The Life of Mother Benedict Duss | Preface to Mother Benedict (Mother Benedict Duss, O.S.B.): Foundress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis | Antoinette Bosco
I had the privilege of interviewing Mother Benedict Duss over a period of several years before her death on October 2, 2005, learning her story so that one day it could be told and preserved. This book would never have come about if she had not been told by her Bishop to write her autobiography and the story of the founding and development of the Abbey of Regina Laudis. I can say that, but for her obedience to the Bishop, the book would not have been written. For as I came to know the Lady Abbess (her official title), I found she was a truly private woman, not given to talking about herself and essentially reserved.
In the hundreds of hours I spent with Mother Benedict, it became my privilege to get to know this remarkable woman, who was never pretentious, pious, false or unresponsive to someone in need. If there is one quality that characterized her, it was her availability to the members of the Community. She explained that as Abbess, "you have to turn all your energy toward fulfilling the expectations of each woman who has entered. It is sometimes very difficult, but for the fertility of the life, you always have to give more of your personal substance than you are really willing to do. That is also true for the nuns here. But as the head of the Community, I have to be available all the time. People have a right to barge in, and I must be able to respond to a problem they cannot postpone. Yet, while I listen with empathy and concern for their individual problem, I must pray for the gift of discernment because always, at all times, I have to be primarily concerned with and open to the needs of the Community."
It was her complete focus on her responsibilities to the Community that made it difficult for Mother Benedict to offer what I once called "a personal profile" of herself to me, an interviewer. She did not like to turn a mirror on self-not ever. She lived the contemplative life, believing that "when the time comes to find out what you are to do, you'll be told." And she was given her marching orders to follow fifty years ago--a call from the Lord to found a Benedictine Community for women in Bethlehem, Connecti- cut! I asked her once to look back at these past fifty years and tell me how she felt now about all she had accomplished. She looked at me and, in her matter-of-fact, quiet way, answered directly, and perhaps almost a bit impatiently, "I didn't do it." This is a woman who doesn't change her story!
Mother Benedict was also one of the most well-balanced persons I have ever met, in her dealings with others, her spirituality and her ability to read and respond to the signs of the times. Her wisdom was formidable, as was her practicality, her faith and her fidelity to the "call" that took root in her and made her the instrument for doing God's work.
I remember asking her how she managed to keep from feeling defeated when she had no money and so many expenses in running an abbey as large as Regina Laudis. She answered, displaying her subtle humor, "I had no special method to do it, except to do it. The secret to keeping this place going was to do the next thing that had to be done--without wasting time on worrying. If you do something concrete, that opens the possibilities. You don't know what God is doing on the other side, but He's doing something. You have to keep a sense of obligation on the one hand, and trust on the other."
Then, more seriously, she repeated, "To start a Founda- tion didn't come from me. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But if God wanted it, who was I to say no? Many times I felt humanly discouraged. I was always thinking about money. God knows what money is--I don't. Sometimes it looked like abandonment on the part of God, but I never thought it was so. If I got ten dollars, I thought that was great, even though ten dollars wasn't going to do it. But I appreciated everything.
"Yet, as a matter of fact, we always paid our bills, not a simple thing to do. And there would always be money we had to have for the immediate need. This affirmed me and stabilized me in my vocation. I could see in human terms that none of this made any sense. There had to be other ingredients. It gave me a stronger sense that God was there. Anything negative had to be taken in stride, not seen as an argument that God had ceased to love me, but that He could show His power in another way. God's finger would appear when we were seriously in need. He knows bookkeeping without effort."
So often Mother Benedict would use the word "paradox" to try to explain the journey from France to Bethlehem. She would repeat, "I did not come here to start a Foundation. I could see the impossibility of moving into that sphere. I wasn't fulfilling a dream. I never had a dream. What was revealed to me was what was happening. I had a strong sense of God and could see signs that a Foundation was the Lord's express wish. I submitted to His plan. Experience shows that if God wants something, He wants it! You just have to submit all the time. It's hard to explain and very paradoxical."
