Sister Evangela Bossert
Sister Evangela recently asked Father Damian Higgins, who leads iconography retreats at Spirit Center, to review her drawing for an icon of the young St. Benedict. “He called me an iconographer,” she smiles. This affirmation of her craft as an iconographer has been emerging since 1998 and more broadly since childhood, when she became interested in art. “With an icon, you’re painting for the spiritual experience and not to make a piece of art,” she explains.
Sister Evangela’s emphasis on the spiritual experience and contemplative prayer has been expressed as well through her work as a teacher and writer. “Early Christianity rooted the soul in the heart,” she has written. “The heart is the deep center of the self where God abides. God initiates awareness of this self in us and makes possible the conscious entry into God’s presence.”
She is quick to draw connections to her own Benedictine tradition. Although St. Benedict doesn’t speak directly or specifically about contemplative awareness, there are elements in his Rule that show an understanding of it, especially in his many “heart” references, such as: “Attend with the ear of your heart;” “Do not harden your hearts;” “Speak the truth from your heart;” “Fling the evil one from the sight of your heart;” and “Run with expanded hearts in the inexpressible delight of love.”
This desire to more clearly align the spiritual with the heart led her to translate from Latin some of St. Gertrude’s writings from the book, The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness — Gertrude’s heartfelt revelations of God’s love. “I had never heard of Gertrude before coming here. I went to the library and found a few books but they seemed so academic.”
After spending the first part of her career teaching middle and high school English and History, she returned to Idaho State University for a master’s degree in English and then a Ph.D. in English — interested in transformational writing, her dissertation was “Primitive Consciousness in the Poetry of Gary Snyder.” She became director of the monastery’s InnSpire sabbatical and spirituality program. She also taught Centering Prayer and began working with the monastery’s growing number of oblates, or lay members. “Oblates kept asking me, ‘Who is Gertrude?’”
Since she had studied Latin throughout her education, Sister Evangela felt led to translate the medieval mystic’s writings in a way in which contemporary seekers could relate. “I selected passages that reflected growth and conversion of spirituality,” Sister Evangela explains. She also wrote commentary, reflections, poems, and prayers. The result is Gertrude of Helfta: Companion for the Millennium and it is dedicated to the oblates of the monastery.
“It took me some time to understand the connection between this community and Gertrude,” says Sister Evangela. “She was Benedictine in the full sense of the word. She loved to read and study. She was also among the earliest to have a devotion to the sacred heart. This was about learning to think of Jesus not so much in terms of godliness but more as human and the capacity we have for friendship with Christ. In her prayer, Gertrude is relaxed in the presence of Christ. It’s conversation. This is also very important to me: she provided a model for friendship with Christ.”
Sister Evangela became interested in becoming a Benedictine during a college course in church history at Kansas City University. She felt torn as to whether she should study English or History and took a break to decide, also taking advantage of an opportunity to train as an x-ray technologist and earn money to pay for her education. In addition, she took night classes in art. She passed the exam to be an x-ray technologist and then began night school at the university to finish her degree — in English.
While training to be an English teacher, she worked as an x-ray instructor. “I discovered I love to teach,” she says. During a retreat, she confided to her retreat director, a Jesuit from Seattle University, that she wanted to become a Benedictine but did not want to stay in the Midwest, where all the Benedictine communities were quite large. He suggested St. Gertrude’s. She came out on a train by herself and in 1963, at the age of 33, made her First Profession. “I am excited at our openness to all kinds of possibilities for ministry,” she says. “We have stayed with the original nursing and teaching wherever that’s possible but we are open to the possibilities.”
Gertrude of Helfta: Companion for the Millenium can be found in the Gift Shop at the Welcome Center and online.
The spiritual journey is a life-long adventure that takes us along many paths of prayer and of understanding who God is in our lives. The word CONTEMPLATIVE is used to explain certain aspects of the journey, and to be truthful, there are many understandings and definitions of this word.
As I study the history of my own Benedictine tradition in prayer I am surprised to learn that very early monastic writers did not spend much time trying to put their contemplative experiences into words. They didn’t talk much about how to pray. For them, reading the Scriptures was ordinarily the prelude to prayer because it nourished an awareness of God’s presence and fostered relationship with God. To memorize Scripture and carry it in the heart throughout the day was “praying constantly.”
St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century appears to be one of the first Christians to use the word CONTEMPLATION. For Gregory contemplation meant “a loving knowledge of God that one comes to in reading of the Scriptures.” Early Christianity rooted the human soul in the heart. Although St. Benedict doesn’t speak directly or specifically about contemplative awareness, there are elements in his Rule that show an understanding of it, especially in his many “heart” references, such as: “Attend with the ear of your heart;” “Do not harden your hearts;” “Speak the truth from your heart;” “Fling the evil one from the sight of your heart;” and “Run with expanded hearts in the inexpressible delight of love.”
The human heart is the deep center of the self where God abides. God initiates awareness of this self in us and makes possible the conscious entry into God’s presence. It leads to ever deepening reverence for the universe and all that dwell within. Contemplative awareness can never be an object of ambition. It cannot be a goal to achieve or a task to perform. It is not a project to do or something to be achieved by practical intellect or reason. Coming into contemplative awareness involves a process, a spiritual journey, and nurtures the flowering of the gifts of faith, hope and love.
Contemplative awareness is first of all a gift – the gift of being able to sit still and be quiet before “Reality.” We cannot give this gift to ourselves; we can, however, open ourselves to the gift of God when we are able to love someone more than ourselves. How can we do this? One beginning point may be a deliberate simplification of ourselves by moving our seeing, feeling, wanting self toward the focus of a deeper self in touch with God.
The driving power in the deeper self is open to the Spirit and leads away from egocenteredness. As we identify and follow the deeper attractions and desires of the Spirit in our lives, we are able to gather the “whole” of ourselves into a kind of oneness. This unity opens up to the action of the Spirit of God.
Sometimes it is a very painful life crisis which demands that we move to a different level of awareness. Or, we may come into contact with some powerful force of love, beauty or goodness that causes us to claim the primary values in our life.
As we reach a new awareness we lose our preoccupation with surface realities like appearances and details and begin to understand that all of creation is endowed with a deeper, hidden reality. We stop viewing everything in terms of how useful or beneficial it may be for ourselves.
Entering into contemplative awareness requires a certain detachment from accidentals in order to be free to reverence ourselves and others. Gradually we become more inclusive and able to reverence the whole universe – to recognize ourselves as part of a larger picture. Contemplative awareness enables us to look at a person, an event or situation as one that bears the hidden Word of God.
Sister Evangela Bossert is the author of Gertrude of Helfta: Companion for the Millennium. She holds a doctorate in English and has taught 6th grade, Junior High, High School, and at Idaho State in Pocatello. She now spends much of her time with iconography. “You’re painting for the spiritual experience not to make a representational piece of art,” she says.