WHAT THEY DID FOR BLISS…

By Sara Davidson, Oprah Magazine, 2005

 

nunsAt a brunch near the University of Colorado last year, I met a film professor, Jim Palmer, who told me his 34-year-old daughter, Sydney, was becoming a nun and about to have her “clothing ceremony,” when she would receive a new name and have her long, strawberry-blonde hair cut off to go “under the veil.”

Palmer was struggling to come to terms with his daughter’s choice. She had been raised Episcopalian, was stylish and sophisticated and had studied comparative literature at Smith College. “This was not the trajectory we envisioned for her,” he said.Yet Palmer spoke with admiration of the women in the monastery his daughter was joining, the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, a unique community of 39 exceptionally bright and gifted women, most of whom attained success in the world before becoming a nun. The median age is around 40, unlike other religious orders in America where the median age of nuns is 69.

Historically, a monastery has been seen as a retreat from society, a place where spinsters, difficult women, God-obsessed women or those who can’t handle life might be parked. But when Lady Abbess Benedict Duss founded the monastery in 1947, she decided that every woman who entered must have some gift, talent or profession and must be “equal to or superior to others in her field.”

From the start the Abbey attracted strong women, including a movie star, Delores Hart, who made two films with Elvis Presley; a member of the Connecticut legislature; a Shakespearean scholar from Yale; numerous lawyers and Wall Street executives and a sculptor whom the Abbey sent to Rome to learn marble carving from the top artists in Italy.

The nuns grow their own food on a 400 acre organic farm, make an acclaimed cheese from raw milk given by their black and white belted cows, and are one of the only women’s monastic groups in the world who sing Gregorian chant-seven times a day. Some nuns have been married and had children. Yet they live behind an enclosure, according to the rules established by St. Benedict in the sixth century, pray in Latin and take vows of chastity and obedience.

Curious to learn what brought these women to the Abbey and why they’ve stayed, I drove into green Connecticut last May, when it rained almost daily and lightning cracked across the sky.

What strikes me immediately is the harmonious beauty of the gardens and buildings, which reflect a spirit that’s feminine but not soft. Everything is designed on a massive scale. The entrance chapel is a soaring two-story greenhouse filled with tropical plants and a thrusting marble fountain carved by the sculptor, Mother Praxedes. Above the door is another work of hers, a giant stained-glass painting of Mary which looks like an image from a Tarot card: Mary is emerging from the trunk of a tree, holding the sun and moon in her hands, with the infant Jesus in her womb which resembles a many-petaled flower.

I step inside, ring a bell and in minutes, a nun appears behind the wooden grill-Sister Angele, who will be my guide. She drives me to the women’s guest house and shows me my room. The stairs creak with every step and the place has the musty smell of old New England houses in the rain. It’s furnished with cozy antiques, quilts and religious paintings, and in the kitchen they’ve left me supper in a basket: lettuce that’s just been picked, three slices of the Abbey cheese, freshly baked bread and tomato soup loaded with chunks of tomatoes from the garden.

Sister Angele, who was raised Jewish and became a nun at 50 after a career managing opera stars, tells me the Abbey schedule is a paradox of “serenity and chaos.” Unlike monks who sit in meditation for extended periods, the nuns are constantly rushing, working, jumping into a car to drive to Mass because they don’t have ten minutes to walk up the hill. Sister Angele has prepared my schedule: For a week, I’ll conduct one interview in the morning, two in the afternoon, participate in work projects and attend prayer services and I will find myself hurrying from 7 am to 9 pm without a break.

To have an interview or conversation with a nun, one requests a “parlor,” from the French word parler – to talk. Both men and women visitors can stay at the Abbey but they eat separately from the nuns and never enter their private quarters. For my first interview, I walk through a door into a small room that’s divided in two by a wooden latticework grill. On the other side of the grill, through a different door, Mother Lucia Kuppens walks in and sits down with a rustling of robes.

She takes hold of the grill and rattles it. “I was mystified by this when I first came here,” she says. She and her college boyfriend had hitchhiked to the Abbey in 1969 while exploring alternate forms of spirituality. “We were coming from the youth protest culture: tear down the walls, take off your clothes, break all the barriers,” she recalls. But they were impressed by how happy the nuns seemed, at a time when the protest movement was turning bitter and fragmented. “We wanted to form a community and asked them to show us how,” she says. With 30 friends of both sexes, they started a group called the Closed Community. “We decided to embrace the idea of enclosure as a positive, protective element, rather than a barrier to be afraid of,” she says.

