Ora et Labora: The Sisters of Ephesus

You must go visit the good sisters in Starrucca,” said my friend, Father Check. So there I was with my wife and son in the car, sliding along a slippery highway in rural Pennsylvania, wondering what I would find when I arrived. I’d been told by the mother prioress, Sister Therese, that if we got there before ten in the morning, the sisters would be enjoying their hour of recreation, and since the snow was a foot deep, that meant sledding.

That I had to see, and if I cut a few curves along the way, I trust my eagerness will be forgiven. For I’d grown up with nuns, as you also may have done. We Catholics have too long indulged the jests at their expense: stories of their knuckle-rapping and ruler-wielding, their military drills in grammar and catechesis; the warm glow of their cheeks as they advised us about hell and what to expect in the probable case that we found ourselves there, and their pallor as, more rarely, they talked about the chill delights of paradise.

Those jests were ever one part truth and nine parts calumny and ingratitude. I knew good nuns and poor; sisters who were a part of my purging here on earth, and sisters, more of them, for whom I provided the same service. Some, no doubt, were sour and lonely people, whose veil might have served them as a salutary reminder of their frailty. But many were joyful, even if they concealed that joy behind their authority, lest we unruly children see too much of it and take advantage of their good nature. I remember one Sister Carmine in particular—but you too remember, reader. Nor should we forget to pray for their repose, or to ask for their intercession. Even in this life, after all, the bond between teacher and pupil never entirely fades away.

But we know what happened. The orders caught a virulent strain of the mod; they thought they were bucking the culture, when all along they were passively washing up on the crest of a tsunami that would batter every institution in its wake. The newish sisters may have smiled, for a while, and strummed guitars, but the songs were hollow. “Dominique-nique-nique s’en allait tout pauvrement,” sang Soeur Sourir in her harmlessly silly three-chord hit, and a generation of Catholics took for the rose of dawn what was really a glow from the smithy in another quarter. In a few years the orders would fall apart, Soeur Sourir would be “Soeur” no more, and soon would sing no more, and the schools would begin to close.

What if, though, the Lord could grace us, His ungrateful and wayward flock, with sisters as faithful to the Church and to Christ as those of old were—or more faithful, since more conscious of their being a sign of contradiction to the world? And what if those same sisters were filled with the cheerfulness and joy that their elders once sought in the wrong places, and never found? How would that be?

I soon discovered how that would be.

In fact we arrived at the Priory of Our Lady of Ephesus shortly before ten o’clock, and Sister Therese came out to greet us. “Do you like sledding?” she asked my little boy, because sure enough that is what the sisters were doing, trooping with plastic saucers up a steep, narrow path cut into the side of a hill. I think God must smile on nothing so genially as on a gaggle of grown-ups—girls to boot—with arms and legs and coats (and wimples) flying in the snow, laughing and innocently enjoying this lumpy thing we call a body. “Come on, Professor!” they called out. “Come on, Davey!”

I never hit a sister with a snowball when I was a boy, and none of them ever hit me with one, either. That morning we did some small penance for the omission.

But when recreation was over, it was time for silence and prayer, and the sisters gathered in their chapel for the canonical hours, chanting the service. From the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14) to Pentecost, they rise for matins at 4:30 in the morning, in the quiet of the time before dawn, followed by lauds and prime and tierce in the morning, sext and none in the afternoon, and vespers and compline in the evening. They call their order the Benedictines of Mary, and so they follow their ancient abbot’s rule, “written with such practicality, common sense, and holy wisdom,” as one of the sisters says, that men and women of very different temperaments can follow it, “so long as we set our mind and heart to it and are willing to be open to God’s will.”

She calls it a rule for men and women, and it is. But from what I saw that day, and what I would see again on five subsequent visits, it is a rule for peace and joy, for the wisdom of setting aside one’s will, or enveloping one’s will in the will of the Lord. As we sat at table for lunch—a hearty meal, and, though I didn’t know it at the time, the only full meal they would eat that day—I had an experience I won’t soon forget. There I was, the only person at table who spoke in a baritone, and round me to abash me with their grace were the shining faces of women who had chosen Christ for their spouse, and were gladdened by the choice, flourishing in the knowledge that their Spouse would love them always. Nor, for all their youth (apart from Sister Therese, who is a couple of years younger than I am, and Sister Wilhelmina, who celebrated her golden jubilee in the consecrated life many years ago, their average age is 23) were they naïve about the world they had strategically “left” in order to help win it back to Christ. They were as wise as serpents, and as innocent as doves.

