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‘Welcoming people of all beliefs’: St. Gertrude’s in Idaho is a lesson in faith, love

·3 min read

Today, I write in praise of a religious institution.

St. Gertrude’s Monastery, in Cottonwood, Idaho, is a community of nuns following the ancient path of St. Benedict, who founded the order in 529 A.D. St. Gertrude’s was founded in 1882 by intrepid nuns from Switzerland, and the current motherhouse was founded in 1909.

The original building, boasting two beautiful red bell towers, is constructed of gigantic stones of blue porphyry, quarried from the hill above it. The view from most places on the current property is a staggering, soul-enriching sweep of the Camas Prairie.

There are so many wonderful things about this place. (I am in the middle of a 30-day retreat here.) It is beautiful, with forest walks, inviting rooms and a gorgeous chapel. The community offers all kinds of terrific workshop and retreat opportunities. (Go to the website — you will want to come!) The food is good. The library offers a wide variety of books. I think that the housekeeping staff really believes cleanliness is next to godliness, for the place shines.

Most important are the values guiding St. Gertrude’s. At heart, the community is based on an intense life of prayer, both individual and communal (three services a day, one the Catholic Mass and two involving chanting the Psalms antiphonally). From that foundation springs so much. Stereotypically, the notion of a bunch of people living a life of prayer sounds pretty “holier than thou,” dull and earnest. It seems to be an inwardly focused life.

But no! The sisters have gone forth into the world as health care professionals, educators, administrators, justice makers, alternative healers and artisans, to name but a few. The monastery values the arts, hosting concerts, providing art experiences, understanding that art and spirituality are not separate.

The 1,400 acres that it “owns” (preferring the word “stewards”) is tended with great care, one of the sisters being a master forester. Another is a master herbalist, creating soap, teas, tinctures and salve — takes care of those winter-cracked fingers! They are committed to peacemaking and to justice in the world.

And — best of all, to me — they welcome everyone. In 1990, someone suggested to me that I stay overnight at St. Gertrude’s, on my way home from preaching in Moscow. I said, “There is no way the Catholics will want a Unitarian Universalist minister cluttering up their space.”

It is laughable, how wrong I was.

Back in the 6th century, Benedict wrote, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” That means unconditional welcome. Period.

While here this time, I have seen a Foursquare Church group doing a retreat. There has been a brief silent retreat for people of any or no religion. A couple of nights ago, some pretty enthusiastic people were gathering, singing and dancing (at least it sounded like it) — and praying with volume and enthusiasm. I know a pagan-oriented group from Boise that has made retreats here.

On the pen provided in our rooms in the Spirit Center, it reads, “Welcoming people of all beliefs.”

What a contribution to our poor old world. What if St. Gertrude’s embracing ways could take root in in more hearts and places? What if those of us who are treated with such care and love and lack of judgment, took some of that away with us? I don’t know how well I will do when I go home — it seems a radical way of being, putting aside at least some of my biases — but I think I’ll try.

I so often end with “May it be so.” Today, let me say it again, from my grateful heart: May. It. Be. So.

The Rev. Elizabeth Greene is minister emerita of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Contact her at The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.

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