By Robert R. Schwarz
It is love that impels them to pursue everlasting life;
therefore they are eager to take the narrow road.
A Rule of St. Benedict
For many of us, monasteries and the lives of monks and cloistered nuns appear other-worldly and a convenient way to avoid the realities of everyday life; monastic lifestyles, due mostly to Hollywood movies and the scant number of in-depth media reports, have left us with the distorted impression that these lifestyles , though laudable in many respects, are severely strict and unnecessary for a Christian life. As a former newspaper reporter and editor, this once was my perception, too . But it gradually changed, not due to any particular religious leaning but rather to interviewing and writing about monastic people around the world, including Mother Theresa and her Sisters of Charity at their Calcutta headquarters. A few months ago and now retired, I decided to update my observations of monastic life and, with my wife, Mary Alice , drove to the Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa. This is a report of that visit ( with a bit of editorializing added, I admit ) .
As a journalist , I naturally loved to probe for the truth of the matter. After my confinement for ten days in a Czech prison during the Cold War and later, as president of a mental health agency, I valued human freedom to search for truth more than ever. I also loathed the loss of one's free will to realize the truth about one's self. Nowadays, though much of my search for truth is still in a cloud of unknowing, I feel unshackled in pursuing it, thanks to these words from my favorite Mentor and Life Teacher: " You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."
Abbey Lane ends at the chapel and a circle of flowers and gurgling rivulets of fountain water with a statue of Mary holding the Christ child . The abbey is named after this statue. I am reminded of my first visit here more than 20 years ago when I came to produce a documentary slide program for retirement homes in Chicago land suburbs. The abbey, I had learned , was founded in 1964 by 13 Trappistine ( known today as Cistercians ) nuns whose goal was to continue and extend a tradition of monastic life that had its origins in the early Middle Ages. The sisters here now number 17. Their daughter house is in Norway.
|Two of the abbey's laborers , Sisters Myra and Rebecca|
I asked her about the cane and the flower she was holding . The cane was made by a fellow sister from a tree branch . " This rose I'm transplanting to the flower garden here , " she said , and again asked Pangie to stop barking and jumping around so much so I could take a photo of both of them. " He's a nice dog but he barks," she said.
" Yes," I replied, that's what dogs do." She laughed.
I told Sr. Joan that before I had left home, I had asked two nuns from different orders for a question to ask the abbey sisters , something with an answer that would benefit ordinary people. I asked , " How does one draw closer to Jesus ? "
Still holding onto the rose plant, she leaned heavily on her cane, and looked at me as if I had simply asked her for the time ."Talk to Him in your heart, " she said. "You can draw close to Jesus anytime of the day, any place, while washing, cleaning, or grocery shopping. . The more you do this, the closer you come to Him . "
I thanked her and suggested she get some water for the rose.
" Come on, Panjie," she said, and headed to the garden…and I headed for my interview appointment with Sr. Gail Fitzpatrick , the former abbess here .
Wisdom from the Cloister
|" Reading the Bible brings us closer to Jesus "|
She wore glasses , and a tuft of white hair protruded from her veil .
We talked close to an hour before I asked her what I had asked Sr. Joan. I prefaced it with a few remarks about how , as a roving reporter , I had never been be satisfied with what " having a relationship with Jesus " really meant . It’s a common phrase heard throughout Christendom , and though I had known individuals who surely had this relationship—a closer one than mine, I surmised—I told Sr. Gail that I still could not recall any doctrine or individual defining this phrase with street-wise vernacular or with the diction and semantics that resonated with me. Perhaps it's because this "relationship" is different for everyone ? I asked myself . Maybe inexpressible ?
Sr. Gail replied immediately in a soft voice: " We get closer t o Jesus by prayer, but a prayer that is really seeking to know Him. I know this is easy to say but not to people who have had no experience in praying . And we need to read scripture about Jesus, to hear His Word. "
Then she stressed how important—even urgent—it is today for those who evangelize or give sermons or homilies to " pin point " the exact Biblical verse or chapter that applies to the situation at hand . In her book " Seasons of Grace: Wisdom from the Cloister " ( can be ordered through one of the abbey's website, "monasterycandy.com " ) , Sr. Gail writes: " I believe that it is this daily fidelity to listening to and reflecting on the Bible that gives monasticism it vitality and makes it appealing to such a wide variety of contemporary seekers—from parish priests to Protestant pastors, from faithful Christians to those who are deeply distrustful of the Bible and the religion it represents."
|A distant view of the abbey chapel on a spring day|
From 8:30 t o 11:30, the women work at cooking, cleaning, secretarial duties, making candy, and garden work . This is followed by 30 minutes of doing whatever a sister needs to do, such taking a walk or washing their clothes. Just before lunch , which they call "dinner" because it's their main meal—all vegetables—they have a five-minute prayer, their "little hour ". Siesta time is 1 to l:35 p.m. , then another "little hour" , followed by abbey tasks time until 3:45.
