Twenty-eight members of the Benedictine family in Australia came together in Sydney recently for a three-week study program on the Rule of St Benedict, conducted by German monastic scholar, Sister Manuela Scheiba OSB.
Sister Manuela is a member of the Monastery of St Gertrud in Alexanderdorf, Germany, and teaches monastic studies at Rome’s Sant’ Anselmo University.
The study program, held at the Mount St Benedict Centre in Pennant Hills, was attended by 16 Sisters of the Good Samaritan, five nuns from Jamberoo Abbey, two Cistercian monks, one from Tarrawarra Abbey and one from New Zealand’s Southern Star Abbey, three Good Samaritan Oblates and two members of Good Samaritan Education.
Director of the Mount St Benedict Centre, Good Samaritan Sister Elizabeth Brennan, said the Good Samaritan congregation had, periodically, brought international scholars to Australia, since the 1980s, “so that the sisters and their associates can have an opportunity to be resourced and renewed”.
Manuela was born and raised a Protestant in East Germany and converted to Catholicism in 1982 during her study of economics at Berlin University. She had hoped to study philosophy or languages but that proved impossible in the Communist country.
“It was impossible to get admission to study languages because that means that you can also travel and they didn’t want me to leave East Germany,” she said. “And I gave up the idea of philosophy because there was no freedom of thinking or speech.”
After converting to Catholicism, Manuela entered St Gertrud’s in 1988 and following her solemn profession, was asked to take up further study in Rome. She undertook monastic studies at Sant’ Anselmo, under the leading Benedictine scholar, Sister Aquinata Bockmann OSB, later also completing a Doctorate of Sacred Theology.
With Sister Aquinata experiencing health problems in recent years, Manuela, with the agreement of her enclosed community, agreed to take on some of her teaching commitments in Rome and in Benedictine communities around the world.
She said that the Rule of St Benedict never ceases to be fascinating and relevant.
“The Rule does not speak only to people living in a monastery, because the basis of the Rule is baptismal spirituality, something that is applicable to all Christians and all denominations,” she said.
Manuela said that in her courses she also likes to take a close look at the sources of monastic Benedictinism, such as John Cassian and the Desert Fathers.
“Today we have so many psychological books – the shelves in bookshops are full of what you could call ‘spirituality lite’ – but when you read the Rule of St Benedict and the background, for example the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, all this psychological insight is already there. It just makes it so precious to me,” she said.
“I also learn a lot from my teaching experiences in different countries and continents. It’s really a kind of sharing.”
Good Samaritan Sister Kathleen Spokes, who works as a spiritual director in Victoria, said she saw the study program as an opportunity for renewal and refreshment.
“And I was also aware that I hadn’t done any Benedictine studies for quite a while, so even though it is a big commitment of time, I was appreciative of the length of time and the opportunity to do something solid.
“It’s been such a rich feast and I know that over time, as I reflect, it will be integrated more and more into me and the effects will overflow into my work in spirituality at the Heart of Life Spirituality Centre.”
Marie Milne, a retired teacher from Kiama, and a Good Sam Oblate, said she was prompted to attend the study program following last year’s Good Samaritan Partnership gathering where the need for formation and further education was discussed.
“I did have to clear my calendar for these three weeks, but as a Good Sam Oblate for ten years, I decided to see it as a wonderful opportunity for growth and grace,” she said.
“The ability to break the Rule down and get to the core of it and ask ourselves, ‘what does this mean for our lived reality?’ has been amazing and the sharing in the room has been extraordinary.”
Brother Bernard Redden, a Cistercian monk of Tarrawarra Abbey in Victoria, said that most of what he had learnt about the Rule over the years had come from living it daily for almost 40 years.
“So it’s been great to come here, and to spend time with the other participants and get to know other like-minded people within the same tradition,” he said.
“Manuela’s enthusiasm really picks you up and carries you. And I’m sure the exposure to what she’s teaching us will have an impact. It’s sharpened my focus and my appreciation of the Rule as a foundational document for a way of life.”