For eight years, the Closed Community came to the Abbey for the month of August to study and work. Four of Mother Lucia’s friends entered the Abbey as nuns. “I was the last,” she says. She studied for a PhD in literature at Yale, writing her dissertation on the breakdown of male and female relationships in Shakespeare’s plays. And then, she said, “A light fell on my inmost soul.” She had to tell the man she’d planned to marry that “I was drawn to something else. What I felt at the abbey was the most intense experience of love I’d known.”

Friends and family responded with alarm. “Are you crazy,” they said, “throwing away your PhD after all the years you worked for it?” But Mother Lucia says that in addition to being the Abbey’s librarian and running the summer theater, “I feel I’m living my dissertation now. I wrote about gender and every day, I’m still working with that issue.”

Some feminists assert that the Catholic church has oppressed women and should now ordain women priests. Mother Lucia says, “As a community we don’t feel oppressed or excluded, and we don’t believe women should be priests.” She says the church, unlike other Western religions, has always had a role for women as nuns. She explains that in their theology, God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus and that through Mary and Jesus-the feminine giving birth to the masculine-the world is redeemed. “We have a complementary role; I think we do something different,” she says. “Men see themselves as following Christ, but women can see themselves as entering into union with Christ.” She says this is why the Abbey observes the Consecration of the Virgin ceremony, a rite dating back to the first century, when individual women declared they would not take a husband or have children because they considered themselves married to Christ and would spend their days apart “in prayer and good works.”

In l998, the Abbey held a Consecration of the Virgin ceremony for Mother Lucia and eight other nuns who’d taken their final vows. The women carried candles and wore a crown of flowers. “It’s on the same level as the ordination of a priest,” Mother Lucia says. “You place your hands in the hands of the Bishop, he slips a gold ring on your wedding finger and acknowledges your marriage with Christ.” She reflects: “You feel awe: How can I live up to this?”

Mother Lucia believes women exert a power that’s unique. “I don’t mean to say this is all worked out, but it’s the direction we’ve chosen to go– deeper into the truth of each gender rather than press for an equality with men that quickly becomes a power struggle.” A smile of whimsy flickers in her eyes. “A gendered world is more exciting that a uniform world. What’s the world without sex?”

We’re up to our elbows in the warm sweet liquid called whey. I’m in the dairy, learning to make cheese from Mother Margaret Georgina. Our heads nearly touch and our arms entwine as we moonwalk over the curds, pressing down on them so we leave a trail of fingerprints.

A cow moos from the barn next door. Every morning, the nuns milk the cows by hand and pour the raw milk into a canister with salt and rennet, covering it with quilts. Two hours later, the milk has separated into curds and whey.

Tall and slender, Mother Margaret Georgina wears round glasses and a black headband dotted with white stars over her black veil. She is the granddaughter of Gen. George S. Patton, but when she first visited the Abbey in the 70s as a flower child, embarrassed by her military family, she did not know that her grandfather had inspired the founding of the Abbey. Lady Abbess Benedict Duss, an American nun, was living in a French monastery in a town occupied by the Nazis in World War II. She was hiding in the bell tower from the Gestapo when she saw Gen. Patton’s troops march in to liberate the town, and vowed that she would found a monastery in America out of gratitude.

In the dairy, as we’re pressing down the curds, they begin to change from the consistency of custard to that of a dense sponge. The round mass feels alive, like bread dough, and pressing into it feels intimate and sensual.

“If a piece breaks off and starts to rise,” Mother Margaret Georgina says, “guide it back down gently. Use persuasion–not force.” She smiles, and quotes the French poet, Charles Peguy: “All life comes from tenderness.”

The cheese, if created with love and tenderness, “will speak,” she says. “Everything we make that goes out of here speaks. That’s one way that contemplatives speak to the world.”

She takes a wooden tool that one of the nuns, Mother Noella, brought back from France where she was studying the microbiology of cheese on a Fullbright scholarship. Mother Noella was told that if she made cheese at the Abbey by the same method used in France, the same bacteria would grow, producing the distinct flavor of St. Nectaire. Because the cows, grass and water were different in Connecticut than in France, Mother Noella was skeptical, but to her shock, when she looked at the ripening wheels under a miscroscope, the same bacteria were growing.

