Sister Evangela recently asked Father Damian Higgins, who leads iconography retreats at Spirit Center, to review her drawing for an icon of the young St. Benedict. “He called me an iconographer,” she smiles. This affirmation of her craft as an iconographer has been emerging since 1998 and more broadly since childhood, when she became interested in art. “With an icon, you’re painting for the spiritual experience and not to make a piece of art,” she explains.
Sister Evangela’s emphasis on the spiritual experience and contemplative prayer has been expressed as well through her work as a teacher and writer. “Early Christianity rooted the soul in the heart,” she has written. “The heart is the deep center of the self where God abides. God initiates awareness of this self in us and makes possible the conscious entry into God’s presence.”
She is quick to draw connections to her own Benedictine tradition. Although St. Benedict doesn’t speak directly or specifically about contemplative awareness, there are elements in his Rule that show an understanding of it, especially in his many “heart” references, such as: “Attend with the ear of your heart;” “Do not harden your hearts;” “Speak the truth from your heart;” “Fling the evil one from the sight of your heart;” and “Run with expanded hearts in the inexpressible delight of love.”
This desire to more clearly align the spiritual with the heart led her to translate from Latin some of St. Gertrude’s writings from the book, The Herald of God’s Loving-Kindness — Gertrude’s heartfelt revelations of God’s love. “I had never heard of Gertrude before coming here. I went to the library and found a few books but they seemed so academic.”
After spending the first part of her career teaching middle and high school English and History, she returned to Idaho State University for a master’s degree in English and then a Ph.D. in English — interested in transformational writing, her dissertation was “Primitive Consciousness in the Poetry of Gary Snyder.” She became director of the monastery’s InnSpire sabbatical and spirituality program. She also taught Centering Prayer and began working with the monastery’s growing number of oblates, or lay members. “Oblates kept asking me, ‘Who is Gertrude?’”
Since she had studied Latin throughout her education, Sister Evangela felt led to translate the medieval mystic’s writings in a way in which contemporary seekers could relate. “I selected passages that reflected growth and conversion of spirituality,” Sister Evangela explains. She also wrote commentary, reflections, poems, and prayers. The result is Gertrude of Helfta: Companion for the Millennium and it is dedicated to the oblates of the monastery.
“It took me some time to understand the connection between this community and Gertrude,” says Sister Evangela. “She was Benedictine in the full sense of the word. She loved to read and study. She was also among the earliest to have a devotion to the sacred heart. This was about learning to think of Jesus not so much in terms of godliness but more as human and the capacity we have for friendship with Christ. In her prayer, Gertrude is relaxed in the presence of Christ. It’s conversation. This is also very important to me: she provided a model for friendship with Christ.”
Sister Evangela became interested in becoming a Benedictine during a college course in church history at Kansas City University. She felt torn as to whether she should study English or History and took a break to decide, also taking advantage of an opportunity to train as an x-ray technologist and earn money to pay for her education. In addition, she took night classes in art. She passed the exam to be an x-ray technologist and then began night school at the university to finish her degree — in English.
While training to be an English teacher, she worked as an x-ray instructor. “I discovered I love to teach,” she says. During a retreat, she confided to her retreat director, a Jesuit from Seattle University, that she wanted to become a Benedictine but did not want to stay in the Midwest, where all the Benedictine communities were quite large. He suggested St. Gertrude’s. She came out on a train by herself and in 1963, at the age of 33, made her First Profession. “I am excited at our openness to all kinds of possibilities for ministry,” she says. “We have stayed with the original nursing and teaching wherever that’s possible but we are open to the possibilities.”
Gertrude of Helfta: Companion for the Millenium can be found in the Gift Shop at the Welcome Center and online.