I spent 10 weeks of the summer as an intern with the organic prayer program at St. Mary’s convent in Sewanee. We arrived on a Monday evening, the sisters’ Sabbath. Our house was locked, so we walked reluctantly down the road to the convent and rang the doorbell, not sure whether we were a disturbance or if we were welcome. Before the door opened, we heard voices from inside saying, “Mary Charles and Christina are here!” They were having a barbeque and waiting for us to begin.
The first week of the internship, we created schedules that ensured we were living with Benedictine balance between work, rest, and prayer alongside the sisters. We were responsible for maintaining the organic garden and the grounds and preparing a meal at least once a week from the garden. The sisters of St. Mary’s once ran a school for girls. As they have aged, they have shifted their focus to caring for the needs of their elderly sisters and for creation, which includes establishing the internship.
The sisters hold five prayer services every day of the week except Monday. We attended Morning Prayer, Holy Eucharist, and Evening Prayer. We set up and cleaned after each service, gave readings, and rang the bell. We attended class once a week with one of the sisters where we would study sections of the Rule of St. Benedict and practice lectio divina. We also maintained a practice of independent study throughout the internship.
One goal of the Organic Prayer Program is engaging the larger Sewanee community. One way that we did this was leading and organizing a guided labyrinth walk in the St. Mary’s prayer garden that was opened to the community at large. We also hosted “Radical Hospitality” dinners at our house. On Tuesday nights we invited 46 people from the community to share a meal. Our goal was to get people from different niches in Sewanee around the same dinner table. These were always beautiful evenings of good company and conversation. We would spend all day cooking and cleaning and preparing. Right before the guests came, I would usually feel anxious and tired. Once dinner started, it was effortless remembering how lucky I was that it was my job to eat, talk, and be with people. If “sin” is disintegration, leading to ultimate isolation, I felt at those times like my actions were a small source of goodness and hope. This was true by occupying my hands with things as simple as setting a table and filling someone’s glass.
I began this internship thinking that I wanted to learn discipline by living an intensely structured lifestyle and having a routine that created space for things that I wanted to prioritize; really strategizing how each day was going to go where usually I just react to what comes and feel my way through time. I imagined the joys of having a real reason to dig my fingers into dirt every day. I imagined the benefits of waking early every morning to pray—something I didn’t think I knew how to do. Our first week there, Christina and I were walking back to our house after a game night at the convent and got sprayed by a skunk. We smelled for a week. This year the garden at St. Mary’s dried up before the end of the summer because of the heat and drought. Before that, we baked in the sun while we were working so that I was confusingly tired after minimal work. Squirrels ate all of the peaches and tomatoes. Raccoons ate the grapes. Crows pecked into every premature watermelon, causing them to rot. We had so many blueberries that by our final week I wished something would eat them. The sisters functioned as a family unit does, not without its share of dysfunction. They modeled everything I aspire to be and everything I’m afraid of being. There were plenty of times where I felt like my balanced Benedictine life was not so much balanced as it was impossible to maintain. When people asked me how the life at the convent was I would say it was good, and difficult, for all of the same reasons we know that life is good and difficult.
I learned that as the sisters remain still, practicing stability on their mountaintop the whole world passes through their door to gather around their breakfast table. A few parishioners agreed one day that although Sewanee may forget St. Mary’s is there, it would ache in its absence. The sisters pray five times a day for the world. They pray for those who will die from suicide, for wisdom for the voters in this country, for civil discourse. At Compline, the sisters pray for those who will die that night. Monasticism has its roots in isolation, but I haven’t known a place with a greater consciousness of the whole world, of life and death.
— Mary Charles Stowe