Q & A with Sr. Makrina Finlay, studying ancient theologians

Benedictine Sr. Makrina Finlay speaks at the "Too Small a World" conference April 7 at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. (GSR photo / Dan Stockman)

How does a girl growing up as a gymnast and cheerleader in northern California end up as a Benedictine nun who splits her time between a convent in Dinklage, Germany, and another in Connemara, Ireland?

For Benedictine Sr. Makrina Finlay, the road from California to a vocation in Germany went through England.

Finlay, 39, is a church historian working on a book about Sts. Athanasius and Macrina, both of whom were known for their study of Scripture and theology.

Her community is the Benedictine abbey in Dinklage, and although the Kylemore Benedictine abbey in Connemara is independent and autonomous, the two monasteries have a close relationship: Finlay has worked at Kylemore for the past seven years setting up a program with The University of Notre Dame in Indiana to allow its students to study abroad there.

In April, she presented a paper at the Too Small A World conference at Notre Dame on the Missionary Benedictines of Tutzing, Germany, and how they found a balance between monastic life and missionary work.

GSR: The obvious question is how did an American end up as a woman religious in Germany?

Finlay: I was born a Protestant in northern California, growing up in the Nazarene Church, and went to Azusa Pacific College, which is very Protestant. But I'm a church historian, and through my study of early church history, I became interested in Catholicism. But I thought, "Well, I can't be a Catholic," so I explored Orthodoxy.

When I went to Oxford for my graduate work, I got to know all these Benedictine monks, who had a house of study there. One of the things I had done a number of years before I became Catholic — I can be quite an extreme person — I thought if I can start every day by praying, having breakfast and going for a run (though not necessarily in that order), I'll always be grounded. No matter how far away I go, if I keep coming back to that, I'll never lose myself.

Benedictine Sr. Makrina Finlay speaks at the "Too Small a World" conference April 7 at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. (GSR photo / Dan Stockman)

In 2000, while living in England, I became Catholic. And in Oxford, I'd run to daily Mass with all these Benedictine monks, and one of them knew the abbess in Dinklage and said it was one of the most beautiful places on Earth and that I should visit.

I thought, "Well, I don't speak German, so if I do have a vocation, I'm still safe if I meet this woman." But when I got there, I somehow felt at home there in a way I never have anywhere else and knew I never would again. Eventually, I got the sense that that is where I should be and figured, well, you can learn a language. This is where I should be, this is where I can be who I am. And I knew that if I didn't at least investigate it, it would always be in the back of my mind, wondering.

I am only now starting to realize how big this move is, 11 or 12 years into it.

And you study ancient theologians, which is a bit obscure.

Yes, my doctorate is in modern history, but it could well have been theology. I really wanted to look at Catholicism in the First World War, and I studied the challenge of university and particularity. I love looking at how things are joined together and how they retain their autonomous state.

One of the things I've done a lot of work on was how the bishop of Munster, Germany, became beatified for his stance against the Nazis. We have a foundation because a lot of people are interested in him, so I helped set up the museum, which looks at the intersection of theology and politics and asks, "What is courage?" There's a fair amount of that to study today and how the church influences politics. I have sort of my early side and my more modern side, but the question is always more or less the same.

So what do you do on a day-to-day basis?

At the moment, I'm here in Dinklage, and I have time for a fair amount of writing. I said I wouldn't write any books for the first 10 years of my vocation, because if I'm going to write about the monastic life, I should have lived it for at least that long. So now that I've finished year 11, I'm working on a book about Sts. Athanasius and Macrina and how these ancient lives are an attempt to be theology in the flesh.

These saints speak about all these ideas and how humanity is transformed by Christ, but they were also trying to show that in their lives, to say this is what it actually looks like. They were this bridge between the theology we might sometimes struggle with and how it looks in real life. Yes, it's obscure, but I really hope that people who are reading these ancient texts — or anybody who's seeking spiritually — that it will help them understand some of the philosophy of it, and especially the context. Anything, if you don't understand the context, can seem strange.

Exploring dualities seems to be a constant theme in your work.

Yes. But St. Benedict, he didn't just say we need to keep to ourselves and go to church and sing Gregorian chants all day. He said that even a place that is not intended to be a mission can be a mission. When someone comes to you, and you go to the door, you say to yourself, "You're going to be a blessing." That's a very open way to look at everything. It's about seeing Christ in others. That's more of a focus than sharing Christ with others. It's not, "I'm going to give you a blessing," but "You're going to give me a blessing."

Living in a foreign country, I will always be foreign. That has helped me understand the missionary spirit, as well, because you realize, "I'm in the minority." I thought I came to help, but it turns out I don't understand anything. It's finding that we're blessed the most when we realize, "Oh, it's I who need you."

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. His email address is dstockman@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.]