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Formation and fun at Cottonwood monastery


By Julie A. Ferraro

for the ICR

With the number of vowed Religious continuing to age, it might be thought that the “generation gap” would cause young people to shun the company of these dedicated men and women.

That isn’t the case for the Center for Benedictine Life at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood.

Encouraged by the Rule of St. Benedict to welcome all guests as Christ, this evolving Benedictine community of Sisters, oblates, employees and others enjoys the presence of students from universities across the Pacific Northwest during their academic year. The visits are organized on an annual or biennial basis by the staff of the Spirit Center and the Sisters’ retreat ministry, providing student groups with comfortable accommodations, hearty meals and diverse opportunities for volunteer service and fun.

“When we host college groups, the 1500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict comes to life for them,” said Tim Oberholzer, coordinator of the Center for Benedictine Life and Spirit Center director. “We believe the values and practices of the Rule are for everyone, and we are grateful to share this treasure with those eager to learn.”

Whitworth University, a private Christian college in Spokane, Washington, offers “Monasticism: Old and New,” a course led by Samantha L. Miller, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Whitworth theology department. Miller’s cadre of eight students spent more than two weeks at the Center for Benedictine Life this January.

When she took over “Monasticism: Old and New” this year, she discerned that bringing the students to an actual monastery – rather than devising their own at a campground – would be a “better form for the class.”

“The students are better able to immerse themselves in the prayers and life and meals and service with the Sisters,” Miller said. “They get to apprentice themselves to these women, who’ve been praying longer than we’ve been alive.”

Senior English major Megan Necochea, from Hemet, California, agreed. “There are real kinds of connection points with the Sisters. We get to see exactly why this all matters.”

The content of the course itself is history, theology and spirituality, Miller explained, which is why it is important that the students get a real experience of monasticism, especially since the Center for Benedictine Life is developing a style of community that includes both vowed Religious and laity.

“The students get to see what monasticism was in the sixth century,” Miller said. “They also see, through the Center for Benedictine Life, what the next step can be.”

The students’ mornings were spent studying, after which they assisted the monastery with housekeeping chores, washing dishes, visiting with Sisters on the infirmary wing, and even cracking walnuts. They took advantage of the wintry weather with a snowshoeing jaunt on the Camas Prairie and sledding on the hill behind the monastery.

Besides a few days of extreme sub-freezing temperatures, another aspect of their adventure involved giving up their cell phones for the duration of their stay at the Center for Benedictine Life and spending a full day in silence.

“I’m enjoying the life, the life apart, outside of the super-fast, modern-day world,” said Jacob Robblee, a senior business major from Bellevue, Washington. “It’s really nice to slow down and just appreciate the normal, ordinary life and find God in all the little mundane things we do.”

Sharing game night, for example, the students learned to play Rummikub and listened to the stories of Sisters and joined them at the tables.

“The Whitworth students had a chance to see how it’s possible to live a life in which prayer, service, silence, work, leisure, hospitality, and seeking God above all else, are seamlessly integrated,” said Sister Teresa Jackson, prioress of the community. “The Sisters have a chance to share their life and how Benedictine values can be lived in many ways.”

The young people participated in various expressions of Benedictine hospitality, including joining Sisters in the monastery kitchen, creating trays of “Heavenly Hash,” “whacky cakes,” and dozens of waffle cookies that would be served to guests.

Integrating prayer into these activities, the students also were gifted with plentiful samples of the tasty treats. Robblee summed up his time at the Center for Benedictine Life: “It’s like having a bunch of grandmas spoiling us.”

Each September for more than a decade – except during the COVID-19 pandemic – the Concert Choir from Gonzaga University, Spokane, Washington, travels the three hours to the remote area of the Camas Prairie for a weekend retreat.

“The opportunity to spend a weekend at the monastery is typically one of the highlights of the year for our choir students,” said Meg Stohlmann, DMA, Assistant Professor and Gonzaga’s Director of Choirs and Vocal Studies. “We go the second week of school and use it to grow in our community and really set the tone for the upcoming school year.”

Stohlmann supervises more than 50 talented singers during their time at the Center for Benedictine Life. “The grounds are peaceful and allow for reflection and time to center ourselves musically and spiritually,” she said. “Additionally, the connection with the sisters and their hospitality is a great introduction for our students into the Jesuit ideals of cura personalis (personal care for another arising from attentiveness to the whole person) and intentional care of the land and others.”

The choir’s journey is capped off by a special concert performed in the monastery’s acoustically rich chapel, much appreciated by the Sisters and the local community.

Students from other institutes of higher education find their way to the Center for Benedictine Life, as well.

The Benedictine Scholars from St. Martin’s University, Lacey, Washington, make an even longer trek to Cottonwood each May. Chosen “for their commitment to leadership, service and promoting the common good,” according to their website, these students serve as ambassadors of Benedictine values. They interact with the Center for Benedictine Life community during Morning and Evening Prayer, daily Mass, and meals in the dining room. They also lend their youthful energy to a variety of outdoor tasks, from gathering twigs to pulling weeds in the flower beds.

“Our visiting college students have a unique experience during their time here: the chance to experience contemporary monastic life,” explained Sister Teresa. “The students get to meet women with substantial years of commitment to the monastic way of life.” This enrichment is a leaven they will share in communities around the country.

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