuly ’12.

The Quest for Community Takes a Young Grad Student on a Journey to Sister Joan

Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B., has been called “the maverick Benedictine nun who dares speak her mind to her church” (religious news.com). The best-selling author and internationally renowned speaker is known for her views on justice, peace, human rights, women’s issues and contemporary spirituality in the church and in society. Chittister has described herself as holding a position of query, of theological and scriptural commitment and search.

To her new intern Breanna Mekuly ’12, Chittister is one of the wise women she first learned of in her theology classes at St. Norbert, women who taught her to be proud of herself as both a woman and a Catholic. Mekuly determined to seek out Chittister as part of her continuing quest for a new thinking community. This is Mekuly’s account of that journey.

I was always asking questions; I still am, actually: Who are we? Why are we here? What are we doing with our lives? And why? And in my first semester at St. Norbert, I quickly found comfort in my religious studies courses, each of which, in some way or another, touched upon these questions.

These questions were never outright answered: I never left a class or a reading feeling that I had it all figured out. But that wasn’t what I needed; what I needed was to know that others were also intellectually engaged in deep spiritual seeking. So I soon found myself as a religious studies major, taking a class that changed my perspective about myself and the world, introduced me to a variety of wise women, and that taught me to be proud of myself as both a woman and a Catholic; that class was Feminist Theology, with Dr. Bridget Burke Ravizza.

One of those wise women we read was Sister Joan Chittister. I was amazed at her devotion to her beliefs; in the article and following conversations, I learned that she and her community not only talk about, but also act in ways that closely reflect the Gospel. I remember learning that she and her community, after much prudent conversation, decided to follow their informed conscience and enlightened moral judgment when the larger church around them threatened divide or even excommunication. I was shocked and thrilled. The concept of defying authority in order to follow one’s informed conscience was new to me. I previously thought that religious folk must always follow authority and rule, for isn’t that faithfulness? It did not occur to me that being faithful to one’s informed conscience  or that which the church says is one’s inner law inscribed by God  might not be the same as faithfulness to human authority.

And so this wisdom I kept close as I ventured away from SNC and into a new environment of a predominantly Protestant divinity school. When asked by fellow female seminarians why I would still choose to be Catholic as a woman – mostly, asking why I was interested in being a part of a community that would never ordain me – I thought back to Dr. Burke Ravizza’s class and referred them to my Catholic (s)heroes. So much wisdom, I had discovered in this class, came from great women (mostly sisters) like Elizabeth Johnson, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Joan Chittister. I bragged about the ways in which these women thought and interpreted Catholicism for many who had previously only encountered patriarchal theology.

I was so proud to be a part of the tradition of these women … but I never thought I’d meet any of them in person.

And then on a whim, and following an instructor’s advice in divinity school, I randomly sent Sister Joan Chittister an email. I was in a strange place at the time, emotionally and spiritually. I deeply desired something more, but the only way I could describe what I was looking for was as an honest community that was able to engage in the sorts of deeply theological and meaningful conversations that I had grown to love at St. Norbert. And so in my email (I wish I still had a copy of what it originally said!), I wrote something along these lines: how I was desiring another thinking, Catholic community; how I wished to write someday but wasn’t sure how to begin; and how I really admired the work she was doing. I read over the email a few times and then courageously hit Send. I didn’t expect anything back. After all, it was sort of like emailing a celebrity. Quickly I forgot about it and moved on to writing my next research paper.

So a few weeks later, when I opened my email and saw a new message with a return address from someone named “joan” titled, “Some Ideas,” I was confused. I thought it was spam mail, of course. I opened the email anyway and saw the first line, “Dear Breanna, Thanks so much for your very beautiful and very important letter.” I think that’s about as far as I got before I fell off my chair. My super rockstar (s)hero, the one that Dr. Burke Ravizza introduced me to four years earlier, wrote me a very personalized and individual email! I was star-struck.

In the email, she suggested a few options, one including coming out to her monastery to join the Erie Benedictine sisters in their annual Holy Week retreat. Easter was about a month away, but I had absolutely no funds for this. (I was in graduate school, remember, living off about $100 or less a month.) Just the same, I was excited to get her email and so went around sharing my excitement with classmates. The instructor who had encouraged me to write the email in the first place overheard my joy and ran out of her office (literally) to ask if what she’d heard was true. No more than a day later, she found funds and arranged for a scholarship to be created for me to go to Erie that Holy Week to meet Sister Joan and her community.

I was ecstatic and overwhelmed with gratitude.

When I arrived in Erie, a sister with long white hair pulled back in a ponytail picked me up from the tiny airport. The whole ride to the monastery I was nervous. What would happen? Where would I stay? What would I say when I finally met Sister Joan?

That night, the retreat began. There were women and men of all ages sitting around me, but I still hadn’t seen Sister Joan. She was supposed to be here. She invited me to this retreat. After two days of not seeing her, I think I finally asked someone where she was. “Oh, she’s in Ireland writing. She’ll be back tomorrow,” they said. Although I was really enjoying my time at the retreat – it was much needed! – and I was coming to care about the community very deeply, I had really come here with the sole purpose of seeing Sister Joan, and so worried I might be wasting the scholarship money.

But then, Saturday morning arrived and there she was standing in front of our group as the speaker. And wow, did she lead an engaging talk! I took notes as quickly as I could; I didn’t want to miss a thing she said. It all made perfect sense with what I had been feeling and experiencing. It was like her talk was directed at me. And I had so many questions!

