Fr. Charles Cummings from Holy Trinity Abbey, Utah, has been serving as chaplain to our nuns at Our Lady of the Angels monastery in Crozet, Virginia. That’s a few miles outside of Charlottesville. During this past week, Fr. Charles went, as he has annually, to the Medieval Congress hosted by Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan. He participated in the Cistercian Studies section, one of the few Cistercians who can still be present at the gathering. There used be a noticeable Cistercian presence at the Institute but ageing and shrinking numbers in our communities mean that fewer monks or nuns are available to attend as we maintain essential jobs in our monasteries.
This year was the Fiftieth Annual Medieval Congress, observed in 550 sessions and bringing together some 3,000 scholars and medievalists of all stripes, including performers. The bulk of the Congress is the presentation of scholarly papers extending from themes in the Arthurian legends to medieval theology, monastic history or spirituality, or even medieval influences on Shakespeare’s writing. As you can imagine there can be a lively exchanges of views and heart-felt differences of opinion. Further enlivening the meeting are performances to inform and entertain: musical performances, this year honoring Hildegard of Bingen both as a composer and as an inspiration for modern compositions. There were dramatic readings of the Morte D’Arthur, Much Ado about Nothing, and Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf, published just last year. There was even a re-enactment of a 15th century judicial duel in full (and accurate armor); I’ll refrain from waxing ironic because I’m envious. When I was a young art-history student participating in the Museum Education department of the Metropolitan Museum, my biggest thrill was visiting the armor workshop. I had the chance to don a fourteenth century coat of mail and a fifteenth century helmet (you can barely see out of it, once the visor is closed). It’s an unforgettable experience but, at my age, I wouldn’t want to attempt the exertion required for a duel dressed like that.
While Fr. Charles was away, the sisters needed a chaplain and I had the opportunity to visit. I hadn’t been there for a long time. The community is comprised of thirteen sisters and Sr. Myriam will move on from the Novitiate and profess her first (“simple” or temporary) vows on Trinity Sunday at the end of this month. While I was there, Mother Marion, the Prioress or Superior of the community, gave me a tour of the construction site where their permanent church is being built. Anyone who has ever visited Our Lady of the Angels will be aware of how intimate their chapel is with three cramped rows of pews for guests facing a miniscule sanctuary and adjacent monastic choir. In the muggy summer, comfort is minimal.
One does not have to go as far as the monastery itself to realize that the slope in front of their buildings has been extended considerably; this will support the future parking area for visitors. During every work day, truck loads of earth are constantly brought to the site from another location “down the road”, as it was described to me, where excavation was under way for another building project. The ground floor level, a core of concrete block construction, has already risen to full height. This level will support the nuns choir, sanctuary and guests’ chapel above. The ground level will provide ample library space for the sisters so shelves upon shelves of books will no longer line the hallways, the chapter room and part of a barn. Perpendicular to the library is space for a hospitality center for visiting groups to gather, a portress’ lodge and shop for the sisters’ cheese and a parlor. Enough has been completed (despite a late start last fall and an uncooperative winter) to envision the addition. On completion, the exterior will be surfaced in brick.
At the present moment, Sr. Kathy Ulrich, the community’s Novice Director, is keeping a discerning eye on the progress and daily challenges of construction. She’s a conscientious liaison between the sisters and contractors. Last Saturday, she, Mother Marion and the dogs–Amber and Jesse (James)–were diverted by the drone photographing the progress from above. The drone resembles a flying spider and has the subtlety of a Cuisinart hard at work. When the dogs got over that novelty, old Amber, supposedly suffering from arthritis, enjoyed raising clouds of dust as she raced about or joined Jesse in a muddy, tadpole filled pond at the foot of the slope, a by-product of construction.