Today, I pulled into the Kroger lot, parking near a green Toyota Tacoma pickup. As I walked toward the store, an elderly nun, with white coif and black habit, hopped into the front seat. Seated beside her was a second, more elderly, sister. They sat in that front cab so naturally that I could see them shifting into four-wheel drive and dirtying up the mud flaps with true abandon. I imagined them heading back toward the convent, with Toby Keith or Sugarland – or even better, Cash and the Avett Brothers – thumping.
My guess is that these sisters are from Our Lady of the Angels monastery, our local Trappist community tucked into the Blue Ridge foothills. Our Lady of the Angels is known for two things: prayer and gouda. Their Dutch-styled gouda is the absolute finest I’ve ever tasted, and you typically have to order it months in advance. Several Christmases ago, friends brought us a nice chunk off the 2lb gouda wheel they had purchased. I watched that wheel the rest of the evening, hoping that somehow God would be merciful and allow some small sliver to remain when the evening was done. Marvelous as the gouda is, however, the sisters want everyone to know that cheese is more their hobby than their passion. On their old order forms, they gave a reminder something like this: “Thank you for your order. We’ll get to it when we can. Our first work is prayer.”
Not that they are creating a strict dichotomy between the two. Rather, the sisters weave a rhythmic life and insist on a pace that allows even cheese-crafting to be patient and prayerful, not stressful and harried. One of the beauties of cloistered life is that (at its best) those who give themselves to it seek to carve space for holistic living where peeling potatoes and tending to the animals and compline prayers all blend into one life of joy and faithfulness, one life where even tedium is welcomed for whatever gifts it brings. They do not so much seek complete removal from the world but rather a way of creating boundaries so they can live in the world more fully, remembering the joy found in the oft-forgotten details, in the subtleties that most of us rarely notice.
Vigen Guroian, an Eastern Orthodox theologian and friend, likes to say, “I think gardening is nearer to godliness than theology.” In the garden, we dig our fingers into the grit of this world. We find ourselves immersed in the life to which we are called. Good gardening requires patience and slow attentiveness – and probably a little luck, all of which explains why I’m so awful at it. “True gardeners,” Vigen says, “are both iconographers and theologians insofar as these activities are the fruit of prayer without ceasing.”
There’s something shared between the sisters in their cheese shop and Vigen in his garden. This is something we can all share, in our labor or our craft, amid the mundane as well as the exhilarating moments. We can all seek God in the work of our hands, in the immediate space around us. We can, in “whatever we do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father.”
I imagine two Sisters winding through the country roads the twenty miles or so back to their monastery, tapping the dashboard in harmony with the Soggy Bottom Boys. Every mile and every note a prayer.