CONTEMPLATIVE LIFE LIVED IN ACTION
Diane L. Stier and Linda-Susan Beard, co-foundresses of The Emmaus Community, began their contemplative lives in early childhood, a period of their youth significantly colored by loss, solitude, and sickness. Diane’s mother died the summer before her tenth birthday; that Fall the only sibling still at home left to enter the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Indiana. At age nine, Linda-Susan’s frequent bouts with pneumonia necessitated several prolonged hospitalizations and significant limitations on play and mobility.
Beginning in this period, each came to feel especially drawn to silence, solitude, and to an intimate relationship with Jesus that involved what she later learned was non-verbal prayer. As adult women, each planned to make her “yes” to the religious vocation she had very carefully discerned over a long period by consecrating herself to God in the enclosed contemplative tradition of Carmel.
The Holy Spirit, however, had another way in which their contemplative vocations were to be lived out in the Church. In November 1978, following Diane’s 11 years of close friendship with the Indianapolis Carmel and Linda’s 18-year directed search for a religious, and then a specifically contemplative tradition, the two were introduced to one another by Indianapolis Carmel. The friendship was not likely to prosper; the two were polar opposites. Diane had grown up in a small Southern Indiana town. Linda-Susan’s home was New York City; she had never seen a farm except in books or on television. The two represented different racial communities and diverse family histories.
Although they were young in years (Diane celebrated her 23rd birthday in 1978; Linda-Susan was 27), they did understand the theology and spirituality of cloistered contemplative life. Each had been gifted with an intimate relationship with the Lord. In the face of so much difference, conversations about Carmel and the experience of weekly gatherings for an hour of silent, contemplative prayer provided them with a common meeting ground. Each one, in her individual response to Christ’s call to union in this form of consecrated life, was preparing for a life commitment to solitude, silence, and prayer in an enclosed, monastic setting.
Scholarship and Outreach
Endowed by God with particular gifts of mind and heart, the two had been encouraged by those directing them during the long years of waiting on the Lord, to complete doctoral training and to begin a brief period of professional service. Diane undertook a degree in gerontological psychology; Linda-Susan completed her studies in the field of literature and began teaching at the University of Notre Dame where Diane was completing her graduate study.
Each woman developed a ministry of outreach to a particular community of God’s people in connection with her work. Diane served the elderly, the dying, and the bereaved. Linda-Susan concentrated on linking an understanding of the paschal mystery to significant texts of overwhelming human suffering about slavery, the Holocaust, and apartheid.
A Bend in the Road
In July 1980, during a retreat at Indianapolis Carmel, the two received the formal, but unexpected, advice of the Carmel’s novice mistress, that they consider experimenting with a new way of living contemplative life outside the cloister walls. While confirming their contemplative calls, the novice mistress pointed to multiple “coincidences” in which she read the workings of the Holy Spirit: the extraordinary vitality of their friendship and their intertwined calls to lives of disciplined prayer and to a ministry of contemplative presence.
Independent of her advice, but corroborating that recommendation, the prioress and another member of the community with extensive experience in formation suggested that Diane and Linda-Susan consider exploring new faces of the contemplative call, particularly ones that would enable them to blend the contemplative and active dimensions with some form of active apostolate.
Downcast, like the two disciples on the Emmaus journey in Luke’s Gospel, the two were broken-hearted and confused. Why did God seem to be abandoning the dream of their childhood just when it appeared to be within reach? After an initial period of grieving, however, they opened themselves to the possibility that they, like Francis, had heard God’s voice but misinterpreted the invitation. With the prayerful encouragement of a wide network of friends, Diane and Linda-Susan carefully allowed a shape for this new community to be born out of the crucifixion of old dreams and hopes. They named this new manifestation of the contemplative call The Emmaus Community to remind themselves forever of the centrality of journey and crucified hope in the Emmaus account which came to be their own autobiographical story of radical obedience to the God of surprises.
Formation of the Community
The Emmaus Community began its life in the summer of 1980 in an inner-city neighborhood of South Bend, Indiana; priest-students in the Religious Leaders Program at Notre Dame served as celebrants for monthly “Eucharist potlucks” to which Diane and Linda-Susan invited students, faculty, and friends.