While a lay person may not understand how one sees the signs that are from God, signaling the path He would like one to take, Mother Benedict helped me see how a contemplative living a religious life is linked to God in a specific and a different way.
"To be a contemplative is to be aware of the reality of God's presence and of the unlimited power that He has. Yet you don't see anything He's procuring. To live contemplatively means to struggle in faith concretely--about events or needs or obligations or commitments that you make as you go along. It's an education you receive, but you don't know how. You just know it's taking place and it's very different from having your own project.
"Contemplation isn't a state of mind, but a different perspective about what life is about. Contemplation is constantly correcting our perspective. You keep seeing things you weren't seeing. It's very active and yet not unbridled for, always, contemplation has to have the marks of being under faith and carrying out what God wants.
"Within the monastery, contemplation is harder-and easier. For each person, it is a trial-and a solace. And there again is the paradox."
Mother Benedict would admit she had more than her share of problems, the most painful being when a member of the Community would disrupt the balance in the monastery. "Some are masters at that", she said, adding, "Chronic dissenters usually decide to leave." In her ever-honest way, she told me, "Sometimes you can't break through to reach people who just can't get past the point they're stuck on. If you are following Christ, this is not mysterious. He ended on a cross, and the pattern's not going to change. If you're in a stable way, you never get discouraged, or fall into despair, because you know the finger of God is there. The basic objective is to keep the monastery moving. I have felt the pain of the cross, of course, but I must always find solace in the mystery of redemption."
I asked Mother Benedict once what it meant to enter the contemplative religious life. How would a woman know what she was getting into if she knocked on the monastery door? Mother Benedict gave me a hearty smile and answered that, of course, most of the women who ask to enter don't have the foggiest notion of what they're really getting into. "You don't come with an agenda. You're going to enter a Community and then discover that you're in for a totally new development of how you relate to the world and to people. It's not that you're giving something of yourself up, but that you're going to use it differently. There's a lot of individuality that will be left, but an egocentric way of applying it has to change. You have to be formed so that your individuality is not used for self-interest. You renounce that self-interest to do what you must do for the monastery and also for what you can offer to others coming to the monastery. It turns out that we all have our different talents that intertwine themselves with the fabric of community life, interpreted by the Community as 'You have a gift for that.'"
I asked how often women coming into the monastery with high hopes and expectations would find they had made a mistake, misunderstanding what this life is really about. "Misunderstandings are 100 percent!" Mother Benedict responded. "Very often people think they have a call, but soon you find they have no capacity for this life, which means emptying yourself of yourself. A person has to have a vocation, or there's no way to understand this life. They just speculate endlessly and fruitlessly, focusing on aspects of the life, refusing in hidden and subtle ways to grow in this life. You cannot enter monastic life with a refusal, yet it is so hard to get people to understand how they refuse. Those who left didn't want to obey. They exhibited behaviors the monastery can't tolerate--like jealousy, which is usually pretty flagrant in how it expresses itself, even though the person might not be aware of it.
"To be a Benedictine contemplative, one has to believe in the redemptive life, has to understand Who Christ is. He is the Redeemer of the world, and we all have to par- ticipate in this--which means to love, forgive and bear the cross. That's a tall order."
Listening to Mother Benedict talk about women who come to the door of Regina Laudis, I sensed she had very strong feelings for each one. She affirmed this. "You have to have a lot of respect for people, and you can't be oppressive. You pray a lot as you try to guide them in their formation, which means how you go about hopefully bringing each one to the fulfillment of her potential. Yet the formation is not according to all the wonderful things she can do, but rather, according to how she can bring her giftedness to everybody else. You may have to let her be impertinent, in some fashion, because what you have to do with each one is to help her keep internally free before God. Each one has to choose and freely accept her destiny.