So after she finished, I was elated that we were allowed to talk to her individually and have our books signed. When it was my turn, I introduced myself, thinking there’s a good possibility she wouldn’t remember our short email exchange. But when she saw me, she spread her arms around me with a joyful smile, as if greeting a relative she hadn’t seen in a while, squealed hello and kissed me on the cheek. I almost melted …

It was as if everything had come together. My heart was warmed while my head swirled with the feeling that the fullness of life could be possible; that my questions I had so long asked (and will continue to always ask) are not mine alone, but come from a long tradition of others who have spent lifetimes pondering the same. I was filled with gratitude and memories of first learning about her at SNC, for my encouraging peers and instructors at divinity school, and for the scholarship that had led me there. I was happy.

There was only one thing left that I fancied.

“If you ever need an intern,” I told her, “or need help with anything, let me know. I’d be more than happy to help with whatever I could,” I said. Mostly I just wanted to learn as much as I possibly could from her. How could I continue her work, asking the questions and helping others think through them, in the years to come? Sister Joan seemed quite pleased with my desire and inquiry, and responded that she definitely had some things I could help her with.

After that interaction, the rest of the weekend was wonderful. Each time we saw one another, we would continue the conversation right where we left off. When it was finally time for me to leave, I left hopeful that I would return. This community felt like home; I would be back.

And I did come back. Three times. And each time I came back, we had a joyful reunion. But during those visits, Sister Joan never did have more information about anything I could do to help. But I didn’t dwell upon that; I was happy to visit and to spend time with the community. I was happy to have a place to go, a refuge, a sanctuary. The community of sisters in Erie provided a space I had never before experienced. Everyone was welcoming and friendly. They were as truly hospitable as their Benedictine values encourage.

Then, last October, Sister Joan and I were in communication once more; this time she was coming my way for a conference and invited me out to dinner afterwards. After the conference, we talked once more about the possibility of an internship, of me working with her and her publishing ministries; and I expressed my continued interest. Excited as I was, it was hard to keep patience while awaiting the opportunity to live and work with Sister Joan and her community. But a few months of planning later, everything worked out. I packed my bags, said my goodbyes to my beloved students and friends, and drove to Pennsylvania.

So … six years after I first heard of her name and two years after I first met her, here I am in Erie again, ready to learn!

As Sister Joan’s summer intern, I will be working with her and the other sisters at her two main ministries: Benetvision, a research and resource center for contemporary spirituality; and Monasteries of the Heart, an online movement sharing Benedictine spirituality with contemporary seekers. My work entails much proofreading and editing of Sister Joan’s writings, along with the writings of other contemporary spiritual guides. I also have the opportunity to strategize with Sister Joan and her colleagues about further developments in Benedictine spirituality; specifically, as I am able to share my rich experience of young adults’ spirituality – both from divinity school and also as a campus minister working with college students.

Another wonderful part of this internship is the opportunity to live with Sister Joan’s religious community for the summer in the gorgeous monastery right on Lake Erie. While living at the monastery, I eat, pray and converse with the sisters. From these women’s stories alone, I have gained such insight and wisdom into what it means to truly follow one’s call, to be devoted to something more than oneself, even – and especially – when the future is a mystery. After struggling for a few days to adjust my body and introverted nature to the prayers and community meals, I have begun to find myself enjoying the steady pace of the Liturgy of the Hours, communal (one could even say Eucharistic-like) meals, and silent and reflective alone time.

Just like college again, I feel as though I’m engaged in a wonderful independent-study course, in which my professors are the 97 women, aged 28 to 98, each with her own story to share. My campus drapes across the beautiful shores of Lake Erie curving into the forest where the monastery rests, and extending into the inner-city where violence runs deep – yet, there the sisters live among and care for the most marginalized and oppressed with their food pantry, soup kitchen, inner-city neighborhood art house, adult education center, childhood educational daycare center and more. And my subject is learning all I can about the meaning of life and the wonders of spirituality. Who are you? Why are you here? Why have you stayed? What are you doing and have you done with your lives? And why? My new professors embrace these questions with as much depth and honesty as did my religious studies professors at SNC and, too, throw them right back at me.

So as I soak in all the goodness this community is giving me and all the goodness I am learning from Sister Joan, I begin to answer some of these questions even if only temporarily. Who am I? I am someone who is currently experiencing great amounts of thankfulness and joy. Why am I here? I’m here because Dr. Burke Ravizza introduced me to writings that helped me to understand my own spiritual work. And then she and the rest of the religious studies faculty and campus ministry staff provided me with the confidence and encouragement to follow my passions. What am I doing with my life? I am seeking to be in better relationship with something greater than me, something that many people call God. And I am seeking to do so by way of finding thoughtful, challenging and loving spiritual communities, like the one I first found at St. Norbert College.

At St. Norbert, Mekuly majored in religious studies and Spanish. She went on to Vanderbilt Divinity School, graduating in 2014 with a master’s in theological studies with an emphasis in biomedical ethics. After a two-year stint as the university minister at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Breanna Mekuly ’12 has taken some time to live, pray and work in communities of religious. She is currently interning for Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. Later this summer, Mekuly will be moving to Indiana to live, pray and work with a group of sisters who raise chickens, bees and alpacas on an organic farm. 

July 5, 2016