PRAIRIE DU SAC, Wis. — Abigail Berg acknowledged God’s undeniable call to religious life in the first week of her freshman year at The Catholic University of America.
She stuck it out for two more years — and went through four majors — until she quit school and tried her vocation as a Cistercian nun at Valley of Our Lady Monastery, located on 112 acres in Prairie du Sac, outside of Madison, Wis.
“It’s clear that all my life I felt a call to investigate religious life; I just had to trust God was speaking to me out of my deepest desire and start actively seeking a community,” the Osseo, Minn., native said. “When I came here, I knew it was the right place.”
Now, as a 22-year-old known as Sister Mary Bede, she has finished one year as a postulant and one year as a novice; she’s due to make temporary vows in a few months if the community votes to accept her.
Sister Mary Bede is the third oldest of the half-dozen 20-something women wanting to join this community of Cistercians of the original observance — the only one of its kind in the United States.
The mother prioress, Sister Bernarda Seferovich, 67, reported that the 20 nuns of the monastery range in age from 21 to 78, with a good distribution of ages in between (the average age is 46). Six young women entered in 2006; three entered in 2007, and eight are discerning.
When asked what she thought was attracting young women to this ancient contemplative order, Sister Bernarda replied, “To begin with, God.” She added, “Then, perhaps, the desire for a life of prayer, solitude, simplicity, with an ancient liturgy in Latin and Gregorian chant, and a simple, traditional habit. Also, we follow the directives of our order and the Church.”
Sister Mary Bede boiled it down to this: “When you’re looking for a traditional, habit-wearing, Divine Office-saying order, it narrows down your choices a bit.” She preferred the Cistercians to some of the newer orders, explaining, “Definitely, it’s a comfort knowing that the Rule of St. Benedict has sanctified hundreds of thousands of men and women throughout the ages. It helps to live a life in faith — that God will work through our superiors and rule to bring about our sanctification.”
Weathering the Past
Sts. Robert of Molesme, Alberic of Citeaux and Stephen Harding founded the first Cistercian monastery for men outside of Dijon, France, in 1098; 127 years later, a monastery was founded for women who wanted to imitate the life of the monks.
Swiss Cistercian sisters founded the Valley of Our Lady when they purchased some Wisconsin farmland in 1957, just a few years before the Second Vatican Council began.
Sister Mary Dolores Damasco, 78, has been a religious for 39 years and lived through the era of upheaval of the Church in America. “During that time, women superiors did not attend the general chapter of our order, so we were not in touch with the information about all the monasteries,” she said.
At the time, not all monasteries were holding fast to their roots. “Some of the contemplative nuns did come here to visit and show us what freedom they had and their changes,” Sister Mary Dolores said. “But we kept up with our instructions and studies; we felt we didn’t have to join them in their way of life.”
A priest overseeing the monastery adhered to the Cistercian ideal and gave conferences on the Rule of St. Benedict, vows, chant and lectio divina (prayerful reading of the Bible), she said, and the prioress gave classes on the sacraments, Latin, documents of the Church, doctrine and liturgy.
Some changes were made at Valley of Our Lady, according to Sister Bernarda: They adopted the Novus Ordo Mass; followed a “cleaned up” form of the Divine Office and liturgical calendar; changed their horarium (daily schedule) to allow more time for prayer and study; and simplified their habit. Also, the superior now attends the general and congregational chapters.
When asked what keeps her order so grounded in its ancient origins and traditions, Sister Mary Dolores responded, “There is a preservation of identity; progress comes not from something entirely new, but a returning to the charism of the founders. In tradition, the past is present but updated.”
Dominican Father Brian Mullady has seen many traditional orders survive the decades after Vatican II. Theological consultant for the Institute on Religious Life in Libertyville, Ill. — a collaborative effort of Catholic bishops, priests, religious and laity to foster and strengthen vocations to the consecrated life — Father Mullady said: “Mostly they weathered the changes by adapting the things that needed to be adapted for young people — there are sisters on the Internet and carrying BlackBerries — but preserving the habit, the cloister, silence, reading at table, living in community.”
Building for the Future
Father Mullady is optimistic about the future of traditional orders such as the Cistercians at Valley of Our Lady. “The more traditional orders are very open to the future because they are living the traditional faith, which transcends time and space,” he said. “Emphasizing the supernatural dimension of faith is the key to preserving the past and looking ahead to the future.”
Besides welcoming more young women seeking God every year, Sister Bernarda has one major initiative in mind for the future of Valley of Our Lady Monastery. “A big one is our hope to relocate to a place of more quiet and solitude than our present site,” she said. “There, if God wills and we receive the necessary funds, we plan to build a traditional Cistercian monastery of lasting materials.”
Sister Bernarda went on to explain, “Monasteries that have been lived in and prayed in over centuries by successive generations begin to acquire an increasing ‘patina’ of prayer and a presence of God that newer, less-lasting buildings can never have.
“To enter and live one’s life in one of these ancient buildings gives one a sense of having put on an identity that is greater than any one person could ever be individually.”
Annamarie Adkins writes
from St. Paul, Minnesota.