How fine it was to encounter again, outside of my home, that strange creature called woman, about whom I had read so much in myth and poetry! Yet for all their grace and dignity, these women worked very hard, far harder than we whom the world adulates for our wheel-spinning careers. Their work, indeed, was one reason they invited me. Since study is a part of their community life, they ask teachers to come speak to them about the poetry of Hopkins, or The Cloud of Unknowing, or St. Bernard’s The Love of God. They are extraordinarily well-read, and will confront a teacher with questions more precisely worded and carefully considered than those one would receive at a faculty seminar. Nor did I lack the rare pleasure of noticing, on one of my drives to the priory, a student in full habit doing her homework, re-reading the assignment as she walked along the country road.

But I have not described the work at Our Lady of Ephesus. “The most important part of the ora et labora,” they have told me, “is the et.” What they mean is that it is not sufficient to pray, and certainly not sufficient to work, nor is it quite right that men and women in the consecrated life should both work and pray. We all should work and pray, but somehow our prayer should be a work of love, and our work should be prayers of love. And maybe, for us human beings ever tempted to scorn the humble needs of the body, the sort of work most easily united to prayer is the humblest. Of that sort the sisters did plenty.

You see, they lived in a small town in the middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, that used to be a bustling stop for trains carrying coal and passengers from Scranton to New York, back in the days when there were trains and coal and passengers. Nowadays, Starrucca is a sleepy borough of a few hundred people, with a small grocery store and a post office. If you are going to live there, you have to support yourself.

So Sister Therese, inspired by Catholic agrarianism, took over an old farmhouse for the convent, and refashioned the tractor garage into a simple and lovely chapel. Another barn, she said, they would convert into a retreat house for priests. There the priests could rest and enjoy the beautiful country before strapping the armor on again as centurions in the Church Militant. But 14 women, almost all of them young, needed to eat, and so they farmed the land, growing most of their own vegetables; keeping a cow for their milk, cheese, and yogurt; and raising chickens for meat and eggs. That, supplemented by some items that they as yet could only get from the store (fruit, for instance), sufficed for their meals. Sister Wilhelmina is a splendid cook, and she’s not the only one.

So much for meals; but land comes with a mortgage, and electric bills have to be paid, not to mention the building expenses. Donations were, naturally, an important part of their income, but the sisters were hoping eventually to be self-sufficient by their making and selling of priestly vestments. People sent them remnants of fabric, silk especially, and they, skilled with the needle and thoroughly conversant in the allegorical art of the Catholic liturgy, would stitch the fabric into albs and chasubles and surplices—cabinets full of them. All the sisters worked at these tasks. Someday, they hoped, they would raise their own flax in the field beside the animal barn (several of the sisters grew up on farms, including three from Kansas), spin the fiber into thread, and depend upon remnants no more.

I suspect, though, that the days would be laborious, rather than filled with the restfulness of true work, were it not for the sweet balm of silence. There may be no sound that our world dreads more. Consider an airport concourse, or a shopping mall, with blaring televisions, the visual noise of garish magazines, porno-twaddle for ladies too timid to take up the real thing, shops filled with luxurious rubbish crying out, “Buy me, and all these kingdoms will be yours!” The voice of God, as the prophet found, is not in the whirlwind or the tempest, much less in the interminable news. The enemy knows how dangerous it is to allow a man to go for a quiet walk just because it’s a fine day. That is why he presses him with noise, lest he should hear and understand and be converted.

So the sisters spend many hours, every day, in silence. That time, no doubt, makes the talk at table all the more precious; but its real purpose is to open the ears of the soul. Which of us has never felt lonely at a party filled with chatter? But when even the skilled hands of the woman beside you at your worktable are eloquent witnesses of love, then it is hard to be lonely. And that still, small voice comes calling. “We don’t get lonely with all the silence,” they tell me, “because we are listening for Someone. Silence is our magnifying glass.” That is, in silence we see how inadequate are our loud disguises to hide what we really are, and then, in deeper silence still, we long for God all the more.

