Articles

Cultivating Benedictine Wonder

I awake in the middle of the night, as I do most nights here, with muscles complaining about the hundreds of hay bales I loaded into a barn the day before. It is half past 2AM. The Guest House at the Abbey of Regina Laudis is black and silent, but some 800 meters away in the chapel, an assembly of nuns is awake and keeping watch with the sanctuary lamp. It is the hour of Matins.

By the time I rise at 8:00, the flowers have been watered, the cows milked, the sheep sent to pasture, the cat found and fed, the grapevines inspected, and the bread dough set out to rise. I gulp a cup of Folgers and hike up the hill to the Church of Jesu Fili Mariae for Mass. A bell rings, and from behind the wrought iron grille, the nuns process into the sanctuary, bowing to the altar and to one another before taking their places in the choir stalls. Mother Abbess intones the prayer: Deus, in adjutorium meum intende. The choir answers: Domine, ad adjuvandum, me festina. God, come to my assistance. Lord, make haste to help me.

This summer, I am a monastic intern, living Benedictine life along with 38 nuns at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Regina Laudis means “Queen of Praise,” expressing the heart of this contemplative, cloistered community, in which “singing the praise of God holds pride of place.”[1] The nuns pray the Divine Office in Latin Gregorian Chant seven times each day. On some 400 acres of land they tend sheep, keep dairy and beef cattle and bees, cultivate gardens and orchards, make world-renowned cheese, operate a bakery, carpentry shop and smithy, weave, and sculpt.

The Nuns

Each nun appears remarkably younger than her age, and this sparks an inevitable question from the bolder of the guests: “You’re how old?  No.” The nuns joke that their wimple, the white fabric that encircles their face and neck, conceals wrinkles. But something more profound than a wimple is the secret to Benedictine youthfulness, which is not only physical. Why do these women seem so fresh and free when the monastic life includes so few comforts? I ponder this during my eight-week internship, having felt, recently, much older than my 25 years, due to the loneliness of pursuing Christian holiness as a single woman in an urban setting, a toxic work environment, and the small, self-destructive habits tantamount to tiny acts of despair that had worn down my soul.

The nuns are formidable women, imperfect and relatable–they break sweats and get frustrated and curse–and yet each one seems to have, as Georges Bernanos wrote of Our Lady, a glimmer of “something more in [her] never yet known or expressed, something that makes her younger than sin.”[2]

“The wisdom of man lends brightness to his face,” says the book of Ecclesiastes.[3] What is the wisdom of the nuns at Regina Laudis? A complete answer to this question requires one’s own visit to the abbey. The wisdom of the nuns was given to me as I needed it then, in the beautiful, perennial way that Benedictine life, by existing just beyond the culture of the civis, confronts and instructs its citizens in every age.[4] I saw that the Rule of St. Benedict facilitates true wonder by the slow cultivation of reverence for God and creation. This is not the fleeting, manufactured kind of excitement our culture is capable of producing, but an authentic marveling at the simple, everyday aspects of life, and an understanding of their alignment with Divine Providence. This wonder is not contrived, but received; it flows from gratitude and reverence, not a sense of entitlement. It is a wonder that is attuned to the glory of God in his creation. It is thauma, what Peter Kreeft calls a surprise, “an index of dimensional interface, a leap, a confrontation with a new dimension.”[5]

This wonder is possible because the Benedictine Rule places work in frequent dialogue with prayer. The dialectic of ora and labora allows for the interpenetration of the natural and supernatural, the work of our hands and the working out of our salvation. These, C.S. Lewis says, are “more multifariously and subtly harmonious than we had suspected.”[6] The conversation between ora and labora is Incarnational and eschatological. As God became man, the words of the Psalms become enfleshed in daily labor. Reciprocally, the Benedictine, by constant prayer, recognizes that her work occurs in a world that is journeying toward God. The curse of toil is transformed into a working out of salvation. She cultivates wonder, not just at the novel and attractive aspects of creation, but at fertility, birth, beauty, even death and decay.

Four nuns in particular–Sister Esther, Mother Margaret Georgina, Mother Dorcas, and Mother Stephen–bore witness to the beauty of Benedictine spirituality, and shared wisdom that I carried with me when I returned to the city.

