Learning to be vikings

About 1000 years ago, Vikings discovered America. Now American nuns are rediscovering Norway.There aren’t many monasteries in the world where you can go swimming in the sea almost everyday during the summer. From the back door of Tautra Mariakloster in Norway, the land slopes gently down to the fjord only 50 yards away. "When I first arrived in Norway in 1999, I couldn’t believe I was going to get to live here the rest of my life," says Sister Gilchrist. "It was so beautiful!" But the journey hasn’t been easy, or short. Each of the eight nuns—5 Americans, 2 Norwegians, and 1 Belgian--living on a small island in the Trondheim Fjord has a unique story. In 1974, a Norwegian woman, Ina Andresen, felt God’s call to the Cistercian life (sidebar 1) and entered the monastery of La Coudre in Laval, France. Sister Ina made her solemn profession of vows in France, and after being there for 15 years, asked permission to return to Norway to see if the time was right to bring Cistercian life back to her homeland. Since it is very difficult to live the monastic life alone, she asked other monasteries for personnel.Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey (sidebar 2) in Dubuque, Iowa, said they were willing to send Sister Marjoe Backhus to help. When the mayor of Frosta kommune read in a newspaper that Sister Ina was looking for a place to set up a "trial monastery," he invited her to the island of Tautra, which has ruins of a Cistercian abbey that had existed from 1207 until the Reformation in the 16th century.Sister Ina and Sister Marjoe lived in a small farmhouse next to these ruins for a year and a half. Sister Ina had accepted a support group in Trondheim who strongly desired a Cistercian monastery in Norway, and they promised to pray everyday at 6:00 that the Cistercian Order would establish a foundation. Then Sister Ina became seriously ill and had to return to France for treatment. Sister Marjoe returned to Iowa. It looked like the dream was dying. Sister Ina offered her illness to God for the eventual success of a Cistercian foundation in Norway, whether or not she was part of it.Meanwhile, back on the farm in Iowa, the nuns of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey were blessed with vocations and were outgrowing their monastery, which had been founded in 1964. The community decided that they did not want to be larger than about 30 sisters, and so their option was to send some sisters to start a new monastery. When this became known, several bishops would have welcomed the nuns to their diocese. The nuns were invited to Kentucky, Australia, Tunisia, and Norway. The community again went through a lengthy, serious process to discern where God was calling them. The abbess, Rev. Mother Gail Fitzpatrick, asked each sister where she felt called personally, and where she felt God was calling the community. Several sisters felt personally called to Tunisia, attracted by its poverty and simplicity, and the challenge of living as a Catholic witness in a Muslim country. But when the time came for a final vote, even these sisters said, with tears in their eyes, that they felt God was calling the community to make a foundation in Norway (sidebar 3).Preparations Begin Sister Ina, who had recovered, came to Iowa. Sister Rosemary Durcan was named the superior of the new foundation. A group of six formed a community within the Mississippi community for a year before they went to Norway. They took Norwegian lessons and began to chant the Liturgy of the Hours in Norwegian in the chapter room, while the rest of the Mississippi Abbey sisters sang the same psalms in English in the abbey church.Another Norwegian woman, Hanne Berentzen, had entered the Cistercian monastery of Mount St. Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, Massachusetts in 1993. When, in 1998, the nuns of Mississippi Abbey voted to establish a new monastery in Norway, they asked the abbess of Mount St. Mary’s if Sister Hanne-Maria could be part of the foundation. The Wrentham community sacrificed one of its newest members, and Sister Hanne-Maria came to Mississippi Abbey to join the six who had been named foundresses.Mother Gail traveled with Sister Rosemary and Sister Ina to the Diocese of Trondheim to try to find property that would be suitable for the new monastery. Bishop Georg Müller contacted the mayor of Frosta and together they looked at the best sites that were available. Finally it seemed that a piece of land on the peninsula across the fjord from the ruins on Tautra was the best choice. The sisters back at Mississippi Abbey were instructed to pray that the purchase would happen quickly. But one of the owners of the property could not be reached, and the deal could not be closed. It seemed God had something else in mind. While business was at a stalemate, a site on Tautra