Following the St. Nectaire method, Mother Margaret Georgina slices the curd so it looks like a tic-tac-toe grid. We lift the square pieces and fit them, like a puzzle, into round molds and press the pieces together. My cheese is wild and ungainly, spilling over the wooden mold like soap suds, but hers is compact and neat. We trim off the cheese I can’t “persuade” into the mold and taste it. Unripened, velvety, warm from the cow, it tastes—excuse the phrase—”heavenly.”

On my second night at the Abbey I fall asleep in an unaccustomed state of peacefulness, and awaken to quiet pleasure. I walk to Mass through fields of lush rhododendron, and during the service, the nuns and congregants hug and kiss one another on the cheek–the “kiss of peace.”

I ask the nuns how new members are accepted. “We’re always looking for new blood,” one says, “but our process is slow and careful.” A woman will first come to visit and if she feels a connection, may become an intern, living and working with the nuns but not inside the enclosure. If she chooses to “enter”-a mutual decision made by the individual and the community-she becomes a postulant, wears a simple black dress and white veil and starts to follow the Abbey schedule, studying Latin and learning to chant the psalms. This is a time for her to question, “Is this the path for me?” while the community sets out to learn what the woman’s gift is and how to nourish it. Mother Telchilde, who’s the mistress of postulants and works closely with them, says, “If you’re coming because you hate your job or don’t like your life, this won’t work. You need to have a lot going for you and a profession you love to be happy at the Abbey.”

The next step is becoming a novice, when you’re given the habit and a name. Jim Palmer showed me photographs of his daughter’s clothing ceremony. First she appears in her street clothes, dressed up for the final time with necklaces, bracelets and rings. She’s chosen her sister, who’s pregnant and has flown in from Seattle, to carry in the habit she will wear and have it blessed. Then she kneels before Mother Abbess, removing each piece of jewelry. Jim remembers the silence, which exaggerated the sound of the bracelets dropping-clink! clink!-into a dish. Sydney holds up her hands, unadorned. A nun cuts her long gold hair until it’s only a few inches, then fits a white veil around her face. She receives her name: Sister Chava, which is Hebrew for Eve. Sister Chava had learned Hebrew to study biblical texts, and has a grandmother, Eve, who died recently. Jim says the veiling was a moment of intense power and, for the parents, loss: their daughter will not come home again.

After the ceremony the novice begins her canonical year, a time of introspection when she does not receive phone calls or visits from family or friends. After that year of retreat, she progresses at her own pace, and when she feels ready-usually in three to six years–takes her first vows, which are not permanent. At this point she gives up her personal property. “Up to now, you keep your bank accounts,” one nun says.

The last step is taking final vows, which are binding. The nun’s title changes from Sister to Mother, and she wears a black veil. The three vows are: stability-you promise to stay in the cloister and the community promises to keep you; conversion-you promise to change your life, which includes accepting poverty and chastity; and obedience.

Mother Deborah Joseph, who had been a New York debutante, ran her own interior design firm and worked as an investment manager on Wall Street before entering, says her willingness to obey was quickly tested. When the nun who’d been the bee keeper left for Italy, the Abbess told Mother Deborah Joseph she would be the new one. “I was shocked. I lost my voice,” she recalls. “I thought I was going to work on the Abbey’s finances. I went back to the Abbess and said, `I know nothing about bees!’ and she said, `Precisely. It’s time for you to learn something new.'”

Mother Deborah Joseph learned on the job from beekeepers in the area, and developed a reverence for the bees. “They pollinate everything and make it possible for us to grow our own vegetables and fruit, not to mention flowers. Our financial well being rests on the bees.”

Last winter, the local bee keepers lost nearly all their hives from mite infestations, but most of the Abbey’s bees survived. Other beekeepers joked that it was due to the nuns’ prayers. Mother Deborah Joseph says, “I think our animals take on a spiritual dimension.” She says it’s common for people to sense that their dogs and cats pick up their emotions. “It’s also true of the bees.”

Bells ring for the first prayer service at 1:50 a.m., then at 6:15, 8, noon (when two offices are sung), 5 and 7:30. The nuns don’t attend all the services, especially Matins at 1:50 a.m. because it means interrupted sleep, which was “a classical penance.” Mother Margaret Georgina says, “We believe there’s plenty of penance in life without cooking it up.”

