The Deepest Wells of Vocation

Christian Georg Schütz, Höfische Gesellschaft am Brunnen. Public domain.
Christian Georg Schütz, Höfische Gesellschaft am Brunnen (trimmed). Public domain.

Does your campus have a deep well?

No, I’m not talking about water or oil.

I mean the metaphorical deep wells of place and stories and values. When we think about vocation, these are among the most valuable resources we can bring to bear in our conversation with students.

Who dreamed your campus into being? Who were the founders? What values guided them to risk leaving one life behind and come build a new one on the very ground where you now walk?

I came to the campus where I have walked this fall as a total stranger. After spending

Statue of St. Benedict at The Gathering Place, Sacred Heart Chapel, College of Saint Benedict
Statue of St. Benedict on the campus of St. John’s University

most of my life as professor, and then president, of Goshen College, in Indiana, here I am on “the edge of the prairie,” to use Garrison Keillor’s phrase, “living in Lake Wobegon.” Actually, I’m a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research.

I came as a stranger. I’ll walk away as a friend deeply nourished by the many visible and invisible signs that St. Benedict’s way of being in the world, including his famous “rule of life,” has permeated this place for the “long haul.”

I am not here to teach, but rather to do research on vocation in the third act of life — a topic that makes an appearance in the most recent book from the NetVUE Scholarly Resources Project. I walk alongside undergraduates and theology graduate students. I imagine what they are learning about vocation in this very unusual place.

Reminders of Benedictine values, both explicit and implicit, are common on both campuses.

St. John’s University (men), where the Collegeville Institute is located, and the College of St. Benedict (women) exist as separate campuses five miles apart from each other, yet combined in curriculum. “Link” buses carry students and faculty from one campus to another all through the day.

I suspect that most of the more than 3500 students enrolled in the two campuses spend only a little time in the deep contemplation advocated by St. Benedict. I only see a handful of them praying with the monks, for example, during mid-day prayers.

Wait. Monks?

Yes. And Sisters. Both campuses have monasteries right on campus.

Sister Lisa Rose, Vocation Director at Saint Benedict’s Monastery

As a researcher, I want to know what impact 21st century monasteries have on students. In my time remaining, I’ll be talking with monks, sisters, administrators, and students themselves about this question. I started with Sister Lisa Rose, Vocation Director, Saint Benedict’s Monastery.

The word “vocation” in her title is not the more generic title college campuses use but the older, original idea of having a religious vocation that takes one into the monastery.

Sister Lisa Rose meets with young women who are discerning a call. She lives with the postulant and novice women who are being “formed” in the life of community. Taking vows is a long and serious process, and few there be that find this life today.

The average age of the sisters is above 70. The average age of the brothers might be a little lower, but not by much.

When asked about the impact of the monastery on the life of the average student, Sister Lisa Rose said it’s very hard to calculate. However, there are some very simple, voluntary, programs that have evolved to bring students into the spaces of work and worship, prayer and community, quiet and beauty, available to them on their campuses.

One such program is Benedictine friends. Over 100 first-year undergraduates signed up to be part of this program that links Sisters with students. These friendships sometimes continue after the college years, even until the death of the sister. When asked what students appreciate most, Sister Lisa Rose said, “I think they know that we are praying for them. The activities are fun too, of course, but they are very busy. It’s really our steadfast prayer they count on.”

Fr. Killian McDonnell, founder of the Collegeville Institute, with the author

Interestingly, when I asked Father Killian McDonnell, the 95-year-old founder of the Benedictine Institute I am part of now, he said something very similar about the male students at Saint John’s University.

“They don’t realize it consciously while they are here,” he said. “But years later they look back. They come back. They recognize that we were there every day, three times a day, praying. It touches them.”

Okay, so you probably don’t have a monastery on your campus. But surely you have:

  • Beautiful, quiet, places near campus students could discover
  • Older people (secular or ecumenical versions of Sisters and Brothers) who would love to make some young friends, becoming present in their lives at critical times of decision-making, loss, and celebration.
  • A statement of core values and mission. Benedictine campuses post their values everywhere and often refer to them in both academic and student life.  (Gonzaga University, a Jesuit institution, includes Ten Hallmarks of Benedictine Education on its website to help students understand the different, complementary, Catholic traditions.)

If your own institutional “deep wells” were or are religious ones, have you fully explored the possibilities in classes on vocation and/or the co-curriculum of those values? If your campus is multicultural, do you have an interfaith center that explores similarities and differences across traditions?

Tell us your “deep well” stories! If you have questions, I’ll be happy to try to answer them.

Shirley Showalter is the former president of Goshen College. You can find her essay,  “Called to Tell Our Stories: The Narrative Structure of Vocation” in Vocation Across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017). For more of Shirley’s musings, please visit her website at For more posts by Shirley, click here. For a link to the NetVUE podcast episode featuring Shirley Showalter, click here.

One thought on “The Deepest Wells of Vocation

  1. Here is more background on the document Ten Hallmarks of a Benedictine Education link in the post above. Gonzaga University shares this document on the website as part of a conversation among various Catholic colleges and universities, with differing emphases but one overall faith tradition. The Gonzaga website explains not only its own Jesuit tradition but also the Benedictine and Franciscan traditions:

    One of the persons most influential in creating and editing the Ten Hallmarks of Benedictine Education document was Br. Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, long-time and beloved president of St. John’s University. Here is an address to the Association of Benedictine Colleges and universities which explains how the document was formed and why:

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