Ecumenism, My Story

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By Carolyn Heidemann, long-time friend and donor

My first visit to Holy Wisdom Monastery (then St. Benedict Center) was the summer of 1966 when the Taizé Prayer Group, part of UW Campus Ministry, came out for a day of volleyball, worship and supper. Sister Joanne greeted us in her flowing habit. My most recent visit to Holy Wisdom Monastery was December 13, 2012, when a friend and I decided rather spontaneously to join the sisters and their guests for lunch. There was room at the table, Sister Joanne declared the dessert to be birthday cake and we were serenaded by “Happy Birthday.” We were able to join them for midday prayer before lunch and stay for the Middleton High School Choir concert, with time to read in the library between lunch and the concert. Many years earlier my friend and I had attended a Unity Church presentation that George Hinger organized as part of a series on different religions. Both visits were meaningful.

Sister Mary David had asked me at lunch if I liked to write; I had said “yes,” so I was not surprised when a letter from Mike Sweitzer-Beckman soon arrived with an invitation to write about how ecumenism has helped to shape my prayer and spiritual life.

I was born into ecumenism; into a family with Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren cousins and into a time in history when Christian ecumenism was growing.

As a freshman at St. Olaf College in 1958 I began to use the red Service Book and Hymnal, authorized by eight Lutheran Churches through their cooperation in the Commission on the Liturgy and Hymnal and published that same year, at daily chapel services. Here I encountered Lutheran ecumenism.

In the early 1960s the Taizé brothers Christopher, Johann and Jacques came to Madison to help foster ecumenism as they lived a year in the former parsonage of Luther Memorial Church on University Avenue. Those were the days of the second Vatican Council and the beginning of the Roman Catholic Church’s participation in ecumenical activities. Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky was instrumental in Protestant-Catholic-Jewish dialogue in Madison, some of which happened at St. Benedict Center. I recall a plaque on the wall in the hallway to the dining room that acknowledged him. I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin during those years.

Eventually marriage to the Catholic son of a Bavarian Catholic mother and Danish Methodist father led me to join the Catholic Church. During one Week of Prayer for Christian Unity I wanted to go to Madison for one of the special services. The Spirit persuaded me that the more practical solution would be to begin to attend weekday Mass at our local church.

I continued to be aware of St. Benedict Center offerings. A Myers-Briggs Type Indicator workshop helped me appreciate my unique way of viewing life. I remember an overnight presentation by Deborah Douglas about “Telling Our Story” in which I learned there may be a difference between truth and facts. In June of 2011, I took notes as I listened to Kathleen Norris speak about Acedia. One of my notes reads: “We have to remember that we count, but we don’t count more than anyone else.”

Perhaps the most important ecumenical experience at St. Benedict Center for me occurred Monday, January 26, 1987, during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity when I joined Ed Beers, some Catholic priests and others to listen to Dr. Michael Kinnamon talk about how we determine the limits of acceptable diversity in ecumenical discussions. His ten principles of effective dialogue included having a clear understanding of and commitment to your own faith and a common devotion to the truth. Since that time I have followed his writings in the newsletter of the Kentucky Council of Churches. He is an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and part of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches.

It is true that I was born into ecumenism both by virtue of who my parents were and when I was born. As I have grown in years, I have grown in awareness of the complexities of ecumenism. It is an ongoing dialogue between unity and diversity. I am glad to join with the sisters of Holy Wisdom Monastery as that dialogue continues.

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