The entire community almost always gathers at 8 a.m. for Mass. They file into the church in two lines that meet at the altar, bow and take their places in the choir stalls behind the metal grill. The nuns designed the church themselves, using red oak and pine to give it the elegant, rustic feel of a New England barn. Instead of frescos and solid walls, the church has glass walls that bring in the sunlight, trees and sky.

The nuns are one of the only women’s Benedictine groups that sing Gregorian chant. In 1994, they produced a CD, “Women in Chant,” which became a best seller on the Billboard classical list. They produced a second, “Recordare,” and have just released a third, “A Gregorian Chant Master Class,” to make singing this music accessible to a wide audience.

At the end of Mass, a nun recites what they’re going to pray for. She runs down a list that includes “peace in the middle East,” the names of people who are sick, and finally, “for Sara and her work, we pray to the Lord.” I feel a rush of embarrassment, and then, to my surprise, a sense of comfort.

Sister Elizabeth, a feisty, earthy and intellectually gifted woman who was groomed to succeed at the highest levels, is the only African-American nun at the Abbey. “It’s not unfamiliar for me to be the only one,” she says, sitting down across the grill from me. She earned a law degree at Stanford and worked as a corporate lawyer on Wall Street. “Hated it,” she says, “so I went back to San Francisco and became a professor of law at Santa Clara University. I had everything I thought I wanted: I’d bought a house, I was publishing, I had a romantic relationship.” But some piece was missing–something buzzing like an irritant in the back of her mind.

She had visited the Abbey at age 19. She’d grown up in New York city with musical parents who were constantly playing Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Elllington, classical music and Gregorian chants sung by a men’s choir in France. Sister Elizabeth loved the chant and tried to find it in America. When she heard about the Abbey, she took a bus there, walked into the chapel, heard the nuns singing and thought, “This is what I’ve been looking for.” She recalls, “It felt like coming home.”

But ten years passed while she was studying law and starting her career. In 1991, she received an invitation to the Consecration of the Virgin ceremony of a nun who was a potter, and on the invitation was a picture of a kiln-“the red-hot, enclosed fire of a kiln.” Sister Elizabeth flew to Connecticut and again had the shock of feeling she was home. “I thought, this is the piece that’s missing–the fire that’s burning so intensely because it’s enclosed in a kiln,” she says. “That intense fire is monastic life, and nothing on the outside can come close to it.”

She says two events in the world also compelled her to join the Abbey: the acquittal of the police officers accused of beating Rodney King, and the battle to admit Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. In both cases, she felt “there was a severe breach of justice.” As a lawyer, she thought, there was little she could do except write an essay for a legal journal. But as a contemplative nun, she could work on a higher level.

I ask how becoming a nun could help restore justice. She says her two major forms of prayer at the Abbey are music and cheese-making. She describes how she was making cheddar cheese and wanted it to look the way she thought cheddar should look-“neon orange like Kraft. So I put vegetable color in the cheese. I thought, if it’s not the right color, nobody will recognize it as cheddar.” She laughs, and says she began to see the analogy between wanting the cheese to look orange and the pressure she’d felt to make herself look like a middle-aged white man in a Brooks Brothers suit when she walked into a courtroom.

“If I could allow the cheese to be itself, to take on its own color, that’s a form of prayer. That’s my prayer for Anita Hill. By allowing the cheese to be itself, I’m allowing all those black women out there to be themselves,” she says.

At her clothing ceremony before receiving her habit, she put on an African dress and turban. “Not that I’d ever worn that before. But once I put it on, I thought, gee-I wish I had!” She laughs. “I had to come to a Benedictine abbey with all these white women to find a way to be black.”

I ask how making a natural-colored cheese will actually help black women whom she’s never met to be themselves. She says, “That’s the leap of faith. That’s the work of prayer. Everything we do here is a form of prayer.”

Gregorian chant, she says, is a major expression of prayer. Because the chant evolved before the use of harmony, the women must sing in unison in the same octave-hitting the same notes in the same rhythm and breathing at the same time. “The chant itself has a lift and fall. Like your moods, like everything you do–it’s upbeat, downbeat, lift and fall. When you feel that wave, you’re singing in line with the rhythm of all creation. And you’re singing with a group where everyone is doing her part and breathing together and totally present. Man, there is nothing better!”

