Many of us probably remember Monty Python’s Flying Circus as an integral part of our university years. If you don’t go that far back, I understand that the old guys have taken their stuff on stage, recycling their old material. John Cleese had said something like, “It’s what the audience wants…and it’s easier for us to remember it.” I can sympathize. How did they get from one surreal scenario (the dead bishop on the landing of a tenement was a favorite of mine) to the next mad antic (“No one expects the Spanish Inquisition” was another)? There was the perennial transition: “Now for something totally different…”
Well, after several weeks of humility in the Rule of St. Benedict, it seems time for something totally different. And what could be more different than news about our sisters in Crozet, Virginia? That’s part of the experience of monk’s first visit to a monastery of our nuns; at least it was of mine. The first monastery of nuns I encountered was Our Lady of the Mississippi in Iowa. Whereas so much–the schedule, the prayers, the work, the types of people in the community, the individual “back stories”, the relation to the land, the layout of the plant–is immediately recognizable, it is somehow totally different. That may not be a universal reaction but it’s proven to be more than just my reaction. Of course, that sense of difference says that men and women are different and not just biologically. Among ourselves, we relate in different ways; we create different environments; we value different things–and it shows. My great uncle, Joe used to say, “It takes a thousand men to make a barracks but one woman to make a home”. There was a time in my life that I thought the nuns were doing all this better than we do; now I wonder whether that was just a case of the grass looking greener on the other side. It probably had a lot to do with my youthful idealism needing to believe that an ideal life existed somewhere. I won’t say that, as a priest, listening to sisters’ confessions changed my mind, but I would say that so much of what I enjoy about people arises from our human flaws and limitations. No one’s living situation is ideal.
One big difference between our monks’ and nuns’ communities is that the sisters have one chaplain and we have at least several priests. There was a time–say sixty years ago–when a chaplain to our sisters would have the company of one or two lay brothers who could help the sisters with some of the heavier work. Isn’t it interesting that even in the old days of grill work separating the sisters from everyone else, they had a masculine presence as a part of their lives? Monks had, in those days, no equivalent feminine presence. But again, the similarities: both monks and nuns are not limited by gender roles in executing all those different duties that keep any plant running. Our society has changed on that score, too, but monasticism was already ahead there for well over a thousand years.
Nowadays it can be a real stretch for the monks community to supply one chaplain. Yet is a very important service to our sisters to provide a chaplain for Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Many of our sisters are not only well educated but most sisters keep very well informed on matters theological, scriptural, liturgical and spiritual; a chaplaincy can be challenging and stimulating work. Recently, Abbot Robert spent the better part of a week with our sisters at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet alternated as celebrant and homilist with Fr. Joseph of our community who has served as their chaplain for about eleven years. The sisters are still in their original chapel, the choir of which, was full to bursting with one Abbot added to the mix.
My memory of preaching in the chapel a few times was the immediacy of the congregation–the sisters were just a couple of yards away in front of me and the guests, a yard to my right. It was wonderful! No lectern, no barriers and I used no notes. OK, that’s great for the preacher, but the sisters can feel squeezed in like sardines (for some reason, I think of a NYC subway car). If many guests arrive–let’s say for Christmas or the Paschal Vigil–their space is invaded by chairs and strange people. Well, not only are the sisters planning on a new church, but they’re ready for one. And, but for a few details, the plans are ready too. The addition would match, and complete, the already existing brick monastery and join where the present temporary chapel lies. The cemetery would adjoin the exterior of the church. Of course, this means some heavy duty fund-raising which Mother Marion, the community’s superior, is managing single-handed so far.
For more information about our sisters see their website at www.olamonastery.org You will find on the homepage a tab all the way to the right for the church project with the projected elevation and floor plans as well as a very fine post on the subject. The website is full of photos (including a banner of snaps of the recent snow) to introduce you to the community. It is a well thought out site, intelligently written with informative posts.