So you won’t find a showgirl at Our Lady of Ephesus, demurely fondling the microphone as she wails out “I am the Bread of Life,” with grateful communicants flicking a quarter into her hat as they pass by. The music to which the sisters are devoted is of a kind that lends form and voice to silence: the chant of the Divine Office. They don’t scorn polyphony, when that is appropriate—for instance, in the subtle harmonies of a Marian hymn the sisters have composed, wherein singer and listener are called to meditate upon the mystery of those nine months when Christ, Incarnate, had not yet appeared to man, but dwelt within the sanctum sanctorum of His blessed Mother:

There was no fanfare heard,

Save that reverberating heart

Which gave blood to the Word.

It is no coincidence that these sisters, so devoted to their prayer and their work for Christ, should compose a hymn in honor of Mary. When consecrated women lose their Marian character, they lose everything; it is for the nun most emphatically true that Mary points the way to her Son, her Savior. From Mary she learns the beauty of her womanhood, and the nature of her service to the Church. The name of the priory, Our Lady of Ephesus, reflects this insight. As Sister Therese says, it was in the small house in Nazareth that Mary and Joseph brought up the boy Jesus and, humanly speaking, taught Him all that a Jewish lad would need to know, fostering His strength and heart and mind and soul. So too it was in a small house in Ephesus that the aging Mary, still and always a mother, cared for the Church by the humble duties she performed for St. John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, no doubt cooking for him the meals that her first Son had enjoyed so long before.

The sisters have answered the call to follow in the footsteps of Mary, assisting the Church by assisting Christ’s officers, the priests. You cannot find in these strong-willed and intelligent young ladies a trace of rivalry against the men of the priesthood, their brothers. When the retired priest drove down those same snowy roads to say Mass on the day of my first visit, no sister stepped forward to lug the breviary, to appropriate the readings, or to make him feel in any way supernumerary. One did, however, help him find the vestments behind the wall of the sanctuary, and chatted amiably with the old fellow, and thanked him for his kindness. Because they do not encroach upon the priest’s duties, they are free to receive those duties as a gift, and are free gratefully to return the gift by their own work and prayer.

That gratitude explains their hope to establish the retreat house. For visiting priests in Starrucca they had refurbished a couple of apartments atop the borough post office, on the sleepy intersection at Main Street. It would have been an ideal location: the rushing Starrucca Creek cutting through a defile in the hills north and south, with plenty of old train beds crisscrossing the countryside for hikes or bicycle rides, such as a Pier Giorgio Frassati or a young Karol Wojtyla might have enjoyed, and great whitewater for canoeing on the upper Delaware River, not far away. So peaceful and lovely and sane it was, that a young family of Catholic homeschoolers had bought a house near the convent, just so they could be a part of a budding Catholic community—rather than live as most of us do now, beside neighbors we never see and seldom come to know.

It might have been thus, but circumstances beyond the sisters’ control compelled them to move, last January, into the heartland—to the diocese of Kansas City, Missouri. Sister Therese puts it engagingly: The priory in Starrucca, with all the sweat and love the sisters and their many helpers put into it, was the “slingshot” ordained by God from all eternity to send them to the heart of our very needy country. As I write, Bishop Robert Finn, who has personally been attempting to secure a permanent place where they might settle and till the land and build, has found them a disused city convent for temporary quarters. That convent bears all the traces of Catholicism derailed. The rooms are unfinished; metal door frames stand leaning against one another; ceiling tiles were never put in. There is still a Catholic school nearby, however, with a chapel, with exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction on first Fridays.

What are their plans in Kansas City? Imagine the reconstruction of a Catholic community centered upon the Body of Christ, and you may glimpse the mustard seed of the dreams God has put in the hearts of Sister Therese and her comrades. Indeed, the whole plan for the new Our Lady of Ephesus Priory is born of profound meditation on the meaning of the life of Mary, mater ecclesiae.

Picture a monastery for 58 sisters-58, the year of Our Lady’s death. Within the cloister of the monastery and continuous with it on the eastern side stands a church, accessible from the west and thus dividing the inner courtyard in two, after the style of the East. The division symbolizes a dual maternity, that of Mary and, spiritually, of the sisters themselves, who pray and sacrifice for priests everywhere. Enter that church during the singing of the Hours and you will see the sisters, in the transepts to the right and left of the apse, looking up toward the slightly elevated center of the sanctuary, that they may appear to be attending at the foot of the Cross. That cross and the figures around it, carved by the hands of a brother to one of the sisters, will include St. John in priestly vestment and Our Lady holding a vessel to receive the precious blood. At one of the four side altars in the transepts, four for the four evangelists, a priest may be saying his private Mass; but if we enter during a Mass for the community, we shall most commonly be summoned in the language that for centuries united Catholics of the Roman rite the world over: Sursum corda.

