A sister actBeverly High Grad a Sister Act by Helen Kim Beverly Hills Weekly 8/19/04Located thousands of miles away on the island of Tautra in Norway is a small Cistercian Monastery of just seven nuns from different backgrounds—five Americans, one Norwegian and one Belgian. One nun in particular is closer to home. Sister Sheryl Chen, a 1975 Beverly High graduate, recalls her journey to convent life and Beverly’s influence on her religious devotion. Sheryl Chen is a Cistercian nun who was raised as a non-practicing Christian. Her parents used to attend church, but grew away from organized religion. Chen’s interest in religion began during high school, at a summer camp she attended. Chen talked to some camp counsellors who were Christian, and asked them her "teenage questions" about God. It was after that summer that Chen joined Brentwood Presbyterian Church and was baptized in the Pacific Ocean.After graduating from Beverly, Chen went on to attend Yale University and planned to study biology. During her sophomore year, she attended Mass with her Catholic boyfriend, and became curious about Catholicism. "I would go and talk to the priest and ask him my questions about what a Catholic was," Chen said. In her spare time, she studied the Mass and the liturgy. During her junior year she changed her major to religious studies. After graduating college in 1979, she began a Master of Divinity at the University of Notre Dame but left after one year due to high tuition costs and being drawn to monastic life.Chen received a phone call from the Catholic Press Association about an editorial position at U.S.Catholic magazine. The CPA had kept her name on file when she was inquiring about jobs during her time at Notre Dame. From 1981 to 1983, Chen lived in Chicago working as assistant editor at U.S.Catholic, where she edited and proofread articles and did layout work for the monthly magazine. "I just really loved it and I was there until 1983 when I entered the monastery," Chen said.She knew she was interested in a monastic life rather than an active nun’s life. Monastic nuns are cloistered, while active nuns work "outside" as teachers or nurses.Chen found herself drawn to the Cistercian order, which is one of the strictest Catholic orders. Also called Trappistines, these nuns are traditionally vegetarian, put a high priority on silence and support themselves by manual labor. "That lifestyle really appealed to me. I felt it was most important to know yourself and to know God," Chen said. "I wanted a life, not a career." The Liturgy of the Hours, the official prayer of the church, involves prayer seven times a day as it is practiced by the Cistercians. "The idea is to consecrate yourself and your whole day to God," Chen said.Chen said she was drawn to the Cistercian order because it was "more connected to the earthand much more real." She also wanted to be in a choir that sings the psalms based on traditional Gregorian chant.Chen visited monasteries on weekends and developed correspondence with the sister in charge of vocations, asking them questions. She used the Official Catholic Directory to profile monasteries on location, number of sisters and the kind of work they did.She was interested in two monasteries—Santa Rita Abbey in Arizona that produced hosts for the Eucharist, and Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, located in Iowa. Because she preferred warmer winters and a smaller community, Chen chose Santa Rita Abbey, where she stayed for 14 years."[In Arizona] we could write home once a month, and we got a phone call only once a year on our birthday," Chen said. At her monastery in Norway, it is more relaxed and she is allowed to visit her family once every three years.The strictness of the order made it difficult for her to maintain relationships with family and friends, but also focused her faith. "Twenty years ago we had to use Cistercian sign language to communicate. It was actually a good way to learn how much of our speech is unnecessary. In today’s world, there’s always noise in the background, and when I’m back in this noisy environment, I can’t even think. People who are drawn to monasteries are drawn to that inner silence which is essential for our relationship with God."Chen emphasized views and practices with regard to relationships are more lenient than they were 20 years ago. Previously, horizontal relationships—or relationships with friends and family—were not emphasized but only the vertical relationship with God. "Now the life is not as strict. There is much more emphasis on being human, and humane." Though e-mail, she has kept in contact with friends and family.Her decision to enter cloistered life did not sit well at first with those people closest to her and was difficult on her emotionally. "Most people thought it was terrible, a waste throwing away a Yale education. Most people didn’t understand and felt a loss because I would be cloistered," Chen said.But Chen has been able to keep in touch with friends from Beverly like fellow 1975 graduate Jan Takasugi and biology teacher Susie Sprouse, currently the science department chair at Beverly High. Chen has also maintained contact with former dance teacher Marryl Cahill. "I don’t really have very many connections to Beverly, but the ones I do have I keep. The few times I’m here I want to reconnect and see them," Chen said.Chen also said she could have attended Westlake, but chose to attend Beverly. "I think I made the right decision and it was good preparation for Yale. I think I was in the top 2 percent [of the class]," she said.In addition to class material, Sheryl said she learned more at Beverly. "I grew up as a minority, so I learned tolerance," she said, of being Christian and also Chinese-American at Beverly."Being in a slightly antagonistic environment forces your faith to be stronger," Chen said. Chen left Arizona in 1997 and transferred to Our Lady of the Mississippi in Iowa. To support themselves, the nuns make caramels.She was later asked to move to Norway to help Tautra Mariakloster, the new foundation of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey that was started in 1999. She was not part of the founding group, but visited for three months in 2001. After coming back to the States, she returned to Norway in February 2002, when she officially joined Tautra Mariakloster, and after only two and a half years she is fluent in Norwegian.Besides focusing on religious faith, the sisters of Tautra Mariakloster host retreats for those who might be interested in joining the order or who are just seeking to look at life from a different perspective."It’s just the distance that’s hard," Chen said of living in Norway.However, she appreciates the support of the Norwegian people. "They see we’re human, we’re funny and happy," Chen said. Tautra Mariakloster has even received support from the Norwegian royals. Last May, the Queen of Norway visited the monastery.Chen is still surprised at the turns her life has taken. "Who would have thought you’d enter a cloistered monastery and have dinner with the Queen of Norway?"There is increased interest because their motherhouse, Our Lady of the Mississippi is developing plans for a new $6 million monastery for the sisters on Tautra. It will be the first monastery built in Norway in 800 years.Chen would like to live the rest of her life in Norway if the monastery gains autonomous status, which requires the sisters to support themselves 80 to 90 percent. To do this, the sisters have established an herbal soap industry. The sisters design, produce and package the soaps which contain organic grain milk, oils and base from England. The sisters also take advantage of the island of Tautra, and pick up seashells and seaweed to decorate the soaps.Of her life, Chen said, "This is the wildest thing. Who would think a Chinese-American Beverly and Yale graduate would end up in a Cistercian monastery in Norway?"For more information on Tautra Mariakloster and their organic herbal soaps, visit

 www.tautra.no or e-mail saape@tautra.no