The Pot-Bound Plant

After Mass, I walk toward the main building. I am meeting Sister Esther and some other interns to work in the garden outside Jesu Fili Mariae church.

Sister Esther is a convert to Catholicism; she told me this during a picnic celebration of the first hay day. We were eating steak from the abbey beef herd. “You better have some. You won’t see this again,” she said cheerfully, biting into a sliver of steak. Then, she leaned her cheek on her hand and, glancing beyond the light of the citronella candle, told me she was a convert, that when she visited her first Catholic church, “there was a deep presence. It was like walking into another universe . . . I was eight. I think children can sense things adults can’t.”

Sister Esther waves through the open window of a pickup truck as she pulls up to the gate, the denim sleeves of her work habit already rolled.  Her assigned work, or “obedience,” consists largely of landscaping. The bed of her truck is cluttered with buckets, Weed Whackers, trowels, watering cans, and paper cups for lemonade break. The Rule says monks should care for tools as though they were vessels of the altar. I often remember this as Sister Esther enthusiastically explains what tool we will be using for each task.

Today we are transplanting Siberian Pines from black plastic pots onto a 45-degree slope. We mix compost, fill cans with water, and climb tediously down the slope to give each tree a home in the ground. This hill is not quite, as Psalm 65 would tell us, “girded about with joy.”[7] The work is arduous: knees are muddied, watering cans spill, and tumbling buckets demonstrate the law of gravity. There is much laughter.

On the hillside, Sister Esther gives us a lesson in treating pot-bound plants. “The roots,” she says, sitting on the ground with a large Siberian Pine in her lap, “have grown to fit the tight space of the pot.” I see that the dead roots of the tree hold the shape of the pot, and curl around the soil like shocks of gray hair. Sister uses her Leatherman to make jagged slashes across the roots. “If you put the tree in the ground with these roots,” she continues, “the roots won’t reach out into the soil, and the tree will die. So, am I destroying the roots? Well, yes, I am. You have to really tear them up before they’re ready to make new roots.”

I do not always search for a spiritual analogy in work, but is it so strange to find God in a garden? Says one sister, “The Psalms give you a reference point for the work you’re doing on the land, and the work you’re doing on the land give you a reference point for what the Psalms are.”[8] Had I not prayed that morning, would my eyes have been open to the little pedagogy of the tree? Trees that spend their life in pots are not ready for the wide open hillside because their pot-bound roots cannot handle the depth and breadth of the earth. It is only when the old roots are destroyed that new, nourishing roots can grow.

In a time when our culture shudders at sacrifice and approves of cultivating oneself only through comfort, the garden politely objects. Sacrifices must be made in a beautiful garden. Weeds must be pulled, overzealous plants trimmed back. The dreams of a tree in a pot are too small, and roots have to die and be reborn to grow into the kind of roots nature intends.

The Too-Slow Carrots

After Sext, seven female guests gather for lunch in the refectory (men are served in their guesthouse). We receive the meal through a wooden grille. Shoulder to shoulder, we eat family style around the small table—cheese from the dairy, lettuce from the garden, fish donated by a friend of the abbey. Today is a feast day for one nun, and she has picked the dessert: Peaches Melba.

That afternoon, I work in the vegetable garden with Mother Margaret Georgina. In 1947, when the abbey was founded, the current garden was a field of dry, rocky soil. Now it bursts with life. Raised beds with stone walls enthrone dill and thistle. Cabbages sit stoically amidst sprays of kale and chard. The peas and the morning glories compete for space on the wire fence.

We plant carrots. The seeds are delicate, like grains of salt. I drag a finger gently across the soil to create a groove, then plant seeds one inch apart, in groups of three. The bed is about twelve feet long, and we have to plant five rows. Sixty feet. 2,100 seeds. The afternoon sun is taunting the back of my neck. Mother Margaret Georgina coaches us as we plant. “Don’t make the rows too deep, or the carrot won’t be able to grow through the soil. Water the rows as you go; don’t wait until the end.”

“When will the carrots be ready to eat?,” I ask.

“We’ll harvest them in August.”

