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Gouda for God
Cloistered sisters in central Virginia say their life is a school from which you never graduate.
Pauline Hovey | For the Catholic Herald
Courtesy Photo
Sr. Sophy inspects the Monastery Country Cheese, a mellow Gouda the sisters have made since 1990 to support their contemplative life in Crozet, Va.

If “silence is God’s first language,” as 16th-century mystic St. John of the Cross once noted, then the Cistercian nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet are regularly communicating with God.

In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, in a town located several miles northwest of Charlottesville, 12 cloistered sisters in the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (OCSO) combine prayerful work with the work of prayer following the Rule of St. Benedict.

Despite what some might suspect, the sisters do not take a vow of silence, although they value it highly, working in silence and setting aside specific periods of meditation and silent prayer throughout their day.

“The silence is simply to be mindful of the presence of God,” said Sister Barbara Smickel. “That’s why we keep silence as we go about our work: to try to live life in continual prayer.”

When asked about laughter overheard in the kitchen as the sisters prepared their mid-day meal, Sister Barbara added that “good humor is really important in our type of life. We need to take our vocation very seriously; we need not to take ourselves seriously. God has a wonderful sense of humor. There’s so much in community that happens that laughter comes easily. That’s a very good sign of a healthy community.”

Perhaps that is why Sister Barbara laughs easily as she chats with her guest while touring the grounds accompanied by canine friends, Amber and Jesse. It’s obvious the sisters enjoy interacting not only with one another but with their two dogs, two cats and the visitors who come to buy their Gouda cheese, pray in the chapel or retreat in one of the two guest cottages on the property.

The youngest house of the Cistercian Order in America, Our Lady of the Angels Monastery offers a beautiful setting for anyone seeking solitude and personal time with God. With scenic mountain vistas and access to a hiking trail up Pigeon Top Mountain, it’s no wonder the two cottages, which are equipped with all the necessities for cooking, as well as bedding, towels and other basic supplies, are frequently booked on weekends beginning in May through November. Although the sisters’ private areas are off limits, retreat-goers can roam more than two acres of the property and spend time in the small chapel.

Gift of Gouda

The small income from the cottages supplements the sisters’ main financial support, which comes from selling Monastery Country Cheese — a semi-soft, mild and mellow Gouda they have made since 1990.

Although the monastery is part of an international order with an abbot general, who provides the order’s bond of unity and its spiritual focus, each house is autonomous. They govern themselves, elect their own superiors and make their own living. The collaboration comes in maintaining a certain spirit and observance in the house so that it truly is part of the same order.

When, in 1987, the existing mother house in Wrentham, Mass., sought a property further south where a new community could earn a living, they were delighted to find the central Virginia site with an existing cheese-making building and equipment. They immediately saw the promise of earning a living. Never mind that the business had been dormant about five years, and that none of the sisters knew anything about the challenges of making cheese.

“We were so naïve,” Sister Barbara said, laughing. “We thought: here’s this building, here’s this business, get a few lessons and make this cheese. Well, it wasn’t quite that simple. Like most lessons in life, it’s a good thing you don’t know all the challenges or you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.”

Fortunately, kind folks offered the sisters their expertise, enabling them to start production. The sisters have run the business for 19 years with a regular client base, thanks in part to a tip the Virginia Department of Agriculture gave to The Washington Post food editor in April 1991. That tip produced a front page human interest article that made it onto the Associated Press wire, giving the sisters nationwide publicity.

“We don’t advertise at all because we always sell out before Christmas,” Sister Barbara said. They then offer the option of sending Christmas gift certificates for cheese that will be ready to mail in February. When asked why they don’t increase production, Sister Barbara said that the needs and abilities of the community are what determine the amount of cheese they make.

“We’re very careful not to let the tail wag the dog,” Sister Barbara said. “Everybody shares in this to the extent they’re able to, and it’s a wonderful community work, but it’s only part of our life here.”

In addition to providing financial support, the cheese business has become a type of apostolate. Since the sisters welcome prayer intentions, at least one in every four cheese orders will include a request for prayers, some of which are “very moving intentions,” said Sister Barbara. The sisters pray for these intentions, often not knowing the end result. “That’s why another aspect of this life is being able to live by faith that you are doing good even though you are not seeing the results,” Sister Barbara said. “It requires a good bit of faith and trust.”

Time to expand

That faith and trust seem to keep the community thriving. At a time when the number of vocations is decreasing, Our Lady of the Angels is not only seeing a slight increase in the number of candidates who come to inquire, but has doubled the number of sisters in residence since it was founded about 21 years ago.

As the community grew, space shrunk. The small kitchen and dining area, once workable with six sisters, became overcrowded with 12. More bedrooms were needed, and as the sisters age, senior-friendly bedrooms must accommodate wheelchairs and those who might become infirm.

