Colloquium offers silence and solitude for busy students

For the last 12 years, Tracy Balzer, director of Christian formation, has taught an Honors colloquium
that focuses on the study of silence and solitude, specifically within traditional monastic living. The
students supplement their classroom learning with a weekend trip to Subiaco Abbey, a home and place of
worship for a small community of Benedictine Monks located east of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
“[The class] is ultimately a way to have an up-close and personal experience with a very particular kind
of Christian community,” Balzer said. “It’s a way of living, working, praying that has been done for more
than 1500 years.”
Kara Peterson, senior family and human services major, took the Subiaco Abbey Honors Colloquium
two years ago. Going into the class, Peterson said she wasn’t sure what to expect. “I wasn’t sure how we
as outsiders were going to enter into that kind of sacred space,” Peterson said.
Evyn McGraw, senior English major, took the colloquium last year and said that many of her
classmates were also unsure what to expect. “There is a pervasive hesitancy, that I didn’t necessarily
have but I know a lot of people do, that the idea of monasticism is harmful because you have a bunch of
people essentially retreating from the world,” McGraw said. “With our sort of Protestant mentality of, ‘we
have to go out into the world and be working people and that’s how we’re going to follow God,’ there’s
sometimes a little bit of pushback against the idea of monasticism.”
Balzer said that a big focus of the class, and of the Rule of St. Benedict, is ora et labora, the Latin
phrase meaning “pray and work.”
“Our prayer is our work, and our work is our prayer. There is no division,” Balzer said. “We don’t stop
work to pray, nor do we stop praying to work. It is a high value to aspire to, but it has changed the way I
think about both of those very important aspects of life.
To help focus on this practice, Balzer’s class spends time at Subiaco joining the monks in their
everyday routine. They attend any or all of the five communal prayer services held every day, spend
hours in silence and talk to the monks about their way of living.
McGraw said that taking a break from working and stepping back and evaluating why you are working
so hard gives your work more perspective and more of a purpose.
“When we step back and I think just take time to pray and to make ourselves aware of our relationship
with God and our community, then we have a clearer idea of who we are and what we are for,” McGraw
While the change was not dramatic or immediate, Peterson and McGraw both said that after visiting
Subiaco Abbey they focused more on silence and solitude during their own devotional times with God. “It
kind of refreshed the importance of silence and solitude and lectio divina,” Peterson said.
Peterson reflected on the importance of silence in a Christian’s life. “As a culture we don’t like silence
anymore, because as soon as we step into that silence, all of the things that we don’t want to deal with
within ourselves come to the surface. All those voices, all those hard emotions, things that we don’t want
to deal with and have kind of pushed aside and distracted ourselves [from],” Peterson said. “You can’t
distract yourself when you’re alone in the quiet with God.”