The quality of greatness

Mar 11, 2019

March 15, 1862 is the anniversary of the death of Mother Benedicta Riepp, who brought Benedictine life for women to North America from Eichstätt and saw the establishment of six monastic communities, including the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, before her death at the age of 37. Joan Chittister wrote the following remarks on Benedicta Riepp in 2002, in celebration of 150 years of Benedictine life in the United States.

Greatness is that quality that is impossible to define with scientific precision but almost equally impossible to mistake once you see it. … It oozes out of great-souled people in rare but commonplace fashion and in that way draws everything in its orbit into the stuff of greatness, too.

Benedicta Riepp was one of the little great ones. Not much is known about her biographically, which in historical terms implies that there was apparently not much to know. She was ordinariness personified. By the time she entered the Abbey of St. Walburg in Bavaria in 1845, emigrants to the New World were streaming out of a Europe exhausted by warfare and famine. The collapse of the revolutionary movement in Germany was draining it of both university students and farmers. In the United States, by the time Benedicta Riepp arrived in 1852, the slavery question was simmering, steam-powered boats and railroad engines were beginning to connect both the country and the continents, the Native American uprisings had begun, and the first women’s rights convention had been called. Everything was new; everything was uncharted. Everyone had a foot in two worlds: one foot in imperial Europe with its leftover castles and abbatial monasteries and the other in the land of political experimentations, social ferment and religious fear. It is out of that world with all its turmoil, all its possibility, that Benedicta Riepp speaks to this one.

This woman who came from a culture steeped in stability, regularity and routine, took on the vagaries of the unknown, even when difficult, even when cruel. It was today she was about, not the preservation of glories gone by. She came to the United States to form a dependent house and found herself not only prematurely separated from the founding motherhouse but in tension with the founding abbot. And she was totally without resources. She struggled with the weather, the poverty, and the system. She suffered emotionally, got sick physically, and became an exile from both her European monastery and her American community. She was hounded on all sides. Her superiors ostracized her, the bishops dealt only with the abbot, and new Roman documents were used against her to suppress the traditions of independence that were endemic to an ancient monasticism itself. But she clung to her truth and proclaimed it to all.

She had a vision of building a better world. She was a young woman with a very clear dream, but she was most concerned about people. She came to do one thing and saw instantly that she would have to do another.

She was a loving and compassionate person … wise, pious, energetic, pleasant, and helpful. Finally, she was strong and courageous. She wore herself out preserving the integrity of the communities of Benedictine women to come after her. She handed on to us the birthright of our autonomy so that whatever would be demanded of us, we would be free to do it. She gave her entire life to things greater than herself. And she paid the price the great so often pay: isolation, exile, rejection, revilement, and misunderstanding.

What does Benedicta Riepp have to say to us and our times? Do what must be done to make the future safe … and if necessary, die doing it.

But is such a thing possible for such as us, smaller than she, weaker than she, more fearful than she? Thomas Wentworth Higginson assures us: “The great,” he teaches, “are rarely isolated mountain peaks; they are the summits of ranges.” Greatness creates greatness. The greatness of Benedicta Riepp is both our legacy and our debt, our message and our call.

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