became available. The Diocese of Trondheim bought this property for the sisters. "The main reason I wanted Cistercian nuns to come to Norway was that I desired a sanctuary, a holy place, in the diocese where prayer was central," says Bishop Georg Müller. "Prayer for all our needs, for the church, for all people."In February 1999, the seven foundresses arrived and set about making the existing two small farmhouses into a temporary monastery. "Those first weeks were total chaos," recalls Sister Lisbeth. "We didn’t know where anything was, the recipes and ingredient labels were in Norwegian, we had no regular schedule, and people kept dropping in on us at odd hours." They set up the chapel in the red house, and the refectory in the white house. At first they had only seven chairs. So after singing Midday Prayer in the chapel, they had to pick up their chairs and carry them through the snow to the other house so they could eat dinner together, and then carry the chairs back to the chapel after washup so they could pray the Office of None (sidebar 4).Enthusiastic Welcome The nuns have been wonderfully welcomed by the Tautra/Frosta community. For the opening Mass, the support group rented a tent to be able to accommodate 200 people. They noticed that all their neighbors had hoisted the Norwegian flag. It was explained to them that this custom of "flagging" occurs only on civic holidays or family occasions. Since a Mass is obviously not a civic celebration, it was the Norwegians’ way of saying they considered the nuns part of their family.Hæge Hestnes, a former leader of the support group, declares, "The arrival of the Cistercian Sisters at Tautra changed our lives completely. They became our spiritual anchor and ourextended family. When we were ill they prayed for us, when we were happy, they shared our joy. From the parking lot at my place of work I can see the island of Tautra in the distance across the fjord. Every day as I park my car I say a little prayer of thanks for them. The knowledge that through storm and sunshine and through all the joys and hassles of a life lived in a secularized society of greed and consumerism, they are the constant, radiating peace and love. They are our lifeline to our Lord."Neighbors and tourists often join the nuns for prayer. Most Norwegians have never seen a nun before, and having their picture taken with one of the sisters seems to be a favorite activity. Tautra Mariakloster is on the tourbus route, and it is not unusual, especially during the summer, for a busload of 40 to visit the monastery at the noon hour. When that happens, the sisters sing Midday Prayer outside, because their chapel can fit a maximum of 30 guests, and even then some of them have to sit in the sacristy.The sense is that many are searching for a deeper spiritual life, and Norwegians are looking to the recently-arrived Catholic nuns for guidance in prayer and spiritual living from the Cistercian monastic tradition. Anne Hagerup runs the tourist office on Frosta, and is herself a Pentecostal. "The nuns of Tautra Mariakloster are an enrichment of our town because they pray for us. They receive large groups of tourists, and it ‘does something’ to everyone who participates in their prayer services. It gives us a chance to sit down in the midst of a busy day, and enjoy the silence and presence of God. Personally, I love to close the day with Compline, the last prayer service.""It’s essential that the nuns are here," asserts neighbor Guri Rygg. "They have a different viewpoint on what is important in life. They don’t get caught up in the desire for designer clothes, or when it was that you last changed your living room furniture."The local Lutheran pastor, Rev. Gustav Danielsen, has been tremendously supportive of Tautra Mariakloster. "The monastery on Tautra is no longer a ruin, but a living community. For our parish, the monastery has meant a richer life of faith for those who join the nuns in prayer. It is clear that the nuns don’t proselytize, but enrich those who come, and send them back to their own parish. It is natural that we pray for each another. We look forward to the new building with its possibilities for taking more guests and retreatants. The nuns have been an active part of local ecumenical dialogue, together with Pentecostals, another faith community, and our Lutheran parish. We have always emphasized what we have in common as Christians." "We are part of something much larger, something magnificent, that God is doing on Tautra for the Norwegian people. We just try to get out of the way, and let God do it," says Mother Rosemary Durcan, O.C.S.O., the prioress of Tautra Mariakloster.Bishop Müller knows the nuns have had a tremendous effect on non-Catholics. "The sisters proclaim the gospel by their lives. Even if someone is not familiar with monastic life, they can