Tuesday, October 4, 2011

House of Prayer

In mid-September I started a new job. I moved from being the communications director for the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict, the largest community of Benedictine women in the United States, to the part-time administrator of a 13-room, 17-bed retreat house, the Episcopal House of Prayer. The distance between these two places is only 10 miles. The Sisters' monastery is in St. Joseph, Minnesota, and the House of Prayer is on the campus of Saint John's University and Abbey in Collegeville.

I am right down the street from where I started in this area, in 2005, when I moved here from Southern California to be a scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. After that year, I worked for two years as an editor at Liturgical Press, which is also on the campus of Saint John's and a ministry of the Abbey.

The House of Prayer came out of the great ecumenical spirit of this place, a collaboration between Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota Bob Anderson (1934-2011) and Abbot Jerome Theisen 21 years ago. It builds on the great beauty of this part of the state as well.

One of my misgivings about not working for the Sisters anymore was a sense that I'd be moving away from the deep German Catholic heritage of this area. I'm really taken by the culture, particularly the old farmers and those who grew up on farms, hard-working and completely engaged even in their 70s and 80s.

I need not have worried. The first person I met here was Dennis, one of our two house cleaners. He turned 78 years old last year, having had a long career as a dairy farmer and another as a college custodian before retiring 11 years ago. He tells charming stories about "the wife," and "the boy" and "the girl," his children. He has one of the thick German accents I love to hear and am quite aware are not going to be heard in another 10-20 years.  He reminds me of my own grandfather, who was too social to retire and went to work in a produce department in his 70s just to stay active and continue to interact with people. 

Today, though, while the women of St. Victoria's Parish held their retreat in our fireplace living room, an older man came in from the parking lot. I met him in the lobby and asked if he'd just stopped in to take a look. He said he's often passed the sign, "House of Prayer," and thought today would be a good day to stop. I saw he had a rosary wrapped around his hand. "I'm not far from Albany, where I'm going, but it's such a nice day, I thought I'd see this house of prayer."

"Let me open the oratory for you," I said, taking him down the hall. I explained that we're a retreat house and that he was welcome to pray in our prayer space for as long as he liked. I unlocked the space and explained that we usually take off our shoes before going in. "That's fine," he said. He looked in curiously at the circle of chairs, the meditation mats and cushions on the floor. I have to say that the light in there at that time on this October day surprised even me. It made the whole place glow orange.

I asked him his name, and he said, "Norbert. Norbert Overman."
I told him mine, and he looked quizzical. "Zink?"
"Sink, like the kitchen sink," I said, and he chuckled.
"Stay as long as you like," I told him. He started to take off his shoes as I left.
"Thank you," he said, his rosary still wrapped tightly around his hand, the light from the open door flashing off his purple shirt.

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