By ED LANGLOIS, Special Contributor | Published February 5, 2004
With help from the Benedictine Sisters at Queen of Angels Monastery, Sara Feick, an outgoing 37-year-old, is opening up spiritually, hoping to serve the people of God and embrace the intense depth of monastic life. A Benedictine novice in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, farming town of Mount Angel since 2001, Feick plans to profess promises of chastity, poverty, obedience, and stability.
“People say this is an escape,” she says, gazing out a window framing fields and grain elevators. “But here you have to face yourself and grow every minute. There is no escape.”
Once a compulsive traveler who met many people but really knew only a few, the cyclist-swimmer-runner may spend the rest of her days with 50 Benedictine women who have devoted themselves to ongoing prayer and service.
Feick has lived in Indiana, New York, Nebraska, and South Africa. For years, she simply lived on the road, competing in triathlons around the world. “I have traveled my whole life,” she says as she fingers a small medal of St. Benedict that hangs at her throat. “Stability is something I need. Being here is totally my choice. There are tons of doors. I could leave. I just don’t want to.”
The youngest of seven children, Feick grew up in Muncie, Ind. She never pondered religious life as a child, though she did attend Catholic school and played altar server. While she took piano lessons, she eschewed music practice in favor of sports. After all, she had a corps of older brothers to chase.
When Feick was 11, the mother who adored her died of ovarian cancer. Looking back, she realizes that she then became stoic and aloof as a way to avoid being hurt again. Her mother’s death left her with her father, who instilled in her a fierce independence and the discipline to excel at athletics. Feick obtained physical education degrees from Indiana University and Eastern Illinois University. Through the mid-1990s, she competed in triathlons and was successful. But life on the road eventually left her feeling empty and burned out. Sensing an urge to serve others instead of focusing on a quickened pace, she joined the Peace Corps.
As a volunteer from 1997 to 1999, Feick lived at a Catholic mission in the Damesfontein township in post-apartheid South Africa. Her aim was to help teachers in rural Zulu towns learn to teach better. Though she was often the only white person for miles, she was eventually embraced by the community of women, joining them in gardening, housework, and prayer.
It was there, where she spoke no Zulu and was out of her culture, that the spiritual softening began. “It dawned on me that I needed to start accepting people’s help,” she says. “That was a huge conversion for me. People cared for me just because they liked me. They did not care where I was from or what I could achieve.”
After service in the Peace Corps, Feick returned to the United States somewhat at a loss. She decided to head west in search of… she wasn’t sure what. She made each day’s plans when she woke up in the morning. Many mornings included Mass at the small parishes she encountered along the way.
After months of wandering, she landed in Oregon with an urge to learn more about her faith. She was directed to Mount Angel Seminary, which trains lay people as well as priests for ministry.
Enthused by her new plan, she registered and began looking for a place to throw her sleeping bag. A volume of Catholic volunteer service opportunities lay on the seat of her car. The book just happened to be open to a page about a volunteer program tended by the Benedictine Sisters of the Queen of Angels. “I didn’t even know how to spell Benedict,” Feick recalls of that day in August 1999.
As she took up residence with the sisters, she learned about St. Benedict’s 1,500-year-old monastic rule and found that it described what she had always wanted—prayer, hard work, simplicity, consensus leadership, communal ownership, and accountability. “I didn’t know anyone had written it down,” she says.
Her time as a volunteer at the monastery eventually led her to explore a further commitment. She became a postulant. Feick has worked at the sisters’ homeless shelter, tutored children, cooked at the retreat house, tended the grounds, learned piano and voice, cleaned bathrooms, and instructed the sisters in fitness.
She says that her few years in monastic formation have led her to become less critical of herself, more accepting of others, and more open to God in prayer. “I am a much softer person now,” she says.
“It’s a beautiful life,” Feick says. “I see the interdependence of community now. I realize that all these accomplishments are not that important. It’s all about love, really, isn’t it? I am someone who needs to give it but also must be able to receive it.”