One woman, one man take Benedictine vows, forming a new monastic community in Foggy Bottom

November 16, 2010

Two Lents ago, the Rev. Andrew Sloane led a rector's forum at St. Paul's Episcopal Parish on K Street in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington, D.C., about the Benedictine Communities of Jerusalem, Roman Catholic monasteries located in the heart of major cities.

"Father Sloane said, 'I wish that we could have a monastic community here, but that isn't going to happen," recounted parishioner Michael Alsup. "I asked, 'Why can't we?' It just seemed like a good question."

On Sunday, that question will be answered when Alsup and another parishioner, Josephine Stelzig, are clothed as novices in the Benedictine Companions of St. Paul during a Solemn Mass at 11:15 a.m. During Evensong at 6 p.m., Episcopal Diocese of Washington Bishop John Chane will bless their vows of obedience, and Sloane and Vicar Nathan Humphrey will reaffirm their ordination vows, the rector said. "The service reaffirms the accountabilities at work here, ours as priests of the diocese to the bishop and, for Jo and Michael, their accountability to us in the place of a superior."

The hope is that the two novices will be the first members of orders of Benedictine men and women, who would live separately but come together for worship, following the Communities of Jerusalem model, Sloane said. For now, they have pooled resources to rent a two-bedroom house behind the church.

"We have really stepped out in faith in terms of believing that this is what the Lord Jesus wants to see happen. We put our money where our mouth is," said Alsup, 46. "Jo and I both liquidated our savings."

A defense contractor for 20 years, Alsup was laid off -- with the rest of his department -- last December. "That entered into my discernment in terms of: Well, do I want to go back into the corporate world?"

The answer turned out to be "no." Instead, he is entering monastic life -- promising obedience, stability and conversion of life -- and will work at St. Paul's doing maintenance and cleaning work the church previously contracted out. Stelzig, 70, retired from a career as a foreign service officer and will continue at her current job as parish administrator at Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Both will work 20 hours a week, which provides income, he said, "but at the same time enables them to identify with the working people of the city and yet devote the afternoons for silence and meditation and contemplation and create a place and space, it seems to me, for people to perhaps come and engage in that."

St. Paul's already offers daily morning and evening prayer services followed by Mass. The novices will add matins and compline as daily public services and will include half an hour of silence for prayer before the morning and evening prayer services. "I'm hoping that that rhythm of worship can influence and connect with the rhythm of people working in the city," Sloane said.

"I think urbanites have, often, an unarticulated desire for rootedness and silence," Sloane said. "So, in the midst of the fray, this becomes a kind of oasis or desert, depending on which kind of imagery you want to use, in the midst of the battle."

Located in cities such as Rome, Warsaw and Montreal, the Jerusalem communities are "committed to the religious life and committed to the discipline of community and liturgical life in the midst of the city to which they are related," he said. The order's founder "thought he was called to a hermit's life" in the Egyptian desert, but instead he found himself back in Paris founding a community because God was "calling him to create the desert in the middle of the city."

Noted Alsup, "This really kind of harkens back to a form of monasticism that was especially prevalent in the British Isles up until the year 1000. There really wasn't a concept of cloister the way we have it now."

Besides holding the four public services daily, the novices will pray the "little hours" of terce, sext and none wherever they are at the appropriate times, he said. This follows the practice of Cistercians and Benedictines who stop to pray the psalms "wherever you happen to be working," he explained.

It's not unlike the scheduled breaks in the corporate world, he added. "For the amount of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee or have a cigarette, we pray terce, sext and none."

As at many other monasteries and convents, services will be chanted, Sloane said. A parish chorister volunteered to teach chanting, and a group has been meeting Monday evenings. "I must say, they chant compline very well. So we've got some good musical volunteers that will help with that chanting, which I hope will grow and which I hope will begin to take roots in terms of our day-to-day parish worship as well."

Both the vestry and bishop have been extremely supportive of the monastery's launch, Sloane said. Throughout the 750-member parish, he said, "I think there's a sort of mixture of excitement and sort of being slightly quizzical. … I think in a parish such as this, which is so essentially Benedictine in its life anyway [with its daily services], it's kind of a natural outgrowth."

"This is a very busy parish with comparatively limited resources," he added. "My hope is that one of the things this community will do is bring some balance between busyness and silence."

This form of monasticism has proven attractive in the Roman Catholic Church, particularly drawing young people, Alsup said. "They're really living a very radical form of Christianity, and I think that's what's attractive to young people."

(The George Washington University, with its more than 10,000 students, is nearby.)

Actions such as the novices' dedication of all their financial resources to the new community, Sloane said, are "a radical sign of gospel living" that causes others to reassess: What is my attitude toward possessions and money?

"I don't mean this in a prideful way," Alsup said. "[Jesus] said, 'Go sell all you have and come follow me.' People can do that. We've done it, and we're happy. I couldn't be happier.

"Every day, I pray, 'Lord, give me a grateful and joyful heart.' And I do have a grateful, joyful heart, and I hope that there are others that will want to come and share that life with us."