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20120113-monasteries-of-the-heart-by-peggy-rosenthalMonastic communities have traditionally encouraged lay associates: people drawn not to join the monastery but to absorb themselves in its spirituality and adapt as much of its practice as possible while living “in the world.”

Creatively taking this concept of lay associates into the internet age, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania, have launched “Monasteries of the Heart,” online at

If your New Year’s resolutions include attending more to your spiritual life, I recommend joining the online conversation.

“Monasteries of the Heart,” says the mission statement, “is a response to requests to develop a new form of Benedictine spirituality for a new face of society.”

And further: “Groups and individuals will be devoted to Benedictine values but not necessarily bound by geographic stability. It is a monastery ‘without walls.’ Communities may gather for prayer, discussion, and reflection—in families, parishes, neighborhoods, intentional communities, prisons, and on the internet.”

Here’s how it works. The core book for seekers who wish to participate is The Monastery of the Heart, by Benedictine Sister and famed author Joan Chittester.

Another of the Erie Benedictine Sisters is leading an online discussion of the book, chapter by chapter. People can join the conversation any time starting from the first discussion thread.

When I go to the discussion board, I’m wowed by how many people from around the English-speaking world are joining the discussion. Just the fact that literally hundreds of people are eager to talk about spiritual values gives me hope.

Anyone else is invited, as well, to start either an online or an onsite group. The website offers all the most sophisticated interactive tools for facilitating group discussions—and many more opportunities to engage with this Benedictine community than I can list here.

The coordinator of “Monasteries of the Heart” is Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki, whom I’ve long known through her poetry. I especially treasure her book Between Two Souls, where she pairs a poem by the nineteenth century Zen monk Ryokan with a reflection from her contemporary monastic life.

Sr. Mary Lou’s blog is linked to at the Monasteries of the Heart site. For you poets and other poetry lovers out there, her blog offers a rich bonus: once a month she posts a poem (the first was by Mary Oliver), along with her own prompts for meditating with the poem or even writing your own poem in response.

Since using poems as texts for meditation is something I’m drawn to myself, I’m delighted by this opportunity to do it along with Sr. Mary Lou.

She is also including on the website some of her current sequence of poems, collectively called “Old Monk.” These delightful, short poems are her means for daily meditation during this her Jubilee year as a monk.

Given Sr. Mary Lou’s background as a poet, I wasn’t surprised to find on the website, as part of this new movement’s mission statement, the following:

“Monasteries of the Heart is especially mindful of celebrating beauty, honoring the sacred and poetic word, and promoting nonviolence as a way of life and method of social change.”

I share these spiritual values. No surprise here, either: people living the Benedictine tradition were my first spiritual directors and continue among those whom I take as models for the Christian life.

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Written by: Peggy Rosenthal

Peggy Rosenthal is director of Poetry Retreats and writes widely on poetry as a spiritual resource. Her books include Praying through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times (Franciscan Media), and The Poets’ Jesus (Oxford). See Amazon for a full list. She also teaches an online course, “Poetry as a Spiritual Practice,” through Image’s Glen Online program.

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