"If there are signs that a woman is visibly and clearly concerned mainly about herself, and if that's all she has to sustain her, that's not enough, and she can't be converted to a Benedictine sense. Being a Benedictine is not a simple matter. You can't fake it."
I was curious whether Mother Benedict often could feel immediately that a woman would not make it at Regina Laudis. She responded, "It has happened often that the Community will accept a person, and I know that she doesn't have it. But if everyone accepts her, it is very difficult for me to say no. If I turn her away, where can she go? Some come in and are externally so much above reproach, yet I know they do not have a genuine Benedictine vocation. But you have to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and so, everyone who truly wants to try out a vocation is welcome. But the habit doesn't make the monk, and when a woman leaves, the Community senses tremendous relief that the tryout is over."
In many cases, a woman who leaves remains in close friendship with Regina Laudis, grateful for the formation and acceptance she received. Some women have credited Mother Benedict with starting them on the right path. She says, "If the freedom of that person shows that God wants her to serve in another way, we are very pleased. We don't put anyone in a cage here."
Like most people, I have always wondered whether men and women who enter religious life really have to deny their sexuality. And so I asked, how is the question of one's sexuality dealt with in a monastery? Again, I received an honest answer from Mother Benedict, who was not at all intimidated by the subject. First she said, "There is no guilt about sexuality. The sexual drives are normal. When you come into religious life, you don't become abnormal. You find a way to channel your sexual energies. How you serve would be involved with your sexuality because your sexual makeup endows you to act in a particular way.
"Men and women are each built in the total image of God, and that means we have the capacity to act as God, even though within our masculinity and femininity there are limitations and imperfections. It's not a simple matter to be yourself. We have to work consciously at taking on the ways and attitude of God-and the sexual dimension is very real for both men and women in discerning what this means."
She explained that sexuality--which should never be defined solely in genital terms--defines one's total being. Therefore, to deny your sexuality would make you cold, impotent, sterile and incapable of birthing the good work God would have you do precisely because He gave each of us His masculine and feminine gifts. She explained, "Pope John XXIII had very feminine characteristics, and Joan of Arc very masculine ones, but they were both doing the will of God. This was not a psychological deficit, you see, but rather, they became more feminine or masculine according to what they were called to do."
I found it informative and refreshing to have this then eighty-six-year-old religious woman talk so openly and fearlessly about the need for women and men to remember they are always sexual beings, a truth that doesn't change when they choose to dedicate their lives to God in celibacy.
Mother Benedict was put through the crucible and came out beautifully refined. I think what I shall most carry away with me from my blessed time with her is how faithfully she carried out the commitment she made when she said yes to the call of the Lord, both to be a religious and a foundress of a monastery that would visibly keep Christ alive in these modern times. Never will I forget how strongly she affirmed the importance of "internal freedom" and faith.
"Somewhere in the structure of a human being are indications that the autonomy of a person doesn't follow being acclaimed or recognized by another, nor is it taken away when you cannot control what goes on in your life", she told me. "Internal freedom has to do with our relationship to God. It is germane to faith--which is also an autonomous gift, placed in me by God as a part of my being.
Because faith is a part of my being, it is therefore the root of my stability. This infused gift-my faith-becomes brighter and more compelling as time goes on. For anyone, faith becomes more intense if you have a habit of honoring this gift."
She affirmed, "I review my life, and having come to this point, I have the joy of knowing that out of the faith infused in me, I can see the Light."
I have no doubts that this is the very same Light that Mother Benedict Duss helped to bring, through her life and her work, to our world.
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Antoinette Bosco has been an award-winning journalist and writer for newspapers and magazines for over 25 years, including Woman's Day, Parade, Guideposts, Readers Digest and Ladies Home Journal. She has appeared on over 20 television shows and is the author of 14 books, including America At War: World War I, and Choosing Mercy: A Mother of Murder Victims Pleads to End the Death Penalty.
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