Sisters’ Words of Wisdom: Sister Virginia Matter, OSB

Sisters' Words of Wisdom: Sister Virginia Matter, OSB

Sister Virginia in 1940 as a young girl.

Sister Virginia Matter was raised in Walnut Grove, Minnesota by a Lutheran mother and Catholic father in a family with two sisters and one brother.  Her mother vowed to raise her family in the Catholic faith, while at the same time attending her own Lutheran church.  “My mother was a beautiful woman,” Sister Virginia says.  She was a spiritual force in their family who encouraged her husband to return to the Church and practice his Catholic faith.  While in high school, Virginia had planned to get married someday, and informed her parish priest, Father Dufresne, of these plans:  “Then, he left me alone.” Father Dufresne had encouraged young women from Walnut Grove to visit St. Paul’s Priory on Summit Avenue during the summers, where Virginia met Sister Eleanor Wartman and others. Virginia began to feel the strong pull of the Holy Spirit toward a vocation, much to her surprise: “I thought, what is going on here?” Virginia’s mother was very supportive when her daughter decided to enter St. Paul’s Priory in 1955, “once she knew that her daughter was happy,” and wrote to Virginia every week. “The Sisters grew to love my mother and my mother loved them.”

Sister Virginia in 1955, when she graduated from Walnut Grove High School.

Sister Virginia received a nursing degree (LPN) from Miller Hospital in 1960 and began her career in health care working at St. Mary’s Hospital and Home in Winstead, MN.  She later managed the Monastery’s Health Care Center.  In 1981, she changed career course and began an intensive year-long spiritual direction training and formation program at the Institute for Religious Formation (IRF) in St. Louis, MO.  When she returned, she helped Sister Veronica Novotny and Sister Mary White operate the Benedictine Center, which was founded in 1983.  Sister Virginia has been a spiritual director for nearly forty years, and helped start a Centering Prayer group in the tradition of Father Thomas Keating, OSB in which many spiritual seekers have been blessed to come to know her and receive instruction in this sacred form of Christian contemplative prayer.  Sister Virginia was part of the founding of Minnesota Contemplative Outreach, where many people in the Twin Cities and beyond now gather on Zoom each day to practice centering prayer and participate in retreats.  Sister Virginia attends several of these meetings on Zoom.  “We may not be physically together but we are bonding in our spiritual life together and coming to know each other as we share our spiritual journeys.  It’s been a very rich great journey with that inner prayer.”

Sister Virginia began to explore contemplative prayer and meditation in the 1960’s.  “In my thirties, I was searching… there wasn’t any Christian centering prayer practice that I was aware of at that time.  I began with transcendental meditation where at least I learned a process.  When I got to a certain point, I didn’t feel comfortable, so I knew it was time for me to leave.  I started going to the Hindu Center on University Avenue with Sister Mary White.  It was wonderful Eastern teaching.  I learned how to sit, how to become quiet, how to breathe.  Then Thomas Keating came in the 1970’s and I had been reading some of his books.  His writing just touched my soul.”

In 1957, Sister Virginia entered her novitiate.

When the Benedictine Center was founded in 1983, Sister Mary White became the director.  Sister Virginia and Sister Veronica Novotny practiced lectio divina with couples.  They were encouraged by a friend who was organizing grant funding, Steve Taylor, to look at the contemplative meditation practices of John Main, OSB and Laurence Freeman, OSB.  At one point, they flew to Canada and attended a conference with Laurence Freeman.  Sister Virginia recalled that experience:  “The only difference I could see was that they both take us to the same place, but with Christian meditation, especially John Main’s teaching, was using a mantra that you said constantly:  Maranatha.  When we left there, I really felt called to Thomas Keating.  His practice involved more listening, taking a sacred word that was a mantra in the beginning, but then when it was gone, it was gone.  When you are aware [during the meditation sit] that are you thinking, you went back to that word.  This was a practice that was more my spirit.”

Sister Virginia went to Snowmass, Colorado a number of times to attend centering prayer teachings with Father Thomas Keating for 8-10 day retreats.  Father Keating also stayed at St. Paul’s Monastery when he was in the Twin Cities.  Sister Virginia discussed her favorite memories of him.  “There were so many precious moments.  You could ask him any questions.  When he was here the last time, we were having breakfast with him in the dining room and I said, ‘Father Thomas, you have been doing this for so long.  What are your words of wisdom?’ He said, God is all there is.”

Sister Virginia in her pottery studio.

Sister Veronica Novotny, founder of the Benedictine Center, was Sister Virginia’s good friend:  “She was my classmate.  We entered together in 1955.  Veronica was a deep thinker, a planner.  She was very organized. Veronica had a vision; she had been out in the parishes and teaching in the schools.  She saw the spiritual hunger. Veronica presented the idea to the Community and asked if we would consider developing a retreat center.”  The Community welcomed the idea.  Sister Veronica organized the whole process of beginning a new ministry.  Sister Virginia and Sister Mary White were on the team from the beginning. “Veronica had the dream and developed the dream, and the journey called us forth.  We journeyed together.”

By 1993, Sister Virginia was thinking about taking a sabbatical.  She wanted it to be a pilgrimage in the different religious experiences.  She had been involved in the East-West dialogue with Buddhists and Hindus and was reading Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monk from England.  He had gone to India in 1955 to assist in the foundation of Kurisumala Ashram, and later on, to assist in a pioneer attempt to found a Hindu Christian community, Saccidananda Ashram.  “I had been reading him and he just touched my soul.  When I asked for a sabbatical, Sister Rosemary Rader, who was Prioress, was always encouraging me in my art.  She said, ‘You need to go to South Carolina and do pottery there.’  So that was the first place I began.  In South Carolina, I developed my whole pottery ministry.”

Pictured here is Sister Virginia and Bernadette in Karala India at an orphanage.

Sister Virginia planned the rest of her sabbatical in India, with a stop in Japan to visit a friend for Christmas, 1993.  While in Japan, Virginia visited some of the Buddhist monasteries.  Then she flew to India, where she stayed from January through March, 1994.  Archbishop Padiyara, whom she had met at church in North St. Paul, arranged for Sister Virginia to work with Mother Teresa’s sisters at their orphanage in India.  She first spent a month at the ashram and then went for a couple of weeks to volunteer with Mother Teresa’s sisters in Kerala.  She never met Mother Teresa herself.  “It was beautiful to work with them,” Virginia recalls.  “I was with the little babies.  There was one little boy born without hand.  I fell in love with that little guy.  I could have brought eight of them home in my arms.” 

She then returned to the ashram for the final six weeks of her trip. “People from all over the world were at the ashram.  We met priests and nuns and lay people from other countries.  The beautiful part about the prayer life was the lovely integration of Hindu and Christian rhythm of prayer.  Many of the rituals for our prayer time together throughout the day and Mass included Hindu symbols.  There were beautiful flower arrangements the Sisters made that were symbolic of different mandalas.  For Eucharist, the paten had four flowers for the directions.  Little simple, beautiful, touching things.”

Her sabbatical was a life-changing experience.  Sister Virginia describes it with vivid imagery and much excitement.  India was a sacred place where she learned to finally let things go, and “just go and sit by the river.”  After a rich career as a cherished spiritual director and leader of centering prayer, it is clear that Sister Virginia’s heart is in the Benedictine Center, a sanctuary for retreats, prayer and meditation in the Twin Cities for the past 39 years.  It is Sister Virginia’s ardent hope that this important and necessary ministry will continue into the future, in a world that desperately needs more listening, understanding, compassion for self and others.