Enclosed in Silence: Cistercians’ Life of Prayer Draws Millennial Women
Wisconsin Cistercians attribute their growing membership to young women seeking to live radically for God in a religious vocation.
When six young aspiring sisters entered Valley of Our Lady Cistercian Monastery the year Prioress Mother Anne Marie’s own mother died in 2006, Mother Anne Marie wondered if her mom (who had six daughters) had anything to do with the new postulants’ arrival.
Whether or not a mother’s intercession played a role in the six millennials entering the community in the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin, the new sisters proved to be an abundant blessing for then-novice-mistress Mother Anne Marie, 66, who was used to forming one or two postulants a year.
“I was pestering mom,” said the Mendota, Illinois, native, “‘If you’re pulling strings to get six postulants to enter all in one year, you’re going to have to help me.’”
Four of the six women went on to profess solemn vows, and more continue to enter, so much so that community leaders had to creatively allocate space to house their now 21 members and move ahead with fundraising to build a larger monastery.
As other religious communities face declining vocations and the need to downsize as a result, the Wisconsin Cistercians attribute their growing membership to young women seeking to live radically for God in a religious vocation, together with the community’s simple, centuries-old silent life of prayer and manual work. In another part of the Madison Diocese, set in the countryside where weather extremes can sometimes feel penitential, the community plans to build their new monastery that incorporates beauty, Cistercian architectural principles and modern environmental practices.
While the overall number of U.S. religious continued to decline to 44,117 in 2018, millennial women continued to enter communities. Twenty-four percent of postulants, novices, temporary professed and perpetually professed sisters in 108 religious communities were under the age of 40, according to a 2017 membership study of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious comprised of 120 U.S. communities.
The average age of women and men religious professing perpetual vows in 2018 was 38, and half were 35 or younger, according to responses to a survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a national, nonprofit, Georgetown University-affiliated research center conducting social scientific studies about the Catholic Church.
The nuns at Valley of Our Lady monastery range in age from 23 to 88 and are from as far away as the Philippines and Brazil, said Sister Mary Bede, 32, who manages fundraising and serves as novice mistress and head of the infirmary.
The sisters belong to the ancient observance, the original branch of the Cistercian order established more than 900 years ago in Citeaux, France, which follows the Rule of St. Benedict. Theirs is the only women’s community of its kind in the United States. Valley of Our Lady monastery was founded in Wisconsin in 1957 by members of the Frauenthal Abbey in Switzerland.
Father Gregory Ihm, the Madison Diocese’s vocation director, regularly celebrates Mass for the sisters at the monastery. He said the sisters are an anchor of faith in the diocese that has helped him remain focused on the interior life while serving as a diocesan priest.
Young women may be attracted to Valley of Our Lady’s dedication to prayer and Latin chant and their white habit and black scapular and veil, but they’re really drawn by the order’s tradition that has remained fairly constant through the centuries, said Sister Mary Bede.
“I think [the tradition] was something that stayed stable and was able to attract young people when they were starting to come back to the realization that we don’t want to throw out all the traditions,” she said.
The community’s quiet simplicity first drew Sister Mary Bede, when, as a college student discerning her vocation, she noticed the community’s small black-and-white ad in the corner of a colorful vocation magazine. Sister Mary Bede, who grew up near Minneapolis, entered the community in 2007 after her sophomore year at The Catholic University of America.
God gives young people a desire to do something with their lives, Mother Anne Marie said, remembering her own call to the community 31 years ago. While teaching fourth grade as a Dominican sister in Springfield, Illinois, she sensed the Lord was calling her to a life of prayer. “I remember thinking, ‘God, this is so beautiful that you have people tucked away in little places throughout the whole world, people whose only task is to pray and hold God’s people up to him.’”
Silent and spoken prayers of praise, reparation and intercession fill the sisters’ lives, Sister Mary Bede said. “People are looking to us as a source of comfort and reassurance that God is still with us and he’s still hearing our prayers.”
The sisters’ day is structured around the Liturgy of the Hours, starting at 3:50am. Before their day ends at 8:45pm, they also attend Mass, participate in recreation activities and make altar breads for several hundred parishes — their main source of support.
Silence isn’t absolute at the monastery, but as a key part of the sisters’ life, it facilitates prayer, Sister Mary Bede said. “It’s an exterior silence to foster an interior silence so that we can remain in prayer no matter what we’re doing,” she said.
Leaving the world for a life of solitude in enclosure is dramatic, especially for young women used to smartphones and social media. Women leaving established careers in fields including art, mathematics and entomology also have especially needed time to adjust to the serene lifestyle, Sister Mary Bede said. “I think it’s probably getting more and more difficult, because of that constant noise, to step into silence and obscurity, but God does provide the grace — and those who come here do it of their own free will,” she said. As they abandon life in the world, God offers grace, Sister Mary Bede added.
“When you give your life completely to God, you can trust that he’s going to use the gifts that he gave you in a way you could never imagine using them otherwise.”
She especially understands this grace because she left behind years of study and a potential career as a violinist when she said God asked her to change her college major and discern religious life.
The influx of new sisters, Mother Anne Marie said, necessitates the new-monastery plans. God “does keep sending us new members,” she said, adding that no aspirant is turned away.
At 229 acres, the new monastery site located 40 miles away is more than twice the size of the current site and will provide a larger buffer between the monastery and outside world, Sister Mary Bede said. With space to accommodate 30 sisters, the 47,000-square-foot monastery will incorporate Cistercian architectural principles, emphasizing light, water and stone. The chapel design features windows that will bring sunlight into the interior from different angles throughout the day, said Mother Anne Marie. Also planned are a larger, updated altar-bread workshop, guesthouse and refectory, she said.
As the sisters seek funding for their new monastery, Mother Anne Marie said they’re grateful for the gift of vocations. Emphasized Sister Mary Bede, “Everyone’s here because they love God and want to seek him with their whole heart.”
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.
Online building fund: Build.ValleyofOurLady.org
Founded: 1098 in Citeaux, France, as a reform of the Benedictine Order
Founders: St. Robert of Molesme, St. Stephen Harding and St. Alberic of Cîteaux
Notable early member: St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Charism and motto: Cistercium mater nostra, Latin for “Cistercium (Cîteaux) is our mother” (also a motto from the Benedictine Order, “work and prayer”)
Order of Cistercians of the Common or Ancient Observance: They follow the Cistercian practice of the Benedictine Rule, dating back to the order’s founding.
Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance: They are known as Trappists/Trappistines and began with a 17th-century reform movement. In 1892 Pope Leo XIII granted Trappist congregations permission to form a separate monastic order.
— Susan Klemond
Sources: Wikipedia; VirginiaTrappists.org; Aleteia; NewAdvent.org
Editor's Note: The correct fundraising website was updated after posting. The Register regrets the link error.