“We want to care for one another as long as we can,” Sister Barbara said. “We don’t want to have to send anyone to a nursing home.”

The monastery’s expansion began in early 2006 and wasn’t completed until February 2008.

“It was pretty much of a drain on the community,” Sister Barbara said, with constant meetings and consultations with the architect, a local Mennonite whom the sisters had previously engaged to design the original building.

“He took this as a wonderful opportunity to make something beautiful and simple, with lots of windows and light. You hardly know you’re moving from the old building to the new,” she said.

In late 2007, out of necessity, they simultaneously took on the expansion of the cheese barn. The physical stress on the sisters caused by the continuous heavy lifting, pushing and pulling involved in operating old equipment was taking its toll.

“People were injuring shoulders, backs,” Sister Barbara said. “We realized we’re on a collision course here unless we do something to make the business more ergonomic.”

Unable to make cheese from January through August 2008, the sisters resorted to money in reserves and relied on donations.

“We obviously couldn’t do an expansion at either place without donations,” Sister Barbara said.

In the future, the sisters envision building a permanent church. The current chapel only seats 20 to 25 people, and on Sundays, more than 40 people attend Mass, with wall-to-wall people on Easter and Christmas.

“We always encourage people to connect to a local parish,” Sister Barbara said. “But they mostly come here for the style of the liturgy, which is more quiet and reverent than is found in many parish services.”

Still, the sisters aren’t ready for such a grand undertaking, not only because of the cost involved, “but to plan a church and do it right takes a lot of time and energy,” Sister Barbara said. And that would mean more time away from their contemplative lifestyle.

Prayers for all

A vital component of the monastic life is praying the Liturgy of the Hours. Daily, the sisters rise at 3 a.m. to begin the vigil, or night office, which is followed by set periods of prayer and silence throughout their day, ending with compline at 7 p.m.

Their schedule also includes two work periods, during which they do laundry, clean, cook, answer letters, catalogue the library, plan liturgy, mow the lawn and handle other grounds and house maintenance.

“We really try to keep the work contained in those work periods so there is sufficient time for personal reading and prayer,” Sister Barbara said.

Although cloistered, the sisters venture out at least weekly for trips into town, combining grocery shopping with medical, business and other appointments. In an area where there aren’t many Catholics, the sisters have never encountered any prejudice, just “a lot of curiosity,” according to Sister Barbara.

“We always wear our habits, so we’re identified, and we’ve come to be fairly well known in the community and very well received,” Sister Barbara said. “You’d be surprised the number of people who will come up to you in Kroger’s while you’re pushing your shopping cart and ask, ‘Oh, Sister, please pray for my daughter. She’s having a very difficult pregnancy.’ Or ‘Sister, please pray for my son who just lost his job.’ People just feel inspired to confide to us.”

In addition to the needs and requests of individuals, the sisters pray for the needs of the world. To stay informed, they receive a weekly news magazine, and one sister checks the computer daily for news events or tragedies that may need intercessory prayer. The sisters post these intentions on the bulletin board for all to hold in prayer.

Learning to love

“We realize that, proportionately speaking, very few people are going to be called to this way of life,” Sister Barbara said. She likens entering the cloister to a love affair that grows on you.

“Some people are much surer than others about entering this relationship. I would say people are less inclined to be sure these days; there are so many more options available, so we just work with people as they are,” she said.

For Sister Barbara, who recently celebrated her golden jubilee, answering the monastic call has brought much joy.

“I still sometimes think this is just too good to be true that this is happening to me. This is such a good life,” she said.

When asked why, Sister Barbara has a clear answer: “For me, this is the place where I am learning to love. All Christian life, all human life is about learning to love, to move beyond ourselves to something or someone more important to us than ourselves. That’s what love is all about.”

But she adds that “monastic life has no monopoly on this. A good marriage certainly is about learning to love. What they’re calling love when a couple stands at the altar is not at all what they’ll call love 40 years from then. And the same with the monastic life.

“When people asked me why I wanted to do this, I used to say, ‘I want to give God everything,’ which is not a bad answer, but now looking back, I see it is a life in which God has given me everything,” Sister Barbara said.

“Our Fathers in the 11th - to 12th-century used to say the monastery is a school of love, and they said that with a deliberate intent, that it was not a house of love, but a school, because it’s a place where you learn to love. And it’s a school from which you never graduate,” she said. “You’re always learning to love; it’s never over.”

Hovey is a freelance writer from Greene County.

Find out more

The sisters welcome prayer intentions and inquiries. More information can be obtained at their Web site.

To reserve a cottage for retreats, e-mail .

For cheese orders e-mail.

To inquire about a vocation, e-mail.

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