By Natalie Romano
Walter Johnson meditates with his eyes closed and a serene smile on his face. To look at him now, you would never know he once struggled with addiction, homelessness, and recurring nightmares about the Vietnam War. The veteran says his transformation was made possible with help from Sister Joan Marie Sasse, O.S.B., and her meditation retreats.
“Slowly I stopped craving the drugs and alcohol. I managed to create better habits, I looked at things differently,” explained Johnson, retreatant. “I come here once or twice a month to maintain my peace of mind.”
In honor of February’s World Day for Consecrated Life, we look at Sr. Joan Marie’s unique brand of ministry. She hosts a weekly “Taking Charge of Your Life” workshop at former Holy Spirit Monastery in Grand Terrace now dubbed Blue Mountain Court Retreat House. Informed by spirituality and science, she gives attendees the personal skills they need to make positive change. Sr. Joan Marie says her method of meditation, which combines focusing on “The Light of Christ” with deep breathing, promotes mental and physical well-being.
“When you get in touch with this energy of God within, you’re so powerful. It’s unbelievable,” described Sr. Joan Marie with eyes sparkling. “You can create miracles. You can make things happen.”
The Benedictine sister says she knows this from personal experience. Decades ago, painful rheumatoid arthritis was affecting her mobility; she struggled to open doors and needed crutches to walk. Traditional medical treatment wasn’t working so she turned to meditation and the bible.
Inspired by the prologue to the Gospel of John, she envisioned Jesus as light going through her body. She practiced this meditation multiple times a day and was amazed by what happened next.
“In three days, my pain was gone. In two weeks, the swelling was gone. And since the 70’s I haven’t taken any medication for arthritis,” said Sr. Joan Marie. “...It hurt so bad and then it was gone. I thought, I need to teach people how to do it.”
It’s a story she shares at her workshops. During the first retreat of 2024, a group of ten women and men listen attentively. Some nod their heads, others take notes, some are Catholic, most are not. The retreat is part spiritual guidance and part self help as Sr. Joan Marie allows attendees to share their problems and work them out with group feedback.
During the retreat, Sr. Joan Marie often makes references to Quantum Physics, the study of energy and matter or the Schumann Resonance, the natural electromagnetic frequency generated by the Earth’s magnetic field. She says this so-called “heartbeat” of the Earth affects cognitive function and sleep. Aware that these topics are not what you’d expect at an event hosted by a Catholic religious, Sr. Joan Marie jokes that she doesn’t do “regular.”
Retreatants can also stroll the nearby “Labyrinth” for private prayer and reflection. John Aldrian walked the outdoor circular path when dealing with a cancer diagnosis. Photos from that day make it appear he was showered in white light. Aldrian and his wife Melinda took it as a good sign.
“God was looking out for me. I still had years to go,” said John Aldrian, retreatant. “The Labyrinth encouraged me to keep living.”
In addition to the workshops, Sr. Joan Marie gives lectures, provides one on one counseling, and leads a weekly prayer call. She holds degrees in Theology and Education and worked in Catholic schools for 20 years before moving into retreat ministry. As Sr. Joan Marie underwent these changes, her order did as well. In 2011, the Sisters of St. Benedict of Riverside, the only religious community founded in the diocese, was dwindling, with only six members left. Five returned to Indiana where they had ministered before coming to California. Sr. Joan Marie stayed behind, encouraged by her order to continue the retreats. She is now affiliated with the Benedictine Sisters in Glendora but mostly works in Grand Terrace where she says the energy is “powerful.” It doesn’t hurt that her neighbor is Bishop Alberto Rojas.
“When he’s saying Mass, when he’s giving a blessing, he’s totally in tune with the Spirit. I mean totally,” emphasized Sr. Joan Marie. “I can feel the energy around him.”
Bishop Rojas acknowledges Sister’s talk of energy and meditation may not resonate with some traditional Catholics but notes that others find it uplifting.
“She’s very positive, very joyful. She trusts in God’s divine providence,” said Bishop Rojas. “She calms me down when I am concerned.”
Debi Rozeski introduced her daughter Sarah Siemieniewski to the “Taking Charge of Your Life” retreats. Both appreciate Sr. Joan Marie’s thought provoking conversations about faith and family.
“I found spirituality through Sister Joanie,” said Rozeski, retreatant. “It brought me closer to God than I’ve probably ever been my entire life.”
As the Diocese celebrates Consecrated Life, Sr. Joan Marie says she’s not interested in accolades or retirement. She just wants to keep up her ministry.
“All of us were given this gift of life to experience it. Whenever we find what it is we are called to do and do it, then we’re happy. That’s it.”
Go to jmsasse.org to register for retreats or other events.
Natalie Romano is an award-winning freelance writer based in Southern California.