Making soap: uniting opposites

An important part of Cistercian life is manual labor to support ourselves. The Cistercian nuns on Tautra produce handmade soap. While Tautra Urtesåpe has little by little become well-known, we have become little by little home-chemists who have the necessary knowledge to guarantee a good product. Soap is an emulsion of fats and/or oils and a strong alkali (a base). We use sodium hydroxide (NaOH), otherwise known as lye.

The lighter acid (fats and oils) reacts with the heavier, watery base (lye) to produce a mixture of soap and glycerine which is thicker and of even consistency. The soap molecule consists of a chain of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The molecule's head is attracted to water, and its tail to dirt and oil. Thus soap connects dirt to water and makes it easier for the dirt to be washed away.

The process of making soap takes at least two days. First we weigh out the vegetable oils which will be used. Palm oil makes the soap hard, coconut oil cleanses and moisturizes, and olive oil is very good for your skin. The next step is to weigh out the lye and the water and make lyewater. The lyewater is added to the oils while we stir the mixture. It becomes homogenous and creamy. When a trace of droplets becomes visible on the surface, the mixture is reaching saponification, becoming soap. Then we add the essential oils which give the soap its own particular scent. Essential oils are taken from plants which have rich, healing qualities. Some of our soaps have in addition an herb which gives it color at this stage.

Now the soap is ready to be poured into the mold. Sometimes we marbelize the soap with a part of the mixture which has been colored with an herb or other natural substance. The mold is covered with two blankets and left in the soap production office overnight. Soap becomes hard in about 24 hours. Sister Gilchrist, who is in charge of the soap department, says she feels a little like Harry Potter when she makes soap. It is like magic to cook up a vat of soap and wait for it to take its final form. It is mysterious because no one knows for sure exactly how this particular batch of soap will look.

Or, I propose, the process is like being a midwife. The mold of wet soap stands in a warm, dark room like a womb. The next morning the emulsion (we hope!) has changed into a hard block of soap. When we take off the blankets, we see what kind of child has been born. Like the birth process, the soap process cannot be hurried. Soap is not ready until it's ready. When we first began our industry, Sister Gilchrist had to get up at midnight sometimes to check on the soap's condition.

Now we know the schedule better. When the soap block becomes hard, it is ready to be cut. Usually we cut it into individual bars of soap. These must be air-dried for three weeks for them to mature. Finally the bars are placed in boxes which have labels with the ingredients on them. Then the soap is ready to be sold. At this point in time, Tautra Urtesåpe has six kinds of soap made by this process: Oatmeal and Barley, Nettles and Seaweed, Sandalwood, Corn, Lemon-Honeysuckle, and Comfrey-Aloe Vera. (We also sell many kinds of transparent soap which are

made by another process.) We use natural ingredients which produce a soap which cleanses and moisturizes without artificial additives.

I have meditated on this mysterious process: we take two opposites, oils and lye, mix them together, and get something new and useful as a result. Lye is very caustic and it becomes harmless only at the end of the process. Is this not like life when two terrible circumstances lead to another which is different and good? Perhaps it is the mixing which is important. I have heard that the fjord consists of freshwater on the top and saltwater on the bottom. Plankton, the beginning of the food chain, thrive in the confused layer. Plankton must avoid pure freshwater and they need light, so they cannot live too deep. So all life comes from water which is in conflict. When we face adversities in life, we should see them not as things which are undesirable and to be avoided, but rather as the source of new life.

Conflict is unavoidable in any case. But we can choose our attitude toward it. Difficulties can be met as occasions which will bring something new to birth, not as things which must be put up with reluctantly. Carbon becomes diamonds only under immense pressure. When a butterfly breaks out of its cocoon, it must struggle with its new, weak wings to beat against its former protection. Otherwise the butterfly will not be able to fly. The process of fighting itself free makes it into what God meant it to be, something good and beautiful.

Suffering stamps us. Prayer also leaves its mark on us. When a trace becomes visible, the soap is in the process of changing itself. When we feel oppressed by too much strife or stress, we have the hope that the time has come: the traces of our suffering and of our prayer have become visible, and soon we will be born to something different, alive, and beautiful.

There does not exist seven more different people than the nuns on Tautra. We say that it is clear that God calls us together, because we ourselves would never choose to live with the others! Always when we have a discussion, it is guaranteed that exactly opposite viewpoints will be asserted. Just now we have experienced a big disappointment because we have to change architects for the new monastery. The beginning of the building is delayed yet again. But the process of many more decisions makes us more dependent on each other. We accept, respect, and support each other, even though we are so different. Each has her wounding and her healing qualities, like the ingredients in soap. We know the new monastery is an exciting project, but the real building is our little community which God is creating now. We are living stones for the Lord who is the master builder.

The most difficult thing in monastic life is also one of the greatest blessings: to live with others who are so different. Often it is the sister whom I find impossible to understand who reveals to me my weakness or my wound. She shows me where I need to change and to grow. My conflict with her is really an opportunity which leads to new life. I am grateful that God has created us, each and every one, so different, and that he has thrown us here together like soap which changes mysteriously, to become something new.

Sister Sheryl Frances Chen, OCSO