easily see the nuns’ witness of searching for God in a radical way. Non-Catholics understand that lived message. I think of St. Francis of Assisi who said ‘Preach the gospel at all times—and if necessary, use words.’"The neighbors all say the monastery has enriched Tautra. Åse Lein describes the nuns asradiating goodness and warmth. "Their positive outlook is infectious, and we learn to see the good in each other and to treasure the small, everyday joys. Even though I’m not Catholic, it feels incredibly good to participate in their prayer. The nuns’ beautiful song, their prayer, and the silence in the chapel give me inner peace and strength. I always come away feeling better. The nuns don’t try to teach us the Catholic faith, but indirectly give us the Bible’s message in a good way. They show that they care about us with their prayers, gifts, and many hugs. I look forward to when the new church is finished, and participating in many prayer services there." Janne Hopmo is the editor of the local newspaper. She believes the nuns have made people more conscious of spirituality. "Even if folks do not know the nuns personally, they are interested in them because of what they represent, something that has been missing since the Reformation. People are curious as to why anyone would choose to live monastic life. The people of Frosta think it is entirely natural that the Cistercian nuns are on Tautra, which is the highest compliment a Protestant country can give. But it’s because of the Cistercian ruins on Tautra. It wouldn’t have been the same if any other Order had come here."Supporting Themselves Besides turning two ordinary homes into a functional monastery, the nuns had to establish an industry, since the Order requires each monastery to be self-supporting. The first year, they tried making both beeswax candles and herbal soap. It soon became clear that the soap industry offered more possibility for covering their living expenses. Sister Gilchrist managed to find sources for ingredients such as organic essential oils on the Net, and designed packaging that includes a drawing of the ruins on Tautra—all in Norwegian. She is a genius at thinking up new recipes, and Tautra’s herbal soaps are probably the only ones in the world to use milk made from grains such as rice, oat, spelt, and millet. Some of the newest soaps are ricemilk-lavender, lily-of-the-valley, grapefruit, lilac, and strawberry-apple. Starting in 2001, the support group in Trondheim sold soap for the sisters at the medieval market, which runs for a week around the feast of St. Olav, July 29. Their efforts bring in one-third of the sisters’ income for the year. Last year the soap industry covered 75% of the nuns’ living expenses.A new line of soap was introduced to commemorate the Queen of Norway’s visit to Tautra Mariakloster in May 2003. Part of Tautra is reserved as a bird sanctuary, and to restore water circulation patterns that insure enough food for the birds, a bridge was opened on the causeway that connects Tautra to the mainland. Frosta kommune invited Queen Sonja to officially open the bridge.She was so interested in Tautra Mariakloster that she agreed to come only if she could lay the foundation stone on the site of the new monastery as well. The nuns were thrilled and amazed to welcome Queen Sonja as an overnight guest, engrave her signature into the foundation stone of the new church, and host a luncheon in her honor. The farthest thing from any of their minds when they dedicated their lives to God in a strict and obscure Order was that one day they would be entertaining royalty in a foreign land."I was coming back from a meeting in France and had to go through passport control. The officer asked me, ‘Do you live in Norway?’ I said, ‘Yes!’ He said, ‘That’s why your smile is so big!’" recalls Sister Gilchrist Lavigne, O.C.S.O. "Our neighbors are the best in the world, but when the Queen came to Tautra, I felt as if all of Norway were welcoming us. It was anincredible experience, and I feel so at home here that I hope someday I may become a Norwegian citizen."Building a New Home The permanent monastery has been designed by Jan Olav Jensen, an internationally-known architect, who has been a visiting professor at Harvard University. He has recently won prizes for his design of Mortensrud Church in Oslo. There is much interest in the new monastery because it is the first Cistercian monastery built in Norway in 800 years. The monastery is designed all on one floor--except for 9 of the 18 private cells--so that it will lie low and fit well into the landscape. The project manager is in the process of choosing contractors, and the sisters look forward to seeing the building begin in 2005. It will then take at least 18 months to complete.The site of the new monastery was purchased from Knut and Tove Brustad, who have a large