She pauses, as I savor what she’s describing. Then she adds, “But on the other hand, `R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ aint so bad either!”

When I left the Abbey, I learned that in the past it had attracted not only admiration but controversy. During the Eighties, there were allegations reported in the press that the chaplain, Rev. Francis J. Prokes, and Mother Abbess Benedict Duss were taking the Abbey in a “cult-like” direction, pressuring nuns and lay people to donate money and land, and advancing a bizarre theology that stressed the potency of female sexuality. The atmosphere was said to be psychologically damaging, prompting ten nuns to leave. In 1991, the Vatican ordered an investigation, and in ’94, The Rev. Prokes was removed and the Rev. Matthew Stark, Abbott of Portsmouth Abbey, appointed by Rome to oversee Regina Laudis for three years.

The nuns will not discuss the investigation or its findings. Msgr Thomas M. Ginty, Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Hartford, says the Abbey is “in excellent standing with the Vatican. Any woman who would consider entering the Abbey would be entering a legitimate religious order in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church. They’re not a cult, not disobedient to the Holy Father. They are very good women who may have needed to correct a few things and they have done that.”

The accusations of the past do not jibe with the impressions I receive on my visit. Saturday afternoon I join a work team headed by Mother Augusta, who’s the mistress of novices and also in charge of the hay fields and cattle. She has a dark beauty like that of Andie McDowell, with strands of curly hair slipping out from under her khaki sun hat. She’d been an English major before joining the Abbey, but Lady Abbess asked her and three other nuns to go back to college and earn PhDs in fields related to agriculture. “Few of the women coming here had a farm background and she felt we needed professional expertise,” Mother Augusta says.

At 36, she went to the University of Connecticut, taking up agronomy–forage crops and soil–while the others studied animal science and cheese microbiology.

On Saturday, when we gather in the parking lot–three novices, two interns and me-Mother Augusta says we’re going to clear trees at the edge of the pastures. The nuns are wearing work habits made of blue denim, muddy boots and orange hard hats with ear coverings to muffle the noise of machinery. They lend me boots and a hard hat as we scramble into a truck.

Mother Augusta uses a chain saw to cut down trees and saw them into pieces. The rest of us, like a fire brigade, carry the heavy pieces across the field to a nun who feeds them into a chipper. It starts to rain but no one misses a beat, lifting and carrying the logs. I borrow a rain coat and check my watch every ten minutes. I have bad knees, a bad back and am recovering from the flu and I just want to survive here with no injury.

When we finally stop at 4, drinking lemonade and singing a hymn to Mary, I’m relieved and feel that pleasant sense of tiredness that follows exertion. Many guests like to join the work team because it’s an opportunity to interact with the nuns and leave something of oneself on the land. Jim Palmer painted a porch. Mother Lucia sent him a note of thanks and assured him: “The material remembers.”

Midway through my stay, the nuns prepare to celebrate the Ascension of Jesus to heaven. They form a procession after Vespers, marching out to the garden chanting “Ora pro nobis,” pray for us. They carry relics mounted on velvet-tiny bits of bone or tooth that have been documented as having belonged to a saint. At the back of the procession line, Mother Dolores Hart, who suffers from neuropathy, rides on a motorized scooter.

Mother Dolores was a movie star at age 18, starring with Elvis Presley in “Loving You” and later in “King Creole.” Elvis sang to her on her 21st birthday, “Arrivederci Roma,” and on the set between shots, they would open the Bible at random, read a passage and talk about God.

But Mother Dolores says if anyone had told her she would become a nun, “I would have said, `You’re crazy.’ Being a film star was all I wanted from my first consciousness as a child. I felt it was my divine right.” She did not study acting but was a natural, with a Patrician beauty that suggested Grace Kelly. The camera loved her, and she made 11 films in six years, including “Where the Boys Are.”

While making “Lisa” in London with actor Stephen Boyd, she thought they might develop a romantic relationship. After dinner one night, she asked if he’d like to come up to her hotel room. “Yes, I would,” he said, “but you’re marked.” She asked what he meant and he said, “I can’t tell you.” Years later, when he visited her at the Abbey he said, “I knew you were meant for something of God and it was not for me to get involved with you.”