That is the center; but you’ll see much more. There will be the St. John House, a retreat house for priests, with rooms for as many as 14—the twelve apostles plus Paul and Barnabas—and for the resident chaplain and retreat master. That house will have its own kitchen and dining room, and a parlor for the priests alone. Lest they or the sisters be disturbed in their work, or their rest, there will be a gatehouse named after St. Joseph, the protector of Our Lady and of the Church. It will be the first building you meet as you approach the priory; there, that the world may be served the better, the world will be asked to wait. There and not anywhere in the monastery you may find a computer for the Internet; there will all guests be received.

As in Starrucca, so in the more fertile plains of the Missouri, the sisters will raise their own food. Beside the monastery, then, you will find tilled fields; an orchard and a kitchen garden; a barn called “Bethlehem” and a dairy called “Nazareth,” to house the chickens for eggs and meat and the cows for milk and butter and cheese. There will even be an apiary, in honor of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the Doctor Mellifluus he of the honeyed words; one of the sisters has been a beekeeper, and intends to produce honey for the table and beeswax for the chapel candles. St. Zachary’s, fitted with wind-and solar-powered generators, will be the energy house for the complex.

What should the Church do, as she closes school after venerable old school, their stones mortared by the hands of immigrants who were the first to send their children there to learn far more than to read, write, and cipher? She should follow the example of Joseph in prison, with nothing to his name but integrity and the favor of the Lord, or of the old shepherd Moses with his staff, or of Gedeon with his ragtag troop of water-lapping men, or of the boy David with his slingshot and pebbles from the brook. She should do what seems least reasonable to the world. She should go up to Jerusalem. She should build new schools.

So the sisters plan to do. Once their community has grown to number 40 sisters, they envision establishing not only a school, but the most forgotten kind of school the world can imagine, and therefore the most necessary. It will be called St. Anne’s, a finishing school for girls, boarding grades eleven and twelve, with a resident dormitory mother. Naturally, the school will stress academics, and I’ll wager that the chapel will not be the only place where one might hear strains of Latin. But the girls will also learn those handicrafts that used to be passed along from mother to daughter, as St. Anne passed them to Mary: embroidery, sewing, cooking, gardening, canning. Then there will be singing classes, and spiritual direction—and a tennis court and soccer field, for God made us for the fresh air and sunlight.

Do we need such convents? One teacher may substitute, perhaps poorly, for another, and tennis courts are common enough, but there is no substitute for prayer:

Woe to the world should it lack monasteries and convents! Men do not comprehend their importance, for, if they understood, they would do all in their power to multiply them, because in them can be found the remedy for all physical and moral evils . . . . No one on the face of the earth is aware whence comes the salvation of souls, the conversion of great sinners, the end of great scourges, the fertility of the land, the end of pestilence and wars, and the harmony between nations. All this is due to the prayers that rise up from monasteries and convents (from the revelation of Our Lady to Mother Mariana de Jesus Torres, Quito, 1634).

The ears of the world are waxed shut with noise; at Our Lady of Ephesus there will be listening, and silence. The world has come nigh unto manufacturing its food on a conveyor belt, and consuming it likewise; at Our Lady of Ephesus, the gardens and the orchards will bloom, and the table will be blessed with happy conversation. The world’s language has grown coarse and banal and, in the jittery electronic half-signs of the miscalled “chat room,” almost aphasic; the sisters of Our Lady of Ephesus will sing and pray in the venerable tongue of Ambrose and Augustine, of Albert and Aquinas. The world despises men who are men and women who are women, wishing to reduce them all to one drab, asexual gray, with organs of reproduction remaining only as odd appendages for selfish license; at Our Lady of Ephesus the true spirit of womanly love and service, the spirit most endearingly made manifest in Mary’s joy, will bear both flower and fruit. The world does not care which god you worship, so long as it is a stupid and impotent idol; but if you worship Christ, the world will hate you. But at Our Lady of Ephesus, Christ the Bridegroom, Christ the Warrior, Christ the Healer, Christ our God and King will be adored.


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