A School of Happiness
We honor the beloved religious figures who plunge into the chaos of the world, uplifting the unfortunate with healing, preaching, or eloquent calls for social justice. There’s another kind of ministry, though, that’s often misunderstood. The Trappist-Cistercian sisters at Crozet’s Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, who go about their quiet life of cheese-making, prayer, and community, see their path as a way to intercede for all the world’s suffering. “There’s a limit to the good you can do for individual people,” said Mother Kathy Ullrich, the monastery’s prioress. “I wanted to do something upstream that would have a wider impact.”
She’s talking about the prayer that threads through the monastery’s daily schedule, beginning at 3 a.m., and continuing throughout the day, interspersed with meals, chores and personal projects. “But we don’t see prayer as separate from our work,” said Sr. Maria Garcia. “It’s all prayer, all worthy.” The sisters make beautiful rounds of Gouda cheese, devoting several hours each day to this work or other work that sustains the community of 11 women: cooking, cleaning, gardening, shopping. They rotate tasks week by week, said Mother Kathy. “That way, everyone learns every job.” In addition to maintaining the community, they set aside money to support good works.
Like their lives, meals are simple, normally free of meat. There is some of their own cheese, but they ration it, and fish is served twice a week or so. Elders get extra protein in shakes or smoothies. Many of the ingredients are grown in their own garden, Mother Kathy said: “We did get pretty tired of kale last year.” After lunch, most of the sisters have a few minutes for a siesta before their afternoon ritual of prayer and work.
From the outside, the cycle of hard work, rest, wholesome food, companionship and prayer seems like a healthy life, and the sisters confirm that sickness is rare at the monastery. Sister Barbara Smickel is 85, participates fully in community life, and radiates the energy of someone much younger. “You should see her at work,” Sister Maria said.
Sister Barbara said they welcome questions about their lives. “We want people to know we’re here and to understand what we do.” She said their interactions with the outside world are overwhelmingly positive. “We wear our habits when we shop, and people stop us to ask for our prayers.” The requests might be very specific, for someone who is sick, or just general in nature, but they honor them faithfully. They keep track of events in the world without becoming obsessed or distracted. They vote in elections and pray for those they see suffering from war and natural disasters.
Sister Maria had been a missionary in Ukraine and, before that, a social worker. Sister Barbara joined the order shortly after high school, and Mother Kathy was in the Air Force and had a private pilot’s license. She misses flying, but she sees all of their past occupations and concerns as being replaced by something bigger. “It’s like when you’re a kid and you can’t imagine Saturday mornings without cartoons,” she said. “You soon find something that’s more important.”
It’s that realization—the idea that there is something more important––that unites the sisters, all from very different backgrounds, in their vocation. They knew they were called at a young age. Sister Barbara understood what she was to do right away: Mother Kathy and Sister Maria said it took them a while to figure out exactly where they should be. They’re committed to keeping their minds and hearts open to receive God. He’s not just in the chapel or the garden, Sister Maria said. “When we make cheese, He’s there; when we forgive someone for a minor hurt, He’s there; when we celebrate special days, He’s there.”
Living closely with a number of women from vastly different backgrounds is sometimes a test of patience, the sisters admitted, but they see this as spiritual growth and another blessing of their way of life. They believe freedom from the constant noise of today’s world has made them more able to see God’s beauty around them and to accept the warmth and companionship of a close-knit community. “People sometimes call monastic life a ‘school of love,’ Sister Maria said. “I think it’s also a school of happiness.”
Sitting in Silence with an Open Heart
“There are many doors and windows to God, and many types of prayer,” said Debbie Scott. She’s the director of Mountain Light Retreat, a lovely compound she and her husband David bought and restored a little more than a year ago. Scott served as the spiritual director at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for more than a decade and became interested in centering and contemplative prayer.
“You’d be surprised what you can learn if you sit quietly before God with an open heart,” she said. As she learned more, she assisted the congregation in beginning a Celtic mass and other activities incorporating stillness, ritual and contemplation at St. Paul’s.
Scott welcomes groups to use her center for retreats, and she also serves as leader for events sponsored by Mountain Light Retreat. Recently, she asked those who had attended a retreat how their experience could be improved, and the most common answer was that they would have appreciated another day. “It takes a while for people to gear down,” she said.
Scott sees her personal contemplative practice as the force behind her decision to provide a peaceful place for those who need it. “You can’t always see God’s hand in your life at the time,” she said. “But then you look back and think, ‘of course!’”
She has some guidance for those who find it hard to free their mind of everyday worries and logistics in order to be receptive to both the beauty around them and God’s voice in the universe. “No one can empty out all their thoughts at will,” she said. “Start with a shorter period of time.” She quoted Thomas Keating’s response to a beginner, who was frustrated by the intrusion of unrelated thoughts 10,000 times during a short prayer session. Keating, himself a Trappist monk, responded: “How lovely, to be able to return to God 10,000 times.”
Find out more about Our Lady of the Angels or order a round of Gouda at olamonastery.org. Sr. Barbara suggests those interested in cheese for the holidays call for availability before ordering.
For a schedule of retreats, or to plan you own retreat at Mountain Light Retreat, visit mountainlightretreatva.com.