By Barbara Jane Sloan - OSV Newsweekly, 4/3/2011
At first glance, the signs around the 400-acre farm seem to designate a nature preserve, which they do. A closer look reveals more text on the sign. Monastic Enclosure.
This is the threshold of the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Conn.
Founded in 1948 by Mother Benedict Duss, an American-born medical doctor who had spent most of her life in France and who served as the community’s first abbess, and Mother Mary Aline Trilles de Warren, a fellow nun from the French Abbey of Notre Dame de Jouarre, Regina Laudis was the first monastery of its kind in the United States — Benedictine, cloistered, contemplative.
Regina Laudis means “Queen of Praise,” and the Divine Office is at the heart of abbey life. The nuns pray in Latin Gregorian chant seven times daily and once in the middle of the night. (The nuns have released several chant CDs. For information, visit http://osv.cm/hip1M1.)
Work and prayer complement one another. The 36 nuns maintain dairy and beef cattle, sheep, gardens, orchards and pastures. They engage in crafts such as blacksmithing, woodworking, sculpture, and even make their own Bethlehem Cheese.
Monastic enclosure is more than a physical perimeter. Nuns take a vow of stability, living and working within the abbey and leaving only with permission of the abbess. Even the monastic horarium, or daily schedule, is an enclosure.
“There’s the physical enclosure of the monastery as a place but there’s also the spiritual enclosure of the day,” Mother Augusta Collins told Our Sunday Visitor. “I think the more you grow into your life in the abbey you begin to see your work more as prayer and your prayer as work; it’s not a dichotomy.”
This life is a radical choice amid a culture that understands freedom to be an absence of boundaries. What purpose could such separation serve?
The first thing is to realize that a monastic enclosure is not a means of escape or isolation. It is more like a cocoon than a coffin.
Enclosures cultivate life, whether in a plant cell, person or family. Mother Margaret Georgina Patton describes the monastic enclosure as a “permeable membrane” rather than a barrier. “I think of it as a structure which allows the community to live at an intensity to which it’s called.” Foremost in this life, she explains, is a call to “marriage to Christ through the community.”
Mother Augusta, who manages the abbey beef herd and pastures, was surprised by the intense community life when she entered in 1975. “The dynamic of this life is within the parameters of the monastery,” she says. “St. Benedict sets it up so the business of the community can take place in the enclosure.” Interpersonal issues must be faced. Fostering community life, says Mother Augusta, “is a whole aspect of our spirituality and the enclosure enables that ... if you don’t face [others], you can’t function as a true person within the community because you’re not going deeper.”
The enclosure isn’t meant to isolate nuns from the world. The abbey library has multimedia access; some nuns use cell phones and e-mail if it pertains to their work. Mother Margaret Georgina describes the integration of technology as a process. “Our culture is different since the Internet. Everything moves by links,” she saids. “And we have to take those realities and say, ‘How do we understand those within a Benedictine frame, and how do they bring something new and life-giving to work with?’”
The nuns serve the world from within the enclosure by witnessing to contemplative life. Mother Noella Marcellino explained, “There is a public aspect to monastic life that has to be made visible to humanity.” The classic definition of monastic life, she says, is fuga saeculi, a flight from the secular. “There’s a social aspect to that flight ... you flee the world not to abandon it to itself, but to find in it places of recollection, new possibilities of Christian — and therefore human — existence.”
Mother Noella first visited Regina Laudis in the 1960s. Her experience led her to question the “anything goes” mentality of the culture at that time. “We were thinking freedom was going to come through breaking through enclosures and structures, breaking out. We wouldn’t have dreamed of finding such vibrant people behind the grille ... that was an enigma to us, and very attractive to us, and sort of a good stumbling block.” Working on the land and praying with the nuns gradually introduced Mother Noella to “life-giving enclosures.” She entered as a postulant in 1973.
The abbey welcomes more than prospective entrants. “It has been said that as soon as a monastery has been founded, there’s a guest room,” said Mother Margaret Georgina. Thousands visit Regina Laudis annually; guests are welcomed as though they are Christ.
A first-time visitor may be surprised to speak to a nun through a grille. The guest may be distracted by the full habit, which covers everything but her hands and face. Mother Margaret Georgina said that, rather than being a hindrance, the grille and habit allow her to interact freely with guests. “It focuses our relationship; it makes us available,” she told OSV. If guests are staying overnight, the nuns encourage a sense of enclosure by asking them to come to the guest refectory for meals and inviting them to participate in work and prayer.
Regina Laudis also offers a monastic internship program (see sidebar). Men and women can apply to spend a year working alongside nuns in the areas of land stewardship, monastic arts and monastic studies. They are also invited to attend the Liturgy of the Hours. “The interns really come into the enclosure into very much of an intimacy with us,” said Mother Margaret Georgina.
Ultimately, the Benedictines hope guests can integrate their experience at the abbey into everyday life. “We are witness contemplatives for the Church, that’s what the abbey is. But everyone has a contemplative side,” said Mother Noella, a guest mistress. She meets many guests who feel they live a fractured existence between the demands of home, work, church and family. “Each person has the possibility for the sacred and to bring what he does to his daily life to the altar. We’re trying to say, ‘What’s the thread in your life? How can you find God in that work which you do?’”
Mother Margaret Georgina marvels at the “awakening” that can happen when guests experience silence and enclosure at the abbey. She expresses the importance of the contemplative outlook in the information age. “We are impelled into a consciousness of worldwide suffering and chaos; I think it’s unprecedented what we, not just in the monastery but as human beings, are asked to bear.”
Finding a space for silence leads to “a place of what we call ‘peace in conflict.’ It’s not a static or a stagnant peace, but it’s a way to live with consciousness of so much that’s in disorder or chaos.” Mother Margaret Georgina hopes laypeople consider, “Maybe there is some time in my day when I don’t have to be available to the whole world. Maybe there is a way that silence can be a part of my life. Somewhere. Sometime.”
Barbara Jane Sloan writes from Georgia. Visit www.abbeyof reginalaudis.com/ for more information.
St. Benedict of Nursia is the founder of Western monasticism. In A.D. 500, he abandoned an unfulfilling life as a student in Rome. He established a monastery at Monte Cassino. Though it sat perilously atop a mountain, it became a cornerstone. Fifteen hundred years later, the Benedictine life continues according to his Rule, attesting to the enduring relevance, timeliness and necessity of monastic life.
The contemplative life of the Abbey of Regina Laudis may seem worlds away from the glitter and lights of the entertainment industry, yet the monastic community has captured Hollywood’s attention nearly from its start in the late 1940s.
The founding of the abbey inspired the 1949 movie “Come to the Stable,” starring Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as two French nuns who arrive in a small New England town to build a children’s hospital.
In 1963, a promising young Hollywood actress named Dolores Hart, who had appeared in “Loving You” and “King Creole” with Elvis Presley and the spring-break hit “Where the Boys Are,” entered the community. In a February interview with Entertainment Weekly, Mother Dolores Hart, now the prioress of Regina Laudis, explained the appeal of monastic life: “People think that it is a life that is shut off, or you’re gone from the world, but it’s exactly opposite. You are more embedded into the world. It’s a way of love that includes everyone that you’ve ever loved.’’
The monastic internship program at the Abbey of Regina Laudis is open to men and women who are 18 or older. Acceptance is discerned through a process of personal interviews and time spent at the abbey, as well as through a written application.
Those interested in the program can get information by writing to the following address:
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