Stories shape us

Lynne Smith, OSB Living in Community Leave a Comment

“It is the telling of the story of the gesture of Francis which gives the heritage the power to traverse time and to be creative. It is not constitutions, not norms that do this. A movement without a legend spends its energy in ensuring its survival.”Francis of Assisi Today, by Christian Duquoc


The quote above was part of our reading at midday prayer on October 4, 2018 for the commemoration of Francis of Assisi. What struck me was how important story is in shaping our lives. Benedictines are great story tellers. Besides reading the Rule of Benedict, we recount the stories of Benedict and of our community. These stories help us understand that the Rule is a living document that developed as wisdom distilled from real human life lived together in community.

In the sisters’ community at our chapter meeting each morning, we read about the sisters who have gone before us on the date of their death. Those who knew the sister tell a story about her so the rest of us can have a sense of who she was.

Our foundress, Gertrude McDermott, OSB befriended chief Sitting Bull when she took him in one night in a storm. She learned the Lakota language and was the first white woman to enter his camp. She went to warn him that the US Calvary were intending to attack his people. What a pioneer she was. Our community has continued to be pioneering, in becoming the first ecumenical Benedictine women’s community in the US.

At meals with guests and in classes with sojourners and novices we also tell stories about our community life and ministry in the past. The stories show the character and flavor of our community. It is one thing to state that our community had a hospital in Sioux City, Iowa before we moved to Madison, Wisconsin. It is another thing to hear about the ministry in the hospital. Working men lined up around the block at lunch time every day to receive a noon meal at the hospital. The sisters worked seven days a week in the hospital, never took any wages and were paid in chickens and eggs and other produce in the early days. No one was ever turned away because they couldn’t pay. One of the sisters took in the men who hung around lower Fourth Street where the taverns were located, gave them a room in the hospital and cared for them until they dried out. When we read the stories of our past sisters, we notice that a number died within a few years of making profession. Many of those sisters worked in the laundry which we can imagine was a risky place to work in a hospital in those days. No constitution or rules can compel us to give our lives in service. But stories can inspire us to go the extra mile to serve as our sisters did in the past.

Of course, it is the stories in the Bible that inspire Christians to serve after the example of Jesus. The practice of lectio divina, or prayerful reading of Scripture, helps us assimilate the stories for ourselves.

What stories guide your life? Stories from your family or Scripture? Stories from your own experience or from literature?

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