Get thee to a nunnery

For most of my life, I didn’t know that Christian monasteries even existed in the United States. Then J. brought me to visit a Trappist abbey in Georgia, and I completely fell in love. I’m not Catholic—not even Christian—but I dig the chanting, the escape from time, the craziness of getting up at four am to look at the moon through stained glass in a cool, blue chapel for thirty minutes and then go back to sleep. In my generation, it seems like belief in anything sacred is practically, well, profane, but here it is: a beautiful, living anachronism, people who not only believe but pray and act on that faith. Heretic as it may make me in academic or hip circles, I admit: sometimes it’s good to just shut up and pray. I highly recommend the monastic experience. Here’s why…

Prayer awakens – Justice impels – Compassion acts – Thy Kingdom Come.
(the motto of the Monastery of St. Gertrude)

View from uphill
View from uphill

The Monastery of St. Gertrude, which I’ve visited four times now, sits at the base of a piney hill, on the site of an old quarry, overlooking the rippling camas prairie of Idaho. Wheat grows here, and neon yellow rapeseed for canola oil. The Seven Devils mountain range rises on the faraway, eastern horizon. They don’t call it a convent, and definitely not a nunnery: it’s a monastery, just like the guys. You don’t hear the word nun very often; they’re sisters. And sometimes, “sisters-sisters.” That’s what the two ladies said they were, one pushing the other in a wheelchair, when I introduced myself. Then they giggled. Lots of them came from the nearby small towns, teenage daughters of big, German Catholic farm families. Sisterless myself, I can’t begin to imagine their bond, these doubly-sisters.

Watch your step!
Watch your step!

Walking in, the smell of a monastery is similar to that of health food stores and your cleaner communes: baking, bulk goods, and the mysterious aroma of people sharing lives. The grounds are meticulously kept. Religious art and iconography abounds: a plaster, three-quarter-size Mary surprises me in the stairwell on the fourth floor every time I round the corner. She’s got jazz hands and a knowing eye, and her bare feet pin a serpent by the jaws.

You can stay in the retreat house or the lovely new B&B, but if you want the full experience, your best bet is volunteering. Female volunteers stay in the cloister with the nuns. (For a parallel experience, bros should pick a monk-astery.) To each her own cell, though it’s more like a dorm, were the dorm cleaned and decorated by an army of Teutonic seniors with an affinity for lace. They feed you, too. Forget the hardtack loaves and stale water of movie lore: there’s a strong strain of smorgasbörd here. Bread is fresh-baked daily, and the women spend their Augusts canning and preserving the fruit and vegetables they grow. And lo, they are into Jello and brownies and, of course, all kinds of potatoes.

They're all ladies rooms around here
They’re all ladies rooms around here…

The ladies themselves are great. While the contemplative, more silent Trappists wear robes, the Sisters of St. Gertrude are Benedictines, where the dress code is apparently Grandma Casual. (And many are actual grandmothers—it’s possible to have a family, be widowed, and then join). People often recall nuns as severe and thin-lipped, even abusive, per boarding school horror stories, but maybe these women weren’t that way, or softened after retiring from their vocations as Catholic nurses, teachers, and social workers. They’re tough, sweet, real. Around the lunch table, they were big into Obama in 2008. They’re big into Vatican II. They’re into Joan Chittister and other progressive, female Catholic theologians. They often hold hands, or touch each other on the shoulder when talking. Some of them have an ageless quality, looking far younger than their years. They are the dictionary image for spry. Take that, Retinol-A.

EntranceThree times a day, they file into their high-ceilinged chapel, split into two small choirs facing each other, and pray for the world. They read verses, sing, and chant in unison. Their beliefs and priorities are not for everyone. When I am with them, I omit many words and phrases due to discomfort with, especially, an Old Testament deity. It can be difficult to suspend judgment, but try. Just listen. When monks chant, the sound is alien, deep, surrounding. The women sound more like a small breeze coiling upward to the sky. I think they could sing anything in unison and have it sound holy:

Starting on a high note, repeated: Heavenly Hash…
Dropping with a note of melancholy: Prepared by Sis-ter Cha-nelle.
Back to the high note, opposite choir, each syllable lovingly embraced:
Contains choc-o-late chip, chunky peanut butter, miniature marshmallows
With closure: …and wal-nuts. A-men.

Volunteers, both male and female, get to hang out with monks and nuns far more than retreatants or guests. Over a pot of potatoes and armed with a peeler and a compost bucket, nonagenarian Sister Wilma told me thrilling tales of her girlhood in the 1930s. Expect to spend four to six hours a day on tasks such as weeding, housekeeping, or pitting plums. The rest of the time is yours to walk, sleep, draw, write, go to prayers (called “offices”), or watch an old Nicholas Cage movie on Tuesday Movie Night. You might even gain some spiritual insight or comfort, though probably not during the Nicholas Cage movie. (If you prefer a more structured and chore-free experience, the Spirit Center offers retreats on icon painting, meditation, grieving, and more.)

The guardian of the cemetery
The guardian of the cemetery

One last perk* of staying in the cloister is that, if you’re lucky, you’ll see how Sisters party. Once, in honor of someone’s final vows, everybody got together for a shindig on the top floor. They popped a cassette in the boombox, then settled in to play cards, shoot the breeze, and partake of mini-muffins, PBR, and boxed Sutter Home. They love each other fiercely. They also know how to mourn. Within a day of the party, an older sister died in her bedroom. The bells pealed and sang over the hills, and all the women crowded in with her, singing her spirit home with the music she had heard all her life, saying goodbye. She was buried on the hill where they will all be buried.

Speaking of which, you’d better visit soon. The ranks are dwindling. The community seems smaller than it did five years ago. The order will have to adapt or die. I don’t believe they’ll disappear, though. They are creative, faithful, and hardworking. And god knows: strange times impel people to unusual lives.

*OK, I lied. There’s one more perk: being able to truthfully say you’re volunteering for a monastery is a great way to avoid a speeding ticket when the small-town cop stops you doing 35 in a 25 zone and asks you what brings you to these parts.

Don’t ask me how I know.

The sisters

One holds my hand to lead me through the doors and down the hall. She is accustomed to the statues lurking at every turn, but I am not: in the stairwell, an Aryan Mary placidly treads on a gagging snake; a short, bald friar permanently intrudes into the female cloister; and in the community room, Jesus carelessly dangles drops of wooden blood over the doilies and pink curtains. My room is simple and there is commotion over whether the baseboards have been dusted for my arrival. I wash my face at the sink, then sit upon the bed until prayers. The sisters, mostly old women now, sit in two choirs, facing in mirror image, and sing. They sing of oil, milk and honey, but do not shy away from songs of vengeance, pettiness, plagues, weeping and gnashing of teeth—they sing of all. I linger at the edge of their music and ask silent questions. Can it be that after two children, one divorce and forty years I am going to become one of them, become of them, become them, become? Around me, thirty voices merge into the single, low, clear, patient, endless woman’s voice of God.