She is still beautiful at 65, with flawless skin and enormous blue eyes that engage you with simple directness. She looks glamorous in her habit; for the procession, she wears a jaunty black and white straw hat and dark glasses.

I ask her why, when she’d attained what most humans dream of-stardom, riches, access to the most celebrated people of her day-she was ready to give it all up at 24?

She thinks a moment. The medications she takes for her illness cause her to speak slowly and reach for words. “If I were 24, could I do it again?” she asks. “I say… `Please don’t test me.’ I thank God I only had to do it once, because it was so difficult humanly. I think it was a gift of grace.”

She began visiting the Abbey while performing on Broadway in “The Pleasure of His Company”–a role for which she won a Tony nomination. After entering the Abbey, she says, “I did have to join the human race.” She learned to be a carpenter and made coffins so the nuns could “bury our own dead.” She struggled to learn the chant and says it took 20 years to become “peaceful” with it. Other nuns say she was instrumental in shaping Regina Laudis, and presently serves as Mother Prioress, the second in command.

She does not seem to rule with an iron hand. She asks Sister Angele if it’s all right to show me the new C.D., “A Gregorian Chant Master Class,” before it’s released. Sister Angele says lightly, “I’ll ask Mother Prioress.”

Mother Delores stares at her, then says with a laugh, “I’m Mother Prioress!”

“Then I guess it’s okay,” Sister Angele says.

In l997 Mother Delores developed idiopathic sensory neuropathy, a torturous disease of the nervous system which made her feel that her feet were on fire and sent hammering, freezing and shooting pains to all parts of her body. She was in a wheelchair and could hardly speak because of the pain when she met a doctor who was able to manage her symptoms with drugs. The challenge of the illness, she says, was to “go beyond my own pain,” to develop deeper love and to wrestle with the question of why people suffer.

When a bell rings for prayer and we end our parlor, she takes my hands in hers and kisses them.

People visit the Abbey from all parts of the country and different fields-politics, science–to learn from the nuns, work with them, and deepen their spiritual lives. A notable number come for a retreat on their birthday. The Benedictine rule is that all guests are to be received “as Christ himself.” No fees are charged.

Many visitors cannot help but feel the pull of a community that has love at its core, and begin to ask themselves, could I live here? The issues and barriers that come up are: not being able to travel, to drive into town and eat a pizza, to see old friends and family, to go skiing or swim in the ocean. For one young intern it’s “wearing the same dress for 12 years. I love clothes.” What I find most difficult to imagine is giving up physical intimacy. When I question the nuns about this, they say they still have sexual desires but they work with them, each in her own way. Some speak of a sensuality that extends beyond the body, some of being penetrated by ideas, friendship, or nature, and some hint of an energy that takes the place of the sexual.

Mother Augusta says, “If you could be happy doing something else, you should do that. Because this way of life is hard.” She looks across the field where the black and white belted cows are grazing. “There’s nothing else I want to do.”

The nuns do not speak of altered states or mystic visions. They talk about the freedom they have to become themselves and the exhilaration of living with extraordinary women, which is also a challenge, particularly for women who’ve lived alone. Mother Lucia says, “People get angry, depressed, jealous, down, just as anybody does. The difference is that you’re in a community that’s oriented to keep moving–to reach out, to pray, or sometimes to just let the darkness be.”

When I tell her some of the guests feel transported, she says, “We don’t go in search of that experience. It’s more that you’re giving yourself to this enterprise. But the gift will be given. It could be in the dairy, it could be with the animals or when we pray in the middle of the night.” She smiles from across the grill. “You wouldn’t stay in this life if you didn’t have the assurance of that love from time to time.”

A sign in the guest house asks us to change our linens before we leave. I find clean sheets in the cupboard and start to yank and tug at the antique bed, which is hard to maneuver because it’s wedged against the wall. Frustrated, trying to hurry and get the job done, I stop and think: The nuns put love into the cheese, the flowers and fruit they grow, the animals they care for, the shawls they weave and the honey they make. Why not put love into the linens, for the next guest who arrives feeling shy, uncertain and expectant? I slow down and smooth the pillows gently, “tenderly” as Mother Margaret Georgina had suggested handling the cheese. The material remembers.

To order “A Gregorian Chant Master Class” or for information about