August? But it is July. I will not be here in August. I look down the row of already planted seeds, concealed beneath the soil, and suppress the unreasonable but honest question, “Can’t we speed up this process somehow? I want to eat my carrots.” But Psalm 104 chides me, “All creatures look to you; you give them their food in due season. When you give to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.”[9]

The too-slow carrot bestows a hard truth: the rhythm of abbey life—and of the natural world—clashes with the impulse to instant gratification. The Psalms offer a different perspective on gratification: “What can bring us happiness? many say. Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord.”[10] Benedictine spirituality facilitates living simply and meaningfully for those of us who exist in a fast-paced, pleasure-driven world that is perhaps not so different from the one St. Benedict himself knew. In the light of the Lord’s face, we recognize that God knows our needs and providentially provides them. A preference for what is novel and immediate gives way to a preference for what is real. We learn to appreciate the natural rhythms that bear the mark of the Creator.

The Bakery and the Transitus of Mother Stephen

The following morning, I am scheduled to help in the bakery, which means the alarm goes off before 6AM. I trudge up to the main gate, where Mother Dorcas is waiting. Hagiography tells us that St. Peter raised the widow Dorcas from the dead. The Dorcas Gazelle, of Lower Egypt, can live without water its entire life, obtaining moisture from the plants it eats. I think Mother Dorcas could also survive without water for her entire life. When I work with her, her pluck and spunk trick me into forgetting there are 83 years of history in that tiny frame. She pulls up weeds like boat anchors and wields garden tools like javelins. On a recent (and rare) trip outside the abbey to visit her younger sister in a retirement home, she reported helping her move furniture and hang pictures. “It was a nice place,” Mother Dorcas reflected, “but I’m not sure I could live there. Too many old people.” I have a sneaking suspicion she will outlive me.

Mother meets me outside the gate. “Benedicamus Domino,” she greets me.

I respond, “Deo Gratias.

Let us bless the Lord.  Thanks be to God. The traditional greeting is the same as the close of the Office. “The Divine Office is really the prime object of our life,” says one sister, “so that our work and prayer relate to one another and feed one another.”[11]

In the bakery, we prepare the dough with the help of an ancient yellow industrial-sized mixer. A lump of dough the size of a soccer ball makes about nine loaves of wheat bread, which the nuns eat for breakfast. Mother Dorcas grins as she kneads the dough and says, to my surprise, “It looks like a brain.” She practiced medicine before entering the abbey; after a career in public relations she became the first female pediatric gastroenterologist in the United States. There are many such stories at Regina Laudis. Her numbers contain doctors, lawyers, college professors, politicians, scientists and sculptors, a scholar of Shakespearean literature, even a Hollywood film star. The nuns’ professional experience and education find new meaning within the abbey. The nuns frequently mention the difference between being child-like and being childish.  Simplicity does not mean simple-mindedness.

What prompts such accomplished women to leave everything for the cloister? I think in their vocation they are, as St. Paul says, “being transfigured from glory to glory” in beholding the glory of the Lord.[12] The Psalms assist in this transformation by continually placing them in the presence of Christ, in whose image they are being transfigured. Mother Benedict Duss, co-foundress of Regina Laudis, reflects,

The [Psalms provide] an inexhaustible meditation on Christ the man, both fully human and fully divine. Insofar as Christ is fully human we can readily identify with the joys and sorrows of his life on earth. But because he is also fully divine, his life is a Mystery that uplifts, strengthens, awes and enlarges us. The world is hungry for both the human and divine truths in the pattern of Christ’s life.

What glory do we seek? Do we seek that glory with which Satan tempted Christ at the parapet[13] or the glory given to God when we pray the doxology? Both come from the Greek word doxa, but one is anticlimactic and corrupting, and one is everlasting.[14] One leads to disappointment, the other to wonder.

At lunch that day, the interns are tired—several spent the morning mucking out stalls at Saint Malachi barn—and conversation is sparse. A voice, reading, floats to us from inside the cloister. At each meal, the nuns eat in silence while one nun reads aloud, unless it is Sunday or a feast day. Then they listen to music.

As we clear the table, Mother Margaret Georgina delivers a message. One of the older members of the community, Mother Stephen, is in transitus: she is dying. Mother Abbess and Mother Prioress have been making frequent trips to the hospital to visit her. “We are going to need your help preparing for the funeral,” Mother says.

The abbey begins to buzz with anticipation as everyone pitches in for funeral preparations. I have weeding duty with Sister Esther to clean up the abbey gardens, and I bake 400 crescent rolls with Mother Dorcas and another intern. One intern, who knows how to operate a bulldozer, helps dig the grave.

