The gift of encuentro

Denise West, OSBLiving in Community Leave a Comment

Last November, Sister Lynne Smith, Sister Paz Vital and I headed up to Milwaukee for a conference on the future of religious communities in the United States. The theme of the conference was Encuentro, and the focus was around the great diversity of cultures in this country and the changing face of religious communities as greater numbers of women and men born outside the US join American religious orders. The keynote speaker was Sister Teresa Maya, president-elect of the Leadership Conference for Women Religious. A native of Mexico City, she is a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and lives in San Antonio, Texas. Encuentro literally translated is a meeting, a conference, even a sports match, but in Spanish its meaning is dynamic. It is used to reflect two parties coming together and being transformed. As Sister Teresa said, “the call to encounter is a call to journey beyond ourselves…it’s not encuentro if it leaves you unchanged.”

The community of sisters at Holy Wisdom Monastery has certainly changed over time in response to engagement with people of varied backgrounds. Regular visits from the monks of Taizé in the mid-sixties, meetings with clergy members of different denominations, and conversations with members of Madison Interfaith Dialog—all of these experiences prepared the sisters for their encuentro with Lutheran missionaries and their families in the 1970s. It was living, praying, and working side by side with people of different backgrounds that deeply changed Sisters Mary David Walgenbach and Joanne Kollasch and inspired them to ultimately open their Catholic community to women of any Christian denomination. This paved the way for the community to receive Sister Lynne and other Protestants like me.

Sister Paz and I experienced desencuentroclashes—during our time as Sojourners as we discovered how utterly differently we see and engage with the world. I have since discovered what it means to experience the United States as an immigrant and to experience American culture as a person of color and a Mexican woman. This was not easy to hear. At first I listened, (or rather, didn’t listen) with my defenses up. But with the help of numerous blog posts, online articles, and podcasts by black and brown people, my hard shell softened enough to be able to hear “with the ear of my heart” (Rule of Benedict), and it changed me. It was only over time that we began to truly listen to one another’s experiences and see the world as the other sees it.


Our community has become interested in the ways we all see and experience the world differently based on our upbringing and our culture. At lunch some weeks ago, Rev. Al Heggen happened to mention a book his church group had read called, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by theologian and activist Drew G.I. Hart. We meet every other week to discuss a chapter, reflecting on what struck us as new, significant or challenging. In one section, Hart names the problem and presents hope for transformation:

For too long, the church has gone about its business as though nothing were wrong. Meanwhile, it has been a racialized organism, not only fractured relationally but actually practicing, perpetuating, or remaining silent to the racial oppression of others…. Jesus lived a life that nonviolently subverted the powers and confronted the establishment…. Jesus can help us transform how we understand and resist racism in our society.
The message for me is one that is consistent with Benedictine spirituality and the monastic life: What are the places in me that keep me separate from my neighbor and from God? How am I blind to my faults and to others’ needs? Where do I need transformation? If I haven’t listened deeply to the experiences of people who are not white like me and if I haven’t noticed the ways in which I’ve been socialized as an American to see with the eyes of my dominant white culture, then I am still blind to the ways I perpetuate the system, unknowingly. Listening, reading and reflecting are all part of what our community is doing to grow into new understandings and to see with new eyes.  We are preparing for more Encuentros as Benedictine Women of Madison becomes more culturally diverse.

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