From its birth, the community focus was its prayer life with particular attention to communal celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours and to individual contemplative prayer. The community also sought to affirm the contemplative dimension of each Christian vocation by opening its home for experiences of shared prayer and conversation about the journey to God. From its inception, hospitality was also a significant facet of the Emmaus charism.
A Benedictine and Carmelite Marriage
The Emmaus Community rested on the marriage of two powerful spiritual traditions: the Benedictine and the Carmelite. The sung celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, the respect for scholarship, the focus on hospitality, and the commitment to stewardship of the earth and to ongoing conversion were the bequests of St. Benedict to Emmaus. The pair simultaneously continued to value individual contemplative prayer in the spirit of St. Teresa by attending to the need to safeguard solitude, silence, and the discipline of prayer as essential parts of the Emmaus journey.
Each woman committed herself to an integrated life of prayer, service, and contemplative presence; prayer was a visible cornerstone of life at Emmaus, the source of energy on which a service of contemplative presence depended.
Traveling the Road
In 1981, Diane and Linda-Susan spent an 18-month internship period in rural, Harrison County, Iowa, investigating, among other things, the feasibility of farming as a constituent part of the new monastic community. During that period Linda-Susan journeyed to South Africa on a fellowship to witness firsthand the human cost of apartheid, and Diane served as Director of Developing Ministries for five rural parishes. These experiences also confirmed the importance of some ongoing apostolic involvement as a component of the emerging Emmaus charism.
In 1982 Linda-Susan accepted a teaching position at Michigan State University in order to provide the new community with a solid financial base and to affirm, within the Emmaus charism, the ancient monastic importance of study and scholarship. Convinced of the necessity of farming as a way of rooting the community in the natural cycles of the agricultural year, the two assumed a thirty-year land contract for a 40-acre working farm in Montcalm County, Michigan, in December of that year. The down payment was put together with their own very small savings and with loans and grants from family, friends, and benefactors.
The Diocese Blesses
In 1983, impelled by the desire to commit themselves formally to God and to a form of contemplative life within the Church, the two sought the advice of Fr. James Cusack, then Vicar for Religious of the Diocese of Grand Rapids. With his encouragement, they incorporated themselves in civil law as Emmaus Monastery, Inc. and prepared to make private vows. That year Emmaus Monastery joined Retreats International in an effort to focus on its commitment to fostering the life of prayer for others as a constituent component of its ministry of hospitality.
Our Commitment to Contemplation-in-Action
In an April 29, 1984, liturgy celebrated by one of the priest-alumni from the Emmaus Community beginnings in South Bend, and in the presence of sixty friends, neighbors, family members, and area clergy, including a representative from the Indianapolis Carmel, Sr. Diane and Sr. Linda-Susan vowed themselves to the evangelical counsels and to the Emmaus charism of contemplation-in-action for a period of three years.
For much of that time, Sr. Diane served the elderly and the alienated as pastoral associate for St. Margaret Mary Church in Edmore, and St. Bernadette of Lourdes Church in Stanton. During this time the sisters also became active members of the Association of Contemplative Sisters. One of the Association members, the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, generously provided Sr. Diane and Sr. Linda-Susan with copies of their multivolume sung Liturgy of the Hours which is the Office, updated and revised, still used at Emmaus for communal prayer.
On August 2, 1987, at St. Michael’s Church, Remus, with the permission of the Ordinary of the Diocese, Bishop Joseph Breitenbeck, the sisters vowed themselves for life to contemplative prayer and to ministerial service to the people of God, according to the Rule of St. Benedict and the Emmaus Constitution.
Joining in the joyous occasion were 350 friends, including clergy from the Dioceses of Grand Rapids and Saginaw, and Sr. Anna Mary Larkin, OCD, the representative from Indianapolis Carmel who had participated in the first vow celebration. Fr. Daniel, the monastery chaplain, and Fr. George Fekete (Dean of the Big Rapids Deanery) concelebrated the liturgy which included representatives from every chapter of Emmaus’ history: South Bend; Harrison County, Iowa; the university community; and friends and neighbors of The Emmaus Community. Fr. Daniel witnessed the verbal profession and signing of the sisters’ private vows which were subsequently filed at the Chancery. Sr. Diane, pioneer prioress of the Emmaus Community, received a special blessing from Fr. Fekete during the concluding blessings of the profession liturgy.
