Sister helps pottery become prayer at Benedictine Center

| Jennifer Janikula for The Catholic Spirit | October 23, 2014 | 1 Comment
Benedictine Sister Virginia Matter, right, watches Barb Marohnic work on a pottery project during class Oct. 20 at St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood. Also taking part in the class are Dennis Cavanaugh, left, and Debbie Wermager. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Benedictine Sister Virginia Matter, right, watches Barb Marohnic work on a pottery project during class Oct. 20 at St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood. Also taking part in the class are Dennis Cavanaugh, left, and Debbie Wermager. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Dennis Cavanaugh describes his time in the pottery room at the Benedictine Center as a “prayer event, where pottery is the vehicle.”

In the midst of his third pottery series led by Benedictine Sister Virginia Matter on the campus of St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood, Cavanaugh enjoys working with clay, but said the experience offers so much more than practical pottery techniques.

“I really go for the prayerfulness and the time out — it’s an experience of mindfulness,” said Cavanaugh, who attends St. Lawrence Church and Newman Center in Minneapolis and St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony. “If you are not mindful and present, you will have a tough time. It’s just you and the clay.”

Cavanaugh, like other pottery students, appreciates the “ambiance of monastic quiet” and the inspiring prayers, music and poetry shared by Sister Virginia as she strolls around the room quietly encouraging everyone.

Sacred quiet

Sister Virginia, a member of the Benedictine community at St. Paul’s Monastery for nearly 60 years, credits her interest in pottery to her father, a well digger, who spent much of his life inside the earth.

“Pottery is part of the spirituality I received from my father,” Sister Virginia explained. “He introduced me to the creation of God.”

She fondly remembers her father bringing stones and clay home from work, always asking, “What do you see?” and then telling her to look deeper.

Sister Virginia started teaching pottery in the late 1990s after a sabbatical and apprenticeship with Dominican Sister Ursula Ording in South Carolina. Using Sister Ursula’s Native American pottery techniques, Sister Virginia teaches pottery without a wheel, using only hands, fingers and a few simple tools.

Shape of the Divine: Retreat with ClayPottery event with Sister Virginia Matter, OSB

When:1 p.m. on Feb. 15 and 1 p.m. on Feb. 16, 2015
Location: Benedictine Center at St. Paul’s Monastery, 2675 Benet Road, St. Paul
Contact: Guest Services at (651) 777-7251 or benedictinecenter@stpaulsmonastery.org
Fee: $100 (includes lodging, meals and materials)
Register: stpaulsmonastery.org

“It’s more than teaching how to work with clay; I let them enter into the clay and experience whatever they need to heal or refresh,” Sister Virginia said. “I love observing the students. You know there is something good happening for them in their inner space.”

In most cases, Sister Virginia’s first-time students have never worked with clay and consider themselves anything but creative. They might be looking for a new hobby or to acquire a new skill, but they tend to find even more. The contemplative and meditative process of sculpting often provides ideal conditions for prayer.

“Many students carry with them a deep need for quiet,” Sister Virginia explained. “They find a sacred sense of quiet within the clay. There is a mystery God is trying to reveal, and the clay allows the surprise to unfold.

I am happy to give them time to play and be in God’s sacred presence.”

Vessel of God’s love

A few years ago, Terry Johnson would have never used the words “artistic” or “creative” to describe herself. But after attending Sister Virginia’s six-week series four times, she conceded, “I am finally admitting that I have a few gifts. They are just underdeveloped. I need to be grateful for them and accept the challenge of taking them one step at a time.”

An oblate of St. Benedict at St. Paul’s Monastery, Johnson appreciates the healing quality of the clay and describes the pottery classes as “spiritually refreshing.”

“It’s not just about playing in the clay or forming some great work of art,” said Johnson, who goes to Mass both at St. Paul’s Monastery and at St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove. “It’s about your soul. I’ve come to see myself more and more as a vessel that carries God’s love.”

Approximately 150 students have passed through Sister Virginia’s pottery studio at the Benedictine Center since she started teaching 16 years ago. In February, she will host a weekend pottery retreat called “Shape of the Divine: Retreat with Clay.”

For more information about the Benedictine Center and Sister Virginia’s pottery classes, visit http://www.stpaulsmonastery.org or call (651) 777-7251.

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Category: Featured, The Last Word

  • Dawn Wired Huberty

    I have attended this pottery retreat. It was wonderful, and I, a complete novice in working with clay – came to some beautiful realizations after the retreat and in the days and months to come. Sister Virginia is a very patient and warm person.