"Until 5 p..m ., we do things that are enjoyable, " Sr. Gail said , " such as studying, writing, or going for a walk."
I couldn't suppress the question "do you ever go into town to see a movie? "
" No, " she replied, muffling a chuckle. We go into town only to see a doctor or shop for things we can't have delivered or buy online ."
They gather in the chapel at 5 for vespers, then head to the kitchen for their "pick up" meal , a sandwich or whatever an individual sister can find there. From this hour until 7:15 is their "grand silence," meaning no talking, no business. A night prayer sung in the chapel ends the sisters' day. " A lot of visitors come to hear this prayer, " Sr. Gail said. " It's short and melodious . Everyone is in bed by 8 p.m. But we don't have a bell that says you have to have lights out. "
" And you keep this schedule Monday through Friday ? ! I asked.
" No. Seven days a week," she said, rather casually, I thought.
"You wrote in your book [ " Seasons of Grace " ] about the great value your abbey places on communal living . " Do you ever have spats, conflicts, disagreements ?"
" We do. Our communal living is just as difficult to maintain and grow as marriage or any other environment where you have more than one person. The difference is we have a vocation to love. We here are all trying to live like Christ, a life of love. "
" Would you mind telling me what kind of conflicts you have and how you resolve them?" I asked politely, for I was beginning to like Sr. Gail as a woman with CEO-like responsibilities. .
" Sometimes it's talking too much, coming in late always to meetings, making too much noise at night. Or our liturgy committee might not agree on how the " Gloria should be sung on a feast day. The key [ to resolving our conflicts ] is to respect one another's opinions, to listen to the other person. "
" And what is your advice to Mr. and Mrs. Jones on Main Street regarding conflict resolution ? " I asked .
"We have to bring a deep respect to our communications with each other. I need to respect you as a person , who you are at this moment, not who you were or what you've done. I'm not the one to judge or call the shots. I need to have inner humility . "
We agreed that having true humility requires a realistic honest view of who your are and who your are not.
Beauty and Gratitude
I told her I was anxious to revisit the abbey land I hadn't seen in many years. " We used to do all the farming ourselves but it became a little bit too much for us," she commented. "Now we rent the fields . A couple of times we had livestock but it became too much to handle . But in our garden, we still grow tomatoes , lettuce, carrots, greenbeans, squash, raspberries and pumpkins for salads , you know. Oh, and this year we had a marvelous crop of asparagus. "
|Panorama of the abbey's bountiful square mile|
We rose from the table. Sr. Gail had several tasks awaiting her . We exchanged a few spontaneous words about "gratitude" and then parted company. Our words about gratitude and her words about coming close to Jesus lingered with me as I walked to the field gate below and opened it to a mile-wide panorama of wheat, calf-high corn, alfalfa , haystacks here and there and, beyond all that the abbey's woodlands.
I began walking slowly down a wide dirt path shaped by years of tractor wheels running over it. The sky was puffed with white clouds, and birds—most often orioles— kept flushing up from patches of wild flowers. Gazing upon this land and the life it was nourishing as I breathed in part of it, made me think of those life-lesson parables Jesus told his disciples about humankind interacting with nature.
I continued walking until , on my left and about a hundred yards down a gentle slope of corn , I saw a pond with a cabin on its far bank . A few tree branches , tall weeds, and bulrushes obscured most of this setting as if nature itself had requested it so. I walked to the pond down a furrow of corn and stood on a bank opposite the cabin , a stone's throw away. It was a simple log structure with windows without any covering and an interior empty of furnishings. I recalled being told that it was built without nails by pioneers and that the sisters sometimes came here to meditate and pray—as I did now, sitting on earth and listening to frogs and crickets.
Those thoughts about gratitude which Sr. Gail and I had shared came to mind. "Another thing about knowing God better, " she had said, " is gratitude, and gratitude for me is constantly around me when I look at nature .When I walk around here there is so much beauty and so much life and so much gift that my heart is filled with gratitude. And that comes back to me in prayer. I have so much to be grateful for: life, love, opportunities to know God in other people. "
Her words had stirred me to say, "This may sound simplistic, Sister Gail, but I am often grateful just to have been created as a human , to be given life instead of no life. "
Sr. Gail smiled and nodded her head. " You know," she said, "the closer we get to God, the simpler our thoughts about Him and Jesus will be."
I kept listening to frogs and crickets.
|The founding sisters ( with a visiting priest ) on Oct. 18, 1964. Holding the|
new monastery cross is the abbey superior, Sr. M. Columba.
The Abbey's Prayer for Discernment
to us a future full of hope.
Give us the wisdom of your Spirit so that we
may discover your plan in the gifts you have
given us, and in the circumstances of our daily
Give us the freedom of your Spirit, to seek you
with all our hearts, and to choose your will
above all else.
We make this prayer through Christ our Lord.
|17 Cistercian sisters gather for a meeting in the abbey's refectory|
All comments are welcome.
© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz