I go hiking up the mountain behind the Monastery (and learn something)
St. Gertrude’s Monastery was as quiet as a graveyard when I slipped out the front door yesterday morning at 6. The rush hour hadn’t yet begun if you could call it that. It’s more like a subdued procession each day to the cafeteria for breakfast. At most, you hear light, whispering footfalls through the halls as 10 to 15 elderly sisters, one monk, and a few staff head for the cafeteria to sit at separate tables and eat in silence each morning (except Saturdays and some Sundays). I left before the procession started intending to hike to the top of the mountain behind St. Gertrude’s. If I didn’t do it early, I’d think of a thousand reasons not to do it at all.
As the door to the Monastery clanged shut behind me, I gauged the weather. Not likely to rain but overcast. Cool air. No breeze. Was it really June 19th? It should have been hot already, but just in case, I’d brought an extra shirt to capture escaping body heat. Good thing. Dew sparkled on the toes of my shoes as I cut across the grass and merged with the road leading up to the orchard (where the cherries are almost ready, and a few birds were there testing them). The road was little more than a two-track. It had rained the night before and at least one deer had crossed a soft part in the road the night before, leaving tracks. The road was covered with crushed rock that crunched beneath my feet and on curves, had been pushed off into the weeds along the shoulder as if propelled by some mechanized centrifugal force.
Just up the hill from the orchard, on the left side of the road and as far as I could see ahead were what looked like little houses with roofs, interpretive signs with glass fronts, dioramas. Inside were colorful statues of Jesus and his disciples, Mary, and others. These were Stations of the Cross, as they’re called in Catholicism. The Monastery created 14 stations between the bottom of the hill and a cemetery further up where sisters who have passed on are buried. Intellectually curious, I knew little of these but remembered La Via Dolorosa, a song I used to love to sing in church – “Por la Via Dolorosa, que es la via del dolor, como oveja vino Christo, Rey y Senor...”). Each station had a large stone placed next to it, to allow people hiking up the hill to rest, I assumed.
I originally planned to stop at each of the dioramas but after the first few stations a trail leading off to the left seduced me off the road and onto it. Above the road I saw signs for a Garden Grotto. Despite the incline my knees were functioning the way they’re supposed to and the wide, surfaced trail looked decent so I took it. The Garden Grotto, according to an engraved rock next to the trail, was built to honor deceased benefactors who have gifted $10,000 or more to the Monastery. Following the path up through the forest, there were rocks engraved with names, not many, and behind low rock walls and an iron gate was the open-faced chapel.
Like the Monastery, the Chapel was built of huge, randomly shaped, stacked blue porphyry stones quarried from the mountainside. Inside was an alabaster-colored statue of the Virgin Mary and other smaller statues around her, an altar, and aqua-colored pews with the requisite hard wooden kneeling benches attached. The roof was constructed out of boards, bark still attached, likely harvested from the forest. The Chapel felt subterranean. Sheltered and peaceful. The only thing I heard were birds (despite listening for mountain lions, bears, and wolves that might be taking stalking me from the underbrush). There were waist-high barriers around the Chapel and I wondered if wildlife seek refuge here during storms.
I could have stayed there indefinitely but heard the forest calling. So, I continued up the trail leading away from the road. It too was a charming, well-maintained pathway weaving through trees. There were places to rest but I kept climbing, drawn upward. Alongside the trail bright yellow and pink flowers grew in grass so green it almost hurt my eyes and waved a regal greeting.
“Good morning, good morning. Look this way,” they sang into the breeze. “Aren’t you glad you passed by here?” I was.
The trail ended after a short distance, but a narrow path continued up, rejoining the road. I took it without hesitation, although it was narrow and un-surfaced, pushing my way through the grasses and weeds. It was only further up the hill on the road again that I noticed vigorous stands of “leaves of three” in the understory. Great, poison ivy, I muttered. I would do a tick check too when I got back. But I didn’t notice any of that then. I saw only the colors, heard only the birds, and smelled only the forest.
A short distance up the hill and around a corner I came across two pillars topped by trumpet-blowing angels overseeing the entrance to the Monastery’s cemetery which was, a sign said, established in 1908. The cemetery is for sisters only, save two men from the Schallberger family who were buried there, brothers who both lived at the Monastery. My friend Mienrad, the priest here, is a descendant of the Schallberger family and will also, he says, be laid to rest there one day.
The cemetery appeared ½ full with ample room in the clearing for expansion. Clover had invaded the lush green grass. Here and there the grass had reached heights that suggested Monastery gardeners should be there any day. The sight of the cemetery quieted me.
From left to right, row after row of old headstones topped with crosses were in back and row after row of low-profile polished granite grave markers were in front of them. There were three temporary markers, reminders of the three sisters who have died since the beginning of 2023. At the cemetery’s center, in front of a small, blue church-shaped building with a steeple (and possibly a bell though I didn’t see one) was a statue of Jesus on the cross encircled by white rock. Into the rock had been placed markers for four sisters: St. Gertrude’s founders, Sr. Mary Hildegard Vogler (1867-1957), Sr. Mary Scholastica Uhlenkott (1878-1943), Sr. Mary Johanna Zumstein (1850-1926), and Sr. Mary Eugenia Schallberger (1885-1969).
I sensed a great cloud of witnesses represented by all those headstones and suddenly better understood the sisters living below in the Monastery. I’d wondered how they maintain optimism about the future given their dwindling numbers. Like much of the church in most denominations, theirs is a dying way of life. Despite this, the silent testimony in this place of the many who have gone before, I realized, is why they hope and persist.
It’s not about how many of them are left. It’s about their faithfulness to tend a flame, they would call it the eternal light of Christ, I suppose. About keeping it burning. The sisters buried above on the mountain were flame keepers for the Benedictine life in their day. The sisters I’ve come to know here tend it still. Why?
According to Britannica, their life is one of dedication to the rule of St. Benedict who lived from 480-547 AD. The rule, I learned when I looked it up later, provides a “complete directory for both the government and the spiritual and material well-being of a monastery by carefully integrating prayer, manual labour, and study into a well-rounded daily routine.” Benedictine monasteries are refuges where nuns, monks, and lay people live together in community. While they are able, many are engaged in outreach like teaching in schools and providing health care in surrounding communities. Benedictine flame keepers have been at this since about 547 AD. Benedictine flame keepers will continue until there are none left.
But I knew none of that standing on the mountain. I only knew then that I was guilty of not having been curious, not asking questions to find out what they knew that I didn’t. I’d held the sisters at arms-length spiritually because I had put them in a box. Written on the box was “nice for them, not for me”. Liturgical expression wasn’t anything I valued, and besides, I was at the Monastery to write, not search for the next church in a long line of churches I’ve tried.
What I neglected to consider was that I couldn’t really know and understand them (or my relation to them) if I didn’t understand what they value. So, I resolved right there to get to know them better in the weeks I have left here.
Since coming to St. Gertrude’s, I’d learned a few things about nuns. They were things I would never have suspected from listening to school mates swap tales about the nuns at St. Mary’s Elementary.
“That teacher was so mean!” one would begin, “Remember how she pulled Bobby up by the ear, cussed at him, and hit him with a yardstick for passing notes?”
“Oh yeah! I remember that! And remember when…” the next kid joined in.
I wasn’t convinced that happened, but they liked to talk about it. So, I decided nuns were scary. By the time I got to St. Gertrude’s on June 1st, aside from the rumored sadistic predilection of nuns, I had developed expectations about how they would act. They would be ever serious and pious, not given to levity or discussions about anything other than faith. They would walk around quietly intoning about Jesus, Mary, and other religious matters. That was all.
Since I’d come to St. Gertrude’s I’d learned that yes, they do some of those things, not always, but at the appropriate times. In general, they’re like any non-Benedictine person. They laugh, they cry, they get sick, they get annoyed with each other, and because most of them have lived together for decades, they like to meet outsiders.
“Where are you from, how tall are you, and what are you writing?”, I’m frequently asked at meals.
We tease each other and laugh a lot. I do dark dishes (pots and pans) nightly with rotating sisters and we talk about stuck-on cheese and potatoes and how much dish soap to use. We watch the nightly news together. So far I’ve helped one sister who uses a walker bake two angel food cakes, one chocolate cake (the sister said it’s called Better than Sex Cake to which another sister scoffed, “How would she know?”), and some kind of heavenly hash cookie bar for the Retreat Center. I sit with a different table of sisters for each meal. They’re great companions who make me laugh. I return that in kind.
But they are serious about their faith. From time to time, they invite me to join them for Morning, Mid-day, and Evening Praise, Vigils, and the Eucharist but they don’t proselytize. It’s more like one beggar telling another where she found bread. Each sister wears a gold band on her left hand signifying her symbolic marriage to Christ. They praise God in responsive readings and song, sometimes accompanied by an organ, less often by the piano, and sometimes without any musical instrumentation at all. They observe strict silence at breakfast every day but Saturday (and maybe Sunday too, I don’t remember). There’s prayer before supper (lunch) and prayer before dinner (usually soup and salad). They observe set feast days when they celebrate saints and such, oftentimes with dessert. Their practices, structure, and ritual bring them closer to God, they tell me.
Are they religious? Of course. They’re nuns. But aside from this, in their spare time they’re interested in many other things: particularly the arts and talking to people who come from outside the Monastery. The Artists in Residency Program is an outgrowth of that. In addition to my nightly dark dish duty, one of the conditions I’ll satisfy in exchange for their hospitality is to make a presentation on what I’ve written while here. They say they’re looking forward to it, aside from one sister that I told in jest that my presentation could last two hours.
“Phhht! That’s not happening!” she burst out. “We’ll be walking out on you!” Maybe I’ll read this to them instead.
Though the sisters are serious about their faith, few take themselves seriously. One day I asked a group of them sitting at my supper table, “Do you carry rulers?”
They threw their heads back and laughed. “No, but I heard that Sister So and So used to throw erasers in her classes,” lobbed-back a feisty sister. Another protested, “No, really?”
The rest agreed that they’d never heard of a sister busting the knuckles of young children. That led to a discussion about how frustrating teaching school can be. Some of them were teaching before I was born. Most have worked outside the Monastery for years and now at advanced ages, continue working inside it. They’re individually responsible for chores and most, also for keeping the facility functioning: overseeing contractors, maintenance, the garden, caring for all but the most advanced medically compromised sisters in a dedicated wing of the Monastery, planning celebrations and festivals, operating a large library, the Artist in Residency program, managing the forest on the mountain behind the Monastery, and more.
As I stood in the cemetery looking over all those headstones, I didn’t minimize any of these, but realized that the most amazing thing about these sisters is not the work they did or do, but that they, like the sisters interred on the mountain, are flame keepers for a way of life and a committed walk that few of the rest of us will ever fully understand. That I don’t understand and probably never will. And considering their dwindling numbers, they are planning for the future to ensure that the Benedictine flame continues to burn. They’ve begun transitioning to a new model of Benedictine living that encompasses more lay people (oblates and co-housing companions, they are called). Co-housing is a “new way for women to live Benedictine, monastic life outside the traditional requirements of Roman Catholic religious life” (translated, without taking vows to become a nun). It’s hoped that these will bolster the numbers of the next generation of flame keepers.
As I turned away from the cemetery to go further up the mountain into the sisters’ 1,000+ acre forest, I asked myself for whom and for what do I carry a flame? Visiting the cemetery had given me a lot to think about.
The road got narrower and I was beginning to walk through taller weeds when I looked down and saw poison ivy along the road and thought about ticks. My knees were complaining with every step too, suggesting I postpone the climb to the top of the mountain to another day. So, I did.
This morning I didn’t hike back up the mountain. Not yet. As is the case after every thought-provoking outing, my brain was like a sponge that needed to be wrung out. I wanted to write down my thoughts and make sense of what I experienced.
Tomorrow morning I may join the sisters in their daily routine. I want to find out what they know that I don’t and what I can learn about them (and myself) in the process. Though I won’t ever be a Benedictine, I do want to be a flame keeper.
I’m reading a book written about St. Gertrude of Helfta called The Herald of Lovingkindness. As you read along with me in this blog over the next few weeks, I expect you may see a God Question about lovingkindness. It’s a quality in which I’m very interested. A flickering light that could be a flame one day.