The Emmaus Charism Unfolds
In 1988, thanks to the gift of very generous benefactors, Emmaus Monastery negotiated a land contract for the purchase of an additional 40-acre parcel of land adjacent to the original property. The community hoped to build small hermitages for an ever-increasing number of retreatants and to construct several monastic buildings and a chapel inside the forest of 60-foot pines.
At the end of that year Indianapolis Carmel agreed to serve as an amman or mentor community for Emmaus Monastery even though there could be no formal canonical links between the two communities. In planned gatherings at the Carmel twice a year, the sisters from Emmaus met with the prioress and current and former formation personnel in discernment discussions regarding the unfolding of the Emmaus charism.
Expanding the Community Charism
In the fall of 1989, at the request of a number of people, the sisters began an Associates Program for other contemplatives-in-action struggling to balance being and doing in their committed lives. The Associates began to visit the monastery once a quarter for a community day of contemplative prayer, lectio sharing, and re-creation. Associates were encouraged to bind themselves for a period of one year to commitments to their home worship communities, daily spiritual reading, fidelity to contemplative prayer, ministry of presence in their homes and workplaces, and an annual directed retreat.
With the sisters as members of the core community of an expanding family, the Associates could carry the Good News of the Lord’s presence “in the breaking of the bread” and in the interpretation of the Scriptures with them into a world hungry because its “eyes [were] prevented from recognizing Him” (Lk. 24:13-35).
Part of the wealth of the Associate community has been its ecumenical richness. While the sisters were Roman Catholic, the Assoociates represent several Christian faith communities.
Centering Our Contemplative Call
The Emmaus Community began its second decade as a community in 1990 committed even more firmly to its own manifestation of the contemplative call. Sr. Diane’s ministry of presence involved her leadership of the Montcalm Area Hospice, membership on two boards serving the county and regional needs of the elderly, and her service as spiritual director and bereavement counselor. What she shared with the dying and the grieving, however, came directly from her prayer life as a monastic, contemplative woman. Sr. Linda-Susan’s ministry of presence, the fruit of her prayer, included her service as a teacher of literature, an essayist, and a lecturer whose life professed the power of Jesus to resurrect hope even in the face of unspeakable human suffering.
Both sisters continue to view themselves, first and foremost, as monastic women committed to lives of prayer, study, listening, and to the cyclical simplicity of a rural discipline that enables them to “devote themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2: 42).
One of the major changes at Emmaus in that second decade was a fresh vision of community. Keeping the language of the “vowed monastics” and the “associates” to describe the two parts of the Emmaus Community, the constitution, revised under Bishop Robert Rose, named the associates as full members of the community, participating in all major discernment decisions. That revised constitution also led to the canonical erection of Emmaus Monastery on Pentecost (May 31), 1998 in the Roman Catholic Church..
Another Bend in the Road
In April, 2013, after a long period of individual and communal discernment, Sr. Diane, Sr. Linda-Susan, and the Emmaus Community were received into the Episcopal Church. A year later, Sr. Diane began formal preparation for ordination to the priesthood. The call to priestly ministry had developed through her many years of pastoral service in the church and was often confirmed by those with whom she worked and ministered. The parish community of St. John the Evangelist in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan welcomed the sisters with open arms. Sr. Diane and Sr. Linda-Susan offered retreats and educational forums at St. John's. The two communities (St. John's and Emmaus), as part of their association with one another, have celebrated monthly potlucks and Eucharist at Emmaus since 2013.
Sr. Diane was ordained to the transitional diaconate in October 2016, and was ordained priest on May 27, 2017 at the monastery. It was a glorious day!
The Emmaus Community acknowledges the prayerful help and encouragement of many people in its three-decade journey to God. We are indebted to God for continuing faithfulness and for calling us, and to many, many others. Among them, the Carmelite Monastery of Indianapolis/Oldenburg, the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, and the Association of Contemplative Sisters. The Benedictine and Carmelite constitutions served as models in this articulation of the Emmaus charism and tradition.