ENGLISH PROFESSOR TO RECEIVE HONORARY DEGREE
On Sunday, May 22, Associate Professor of English Linda-Susan Beard will be awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree by King's College of Wilkes Barre, Pa. The award recognizes Beard, who is also a member and co-founder of a monastic community, for her "integration of the contemplative and the intellectual" and her scholarship and lectures on that integration.
Beard has been on the Bryn Mawr faculty since 1993. She teaches courses in African-American, African and postcolonial literatures. When the College is not in session, Beard lives in Vestaburg, Mich., at the Emmaus Monastery and Retreat Center, which she founded with Diane L. Stier in 1984.
Emmaus is a unique community that embraces vowed nuns like Beard as well as lay and clerical associates. Although it is a canonically established Roman Catholic monastery, it is ecumenical: its lay associates belong to various Christian-faith traditions. "The defining characteristic of the community is to bring a contemplative ministry of presence to the least likely places," Beard says.
Both vowed members and associates are committed to a life of "contemplation in action." Members practice spirituality through prayer, meditation, scholarship and service. The community also promotes education on religious and social issues and offers retreats, workshops and seminars on topics such as death and dying, and training in methods of contemplative practice that spring from a variety of religious and philosophical traditions, Eastern as well as Western.
Beard says that the blend of active and contemplative that characterizes her life is not at all what she envisioned when she decided to "say yes to a religious vocation." Traditional Roman Catholic religious orders, she explains, fall into the broad categories of contemplative and active orders. Contemplative orders are "devoted to prayer and isolation from the world, for which members pray and about which, like Thomas Merton, they write." Active communities' members concentrate on prayer and apostolic service. Beard felt a strong contemplative vocation, and that, she says, meant being cloistered.
"There are contemplative orders for men that allow for some time away from the monastery for activities like teaching and lecturing," she says, "but the contemplative orders for women all require strict enclosure. That was the life I was preparing to enter. I had completed my Ph.D. and was teaching at Notre Dame. That's where I met Diane, who was working on a Ph.D. in psychology. We both traveled regularly to a Carmelite monastery in Indianapolis, and we both intended to become cloistered Carmelite nuns."
But the novice mistress at the Indianapolis monastery had other ideas. "She had a strong conviction that Diane and I were called to found a different kind of contemplative order," Beard says. "She thought that the 21st century would need a new kind of contemplative woman, and that the existing system couldn't accommodate the level of engagement with the world that we were simultaneously called to. Sister Joanne was affirming our twinned vocations and asking us to honor both.
"We were devastated," Beard says. "We knew nothing about writing a constitution or buying property or any of the practical skills and legal issues involved in creating a new community. We named the community Emmaus in reference to the story at the end of Luke's Gospel, in which two followers of Jesus, soon after the crucifixion, walk home to a place called Emmaus, heartbroken because everything they knew and believed in had fallen apart. They encounter the risen Christ, the God of surprises, without recognizing him at first."
Twenty-one years later, the Emmaus community is firmly established on a working 80-acre farm. It was formally erected as a canonical Roman Catholic monastery in 1997 after passing through a complex diocesan process that took 17 years to negotiate. Beard is passionately devoted both to contemplative practice and to teaching and scholarship.
"Negotiating both the worlds of the intellectual and the contemplative has been difficult," Beard acknowledges. But she has made a life's work of "bringing together the best of rational and contemplative ways of knowing," and sees her contemplative practice as an integral element of her teaching and scholarship.
"The heart of contemplation is listening," she says. "I ask my students to approach texts contemplatively — to achieve the mental stillness necessary to let a text tell them how it might be approached, rather than putting it through a conveyor belt of critical approaches."
Although she does not serve in any formal capacity as a religious adviser at Bryn Mawr, Beard says that she has had many conversations with students about spirituality. "Because I'm wearing a habit, I'm 'out' as a religious person, and students who are interested in spirituality often seek me out. Many students at an institution as rigorously and self-consciously intellectual as Bryn Mawr feel the Enlightenment-era split between intellect and spirituality very acutely," she says. "I am happy to show them that it's possible to be both spiritual and intellectual, and that the divorce is a rather arbitrary one."
to Bryn Mawr Now 5/12/2005