Seven times throughout the night, in the dark and quiet of Easter eve after the Service of Light and Liturgy of the Word, sisters from St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph make their way to their softly lit chapel.
Surrounded by the glow of the new Easter candle, members of the religious community and their guests keep vigil throughout the night, marking each of these seven “night watches” with song, prayer, symbolic rituals and silence.
This sacred tradition, rooted in Scripture and practiced in the early church, began at the monastery in 1983 while Benedictine Sister Theresa Schumacher served as the liturgy coordinator.
“Word and worship are at the heart of monastic life,” Sister Theresa said. “They engage us in watching and waiting for Christ’s second coming … and what is most real is the darkness into which Christ will break like a light.
“What’s really important is how vigiling comes out of the Rule of St. Benedict,” she added. “There are 13 chapters in the Rule about the Divine Office [the official prayer of the church] and five of them are on the importance of vigil — about watching, waiting, being alert.”
Sister Mary Anthony Wagner, who died in 2002, adapted the tradition in 1985 to include elements from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
“What we wanted to do was to prepare ourselves for renewing our baptismal promises at the Easter Vigil,” said Sister Delores Dufner. “So we incorporated some of the prayers and themes from RCIA. We are not a parish so we never have the baptisms or celebrations that parishes might have at the Easter Vigil. It is the monastic way of renewing our baptism and of being one with the whole church.”
All the senses
The sisters engage all the senses throughout the evening. For example, the first night watch, which takes place from 10 p.m. to 11:05 p.m., focuses on the Sign of the Cross. Gathered around the Easter Candle, the sisters sign one another on their forehead, ears, eyes, lips, heart, shoulders, hands and feet.
The fourth watch, from 1:15-2:20 a.m., includes an anointing with aromatic oil. The sixth watch, from 3:25-4:25 a.m., incorporates a reflection on the Lord’s Prayer, reminding each other that whenever the prayer is prayed, one is praying it as “part of the people of God, and in return they are praying it with me.”
“We are not squeezing this liturgy into our life,” Sister Delores said. “This is our life, the movement through the liturgical year, especially through the Triduum. The rest of life is built around the liturgy instead of the other way around.”
In 1994, Sister Delores, an internationally known liturgist and hymn writer, attended a workshop at the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy led by Norbertine Father Andrew Ciferni and Nathan Mitchell, two leading liturgists in the country. Sister Delores presented the sisters’ practice of Holy Saturday night watches for their critique.
“One of my tasks was to find out what they thought of this practice and whether or not it would be appropriate for us to use it,” Sister Delores explained. “They responded that, given our monastic tradition, it seemed like an ideal way to celebrate it.”
Over time, the sisters have adapted it even more. Earlier versions included more of the history of some of the rituals. According to Sister Elaine Schroeder, the current liturgy director at the monastery, they’ve tried to make it more participatory, engaging the sisters and those in attendance in the communal rituals.
Sister Elaine noted that for religious houses, the “difference” from the way a parish celebrates the vigil is in silence, contemplative prayer and the “expansion or contraction of some elements of the ritual, rather than moving an element from beginning to end.”
“In other words, sort of ‘pulling it apart’ and looking at the different parts, spending more time on one element or another,” she said. “It is important to the sisters that the Triduum is a continuous celebration beginning with the Eucharist on Holy Thursday evening and ending with Easter Evening Prayer, that it is one continuous movement. That is something you can do in a community like ours.”
As is tradition, the font is drained in preparation for the new water which is blessed at the Liturgy of the Eucharist around 6 a.m. after all the night watches are complete. Sister Elaine Schroeder said she loves the sound of the water as it fills the basin.
“It is extremely anticipatory and still,” Sister Elaine said. “We are in the chapel. The candle is there, the light is very low, just enough so that we can read. At about 3:30 in the morning one of the sisters comes in and starts the water to fill the font. I’ll go in and feel the stillness and the quiet and hear the sound of the water. It’s very peaceful.”
Sister Karen Rose entered the community in 2007 as a postulant. For her first Triduum at the monastery, she stayed awake all through the night just so she could participate in the whole experience.
“It makes the movement from the Passion, suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday to the joy and glory of the Resurrection,” Sister Rose said. “It makes a bridge between the two and makes each of them even more special.”
Mary Schaffer is a long-time friend of the Benedictine sisters and has attended the night watches for many years. She first came to know the sisters during her studies at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary. In 1996, she moved to St. Joseph and began worshiping with the sisters regularly.
“I found them to be such a source of strength, such welcoming people,” Schaffer said. “I feel these women live the Gospel and hold each other to the challenge that the Gospel calls us all to every day in so many ways.”
In years past, Schaffer has spent the entire night keeping vigil among the sisters.
“I find it very powerful. To keep that vigil and to try to stretch myself for just one night, to do it in prayer with the community I have grown to love so much, is a gift and an opportunity to call to mind our own baptism. The tradition draws heavily on what the catechumens are experiencing in their journey toward baptism and it connects us with them,” Schaffer said.
“Then after the night of stretching yourself past sleeping, when we are gathered around the baptismal font that has new water bubbling up, it really is like living water,” she said.
There, before the font on Easter morning, those gathered proclaim their faith and renew their baptismal promises.
“When we sing, ‘We do believe!,” to me, it is the heart of the matter,” Schaffer said. “Yes, I do believe in Jesus Christ and that I am saved by his grace and that I am not saved alone. It is the part of the year I wait for.”
Schaffer appreciates the opportunity to spend this sacred night with the sisters and says the community is a place of welcome and a source of comfort for her.
“We believe that our prayer is the prayer of the church,” Sister Karen said, “that when we pray, it is for the whole world. That’s what makes it special, that’s what makes it our vocation.”