potato farm on the island. Tove says the neighbors were told the nuns would have no contact at all with them, so it was a big surprise when the sisters greeted them with open arms and a joyful "Hi!" "It’s an exciting privilege to have the monastery on Tautra," says Tove. "My 5-year-old grandson likes to hear the singing with the harp at Compline."The sisters of Mississippi Abbey have been engaged in a capital campaign for the last five years. The project has been supported by the prayers and contributions of the Archdiocese of Dubuque and the Diocese of Trondheim, monasteries of the Cistercian Order around the world, and friends and customers of Mississippi Abbey and Tautra Mariakloster. There is a teenage girl in Norway who gives her monthly allowance to the building fund.Bishop Müller recalls, "A German journalist asked me why I needed to help build a monastery in Norway. Couldn’t the nuns stay in the U.S. and pray there? I said that the witness of putting prayer first is a provocation in the positive sense of the word. The Cistercian sisters affect very much the church in Mid-Norway."When the new monastery is complete and the sisters move to the new building, the houses they use at present will be used for guests. Now they can take only one guest at a time, but then they will have as many as twelve rooms available. There are many requests from people of all walks of life, from both in and out of Norway, who want to share the rhythm of Cistercian life at Tautra Mariakloster with its balance of silence and chant, solitude and community, work and meditation. The new church will have enough room for 75 guests, and will be open to the public from 5 a.m. till 8 p.m. everyday. The nuns are inspired by Isaiah’s words: "Them I will bring to my holy mountain and make joyful in my house of prayer...a house of prayer for all peoples" (56:7)."The monastery on Tautra makes the island exotic and mysterious to many, but for me it means that everything has fallen into place," declares neighbor Guri Rygg. "When I was 4, I loved to listen to Gregorian chant. Having the nuns so near has given me an easier access to the spiritual dimension of my life. I have just retired, so I look forward to attending Vespers and Mass more often. Growing up Protestant, I felt God was very masculine. Catholics embrace Mary, and she has become for me God’s female face. Sometimes I bring these ideas to myBible Group, and it makes us hope that one day soon we will be one church. It’s really just trivialities that we’re fighting about, isn’t it?"The first postulant to enter the community arrived on November 1, the Solemnity of All Saints. She is a Norwegian in her 30s who wanted to be a Lutheran priest. She converted to Catholicism about five years ago and made contact with Mississippi Abbey just before the foundresses left for Norway. It is an exciting time for the nuns on Tautra. To receive vocations in a country with so few Catholics means that God is blessing the future of the monastery. The eight nuns are planning the new monastery for 18, and they hope the re-foundation of a Cistercian monastery on Tautra will last at least as long as the 330 years that Cistercian monks inhabited Tautra in the Middle Ages.The sisters want to live and die on this special island with its natural beauty and spiritual history. God’s direction and encouragement of their adventure have been as constant and comforting as the waves of the fjord that surrounds them. They are privileged to be part of the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (58:12): "The Lord will guide you continually… and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations."These websites can provide further information: The Cistercian Order worldwide (www.ocso.org); Cistercians in the U.S. (www.cistercian-usa.org); Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey (www.mississippiabbey.org); Tautra Mariakloster (www.tautra.no, in four languages); Herbal soap (e-mail saape@tautra.no); Trappistine Creamy Caramels (www.monasterycandy.com).Our Lady of Mississippi Abbey can be contacted at 8400 Abbey Hill Road, Dubuque, Iowa 52003 (563/582-2595).