Though she cannot eat or drink, Mother Stephen remains in transitus for eight days. When she passes, a bell sounds throughout the property. Her body returns to Jesu Fili Mariae church, and at least one nun holds vigil around the clock. The liturgy of the hours changes; the nuns pray the Office of the Dead.

After the Funeral

On the day of the funeral, hundreds of people fill the church, and overflow into the organ loft. There is a light drizzle and a gentle wind outside, and the large windows reveal thick foliage in motion, like living stained glass. Mother Stephen’s coffin has been crafted from abbey trees. She wears a funeral crown woven from objects she cultivated on the land: asparagus, wildflowers, blueberries. Mother Stephen’s brother, a priest, assists with the Mass. Her two sisters, nuns themselves, join the Regina Laudis nuns in the cloister. After the liturgy, two oxen pull the casket to the cemetery of the Sacred Heart: a humble clearing shrouded by towering pines. Friends offer words at the grave. Then, Mother Stephen’s casket is lowered into the earth. Members of the community take turns shoveling dirt into the grave as a last act of service and thanksgiving. Then, as the laypeople disperse, the nuns gather again in the dark, empty church. They lie prostrate on the floor, in union with Mother Stephen in her death, and pray Psalm 51, the Miserere.

At dinner, memorabilia commemorating Mother Stephen’s life is on display: a photo on the day of her vows with a crown of flowers on her head, a photo with a newborn calf, beaming. I ask Mother Dorcas what she thinks of Mother Stephen’s passing. “We’re happy for her. She’s going where we all want to go!” Indeed, the entire ordeal seems more like a wedding than a funeral.

The abbey returns to its regular rhythms. Mother Margaret Georgina invites the interns to a community work night in the garden. On these summer evenings, the whole community has the opportunity to work together in the garden, then, they pray Compline outside.

In the cool of the day, I pick raspberries while Mother Abbess’s dogs run in between the rows, gulping berries off the low branches before I can reach them. When the Compline bell rings, everyone brings their harvested food to the preserving room and puts away the garden tools. Nuns and interns sit on the stone of the raised beds. This is a rare and precious time, in which interns have front-row seats to the Liturgy of the Hours. There are no grilles in the garden.

One nun lights citronella candles. Another plucks a leaf from a lettuce plant and chews it, looking pensively at the sky. A flock of geese fly over, and wild turkeys dart in and out of the woods. The nuns on dish duty hurry from the kitchen, hands still pink. In the dusk, surrounded by the fruits of their labors, the nuns chant night prayer.

There is no echo outside, as there is in the church; their voices are absorbed into the garden, into the vineyard, into the still forest. G.K. Chesterton says, “The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder.” This summer, the Benedictines have invited me to this feast of wonder, facilitated by the integration of ora and labora. They have instructed me in sacrifice, in patience, and in preparing for death. And this way of life, with its youthfulness and freedom, seems not only something to be lived in secluded abbeys, but something that can inform all Christian journeys: it contains something for the city, something for me, something for you.

Editorial Statement: This piece was adapted from a paper presented at the 2010 Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture Fall Conference.

SEE ALSO:

Humanae Vitae and the Mystical Call of Chastity

Featured Image: Slices of Light, Frescoes on lower ceiling on the Benedictine Hall of Nuns side of the partition wall at San Maurizio, Milan; March 2017; Source: Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

[1] Women in Chant CD (2000) booklet, p. 1

[2] Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest

[3] Ecc 8:1

[4] See Benedict XVI’s General Audience on 9 April, 2008. He writes, “A hidden monastic life has its own raison d’être but a monastery also has its public purpose in the life of the Church and of society, and it must give visibility to the faith as a force of life.” http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20080409.html

[5] Christianity for Modern Pagans, 225

[6] Miracles, 3.

[7] Ps 65:12

[8] Work and Pray: Living the Psalms with the Nuns of Regina Lauds. Dir. Margo Fassler. Yale Institute of Sacred Music, 2009.

[9] Psalm 104

[10] Psalm 4

[11] Work and Pray

[12] 2 Cor 3:18

[13] Matt 4:8

[14] Jesus of Nazareth 39

Jane Peters

Jane Peters is a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Marquette University. She resides in New York City with her husband.