Therese Schroeder-Sheker: Oblate
As a concert and recording artist, and as the founder of music-thanatology, I have been called to work in the world. Yet with the same power, monasticism has always been a part of my life, and perhaps the better part. As a child, I grew up near the Carmelite monastery in Des Plaines, Illinois, and the weekly images of women praying and singing around the altar, women celebrating the Eucharist through the years and seasons – all these images permeated and formed my internal sense of beauty, meaning, and substance. Later, as an adult and a medievalist, the works of the great Cistericans fleshed out and re-inspired my spirituality, research, publications and concert themes. The Cistercian way of being became embodied too, for I had many years of blessings, being able to make retreats during Holy Week and for other solemnities with the Cistercians in Snowmass, Colorado. It wasn’t that the Carmelite foundation died in me – St. Therese of Lisieux was always there and vibrant; it’s that the Carmelite and the Cisterican gifts both taught different charisms and spoke equally powerfully, as if in counterpoint. Eventually, something one can only call “destiny” happened with the Benedictines.
Our dear friend Cherri Newton, who graduated from the School of Music-Thanatology and was certified in 1994, is the first in our ranks to make her transitus. She died young, in October of 1997. Before she died, however, she had a burning desire still to enroll in an icon painting seminar. She wanted to inscribe herself, she told me, with the Archangel Michael and then return to her Maker. Her cancer had spread to multiple areas and she lived in great pain, but she asked me to take her to an icon writing course the summer before she died. Of course, I said yes, yes, anything; where is it? “Some place in Oregon called Mt. Angel,” she said, “have you ever heard of it?” No, no, but it doesn’t matter, we’ll go. Her physician took me aside though and said that this could not happen; the tumors has spread to at least sixteen different cites, her pelvic structure had already begun to disintegrate, the tumors were actually keeping her alive, and she couldn’t be moved. Sadly, I had to tell Cherri that we couldn’t go. She accepted this loss quietly, but it left a kind of positive hole in her, a holy longing. She died in the fall, when I was in Rome for the great solemnities, for St. Therese was declared a doctor of the Church and I was there to experience it, along with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world.
A very few weeks after Cherri’s transitus, I was back in Montana and received a phone call from out of the blue, but it was a routine call, a request for a concert at a Benedictine monastery. I happily took all the information and listened to what the sponsor was hoping to achieve with the event. “And where are you located please? Where are you calling from?” I asked the organizer. “Oh, you’ve probably never heard of us. Mt Angel, Oregon.” The very place Cherri had wanted so badly to visit before dying. There was no question – I made time to fit that concert into my touring schedule, and looked forward to it with a great sense of mystery and expectancy.
The rest is history. Mt Angel is home to several monastic communities, male and female, Benedictine and Carmelite, and made such a deep impression on me. The icons and the icon painter Cherri had hoped to study with was there too, Brother Claude. Though I have had the privilege of traveling all over the world and of visiting many beautiful monasteries in the United States and Europe, including Cluny, that home of monastic medicine, I was quite shaken, and remember recognizing this inner experience as an anchoring: “I hope when my time comes, I can be buried in this tender place.” Late in the evening of the day I delivered the concert, one of the monks came bounding up with tremendous enthusiasm and said: “You are so clearly in the Benedictine spirit – perhaps you should think about formalizing a relationship with us.” (That was Father Odo – clearly, he is a vocation director and spies even the most remote of possibilities). This was very touching, and one walks away from that kind of remark as if someone plants a seed in you. Your ground may be a little hard and even rocky, but the sun warms the earth and with the help of a little rain, you bear fruit. Soon, with the passing of time and several visits later, I could feel that seed growing. Brother Sean took me to meet Father Bernard, with whom I eventually made my oblation, and I had also been greatly helped by Father Jeremy too. Soon, I became friends with the Sisters nearby, and last year, worked in their infirmary daily through the whole summer.
But it is true, people ask: Why? Why now? What does it all mean? To become an oblate means that I still live and work in the world, but try to the best of my ability to live the Benedictine charism in the state of life in which I find myself. This means that I could be married or single and be an oblate – it is a lay conversion and a lay vocation. I do not live in enclosure nor take minor or perpetual vows. There is tremendous freedom and one takes this step at the level at which one is able to respond. The novitiate year and the eventual profession as an oblate remain great gifts, and signal a deepened commitment to daily prayer, lectio divina, the reception of the holy Eucharist, and especially, a life with the psalms. Equally important, the Benedictine Holy Rule teaches a life of balance. The exemplars sought to balance out physical, manual labor and prayer, intellectual life and artistic life, work and rest. This integrated balance of activity and contemplation was very much the life I had lived as an adult in Denver, and the one I began in Montana, but that contemplative dimension was sorely tested with the 65 and 70 hour weeks. Towards the end, 80-hour weeks became the norm as the program grew and with it, the weighty responsibilities of fund raising something close to a million dollars a year. Regardless of the dedication, regardless of how poignant and meaningful the work is, we become out of balance and even ill when we don’t (or think we can’t) reserve time for the inner life, and create or shape corporate ethics and job descriptions that allow us to be faithful to the contemplative dimension of our vocations as music-thanatologists. Since relocating national headquarters to Mt. Angel in 2002, I have reformed my life with a much deeper respect for the spiritual wisdom that advises us to balance the head, heart and hands, the manual labor and the interior work.
So I am a Benedictine oblate though young in that dream. Hopefully, a little better person and executive director because I have formally organized the work day in such a way that it acknowledges body, soul and spirit; head, heart and hands; thinking, feeling and willing. Praying in the early morning is as important as hauling the trash with joy and tending the clinic garden with hoe and spade, and these are as important as writing a grant proposal or playing in the monastic infirmary for one of the elderly Benedictine sisters at Queen of the Angels. And if a day goes by where manual labor or prayer or intellectual work does not happen, where some aspect of balance and wholeness has been squeezed out, where one dimension takes over at the cost of the others, a certain falseness invades, a certain harshness colors the air. That is the moment when I hear the Holy Rule reminding me to stop and become more truly real.
For a comprehensive bibliography, please see Comprehensive Bibliography & Discography.