(Sidebar 1) The Cistercians What do St. Bernard and Thomas Merton have in common? They were both Cistercian monks. The Cistercian order was founded in 1098 by Sts. Robert, Alberic, and Stephen Harding, who were Benedictine monks at the Abbey of Molesmes in France. They felt called to live a simpler interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict and started a new monastery in an overgrown swamp area called Cîteaux. The Latin for Cîteaux gives us the word Cistercian.In 1111, a young knight named Bernard knocked on the door of the new monastery and asked admittance. He fervently embraced the Cistercian life of prayer, spiritual reading, and manual labor, and was chosen to be the first abbot of Cîteaux’s third foundation, the Abbey of Clairvaux. Largely because of St. Bernard’s holiness and preaching, the Order spread rapidly throughout Europe, founding well over 500 abbeys in the first 100 years. In the 1700s, the abbot of La Trappe started a reform of the Order to a very strict lifestyle with an emphasis on silence. Thus those Cistercians became known as "Trappists."Today the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance number about 3000 monks living in 100 monasteries and 2000 nuns in 70 monasteries around the world. It is the only Order in the Church that has both men and women living under the same Constitutions. Besides Norway, foundations have recently been made in Lebanon, Nigeria, the Czech Republic, Ecuador,Nicaragua, Rwanda, and Madagascar. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. He became famous when his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was a bestseller, and he continues to influence many through his spiritual writings. In the United States, the Cistercians of the Common Observance (monks) have an abbey (Sparta, Wisconsin), two monasteries (Dallas, Texas and Laurel, New Jersey) plus a priory (New Ringgold, Pennsylvania). The Common Observance nuns have a monastery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin. Four monks of the Common Observance have recently started a monastery in Stamsund, in the Lofoten islands in northern Norway.(Sidebar 2) Cistercian Women Women have been part of the Cistercian Order since the first decades in the 12th century when St. Bernard convinced 30 of his relatives to enter the new Order. Trappist monks came to the United States in 1848, but it wasn’t until 1949 that Trappist nuns of Glencairn Abbey in Ireland founded Mount St. Mary’s Abbey in Wrentham, Massachusetts. Mount St. Mary’s flourished, so that postulants who entered in the late 1950s and early 1960s had to content themselves with a cot in the basement.Overflowing with vocations, the abbey made three foundations: Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey in Dubuque, Iowa (1964); Santa Rita Abbey in Sonoita, Arizona (1972); and Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Virginia (1987). A fifth Trappistine monastery in the United States, Redwoods Monastery in Whitethorn, California, was founded from Our Lady of Nazareth Abbey in Belgium in 1962.Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey followed Mount St. Mary’s tradition and established a caramel business, which enabled them to be self-supporting. Mississippi Abbey was also blessed with vocations, which enabled them to send seven nuns to start Tautra Mariakloster in 1999.(Sidebar 3) Norway The United Nations listed Norway as the best country in the world to live in, for the fourth year in a row. It lies northeast across the North Sea from Scotland and shares a border on the east with Russia, Finland, and Sweden. It is a long, narrow country of 125,000 square miles (a little larger than New Mexico) and has a population of 4.5 million (a little more than the city of Los Angeles). Because it is so far north and has many mountains and fjords, only 4% of the land is arable.There are only about 45,000 Catholics in the country, or 1% of the population. About 86% of the population are members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the state church, of which the King and Queen of Norway are the head. The Catholic Church has three dioceses (and therefore three bishops) in Norway: Oslo in the south, Mid-Norway where Trondheim and Tautra lie, and Tromsø in the north. Most Catholics are either converts from the Lutheran church (as are Sisters Ina and Hanne-Maria) or immigrants from Vietnam, the Philippines or other predominantly Catholic countries. Tautra Mariakloster is the northernmost monastery of the Cistercian Order.(Sidebar 4) A typical monastic day on Tautra 4.00 a.m. Rise 4.20 Vigils recited in English and Norwegian in chapel 5.00 Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament/Meditation 6.00 Breakfast, Sacred Reading 7.30 Lauds sung in Norwegian in chapel 8.00 Office of Tierce/Eucharist 9.00 Community meeting 9.30-12.00Work making soap/gardening/cooking/cleaning 12.15 Midday prayer sung in Norwegian in chapel 12.30 Dinner and washup in common 1.15-2.00 Optional siesta 2.15 Office of None sung in Norwegian in chapel 2.30-4.30 Afternoon Work 5.30 Vespers in Norwegian/silent prayer and supper 7.30 Office of Compline in Norwegian accompanied by harp 8.00 RetireReprinted from St Anthony MessengerSister Sheryl Frances Chen, OCSO, was Assistant Editor of U.S. Catholic magazine before she became a Cistercian nun in 1983, and has written for Catholic publications such as Cistercian Studies Quarterly, Catechumenate, Vision, and Markings. She joined the new Cistercian foundation on Tautra in 2002 and can be reached at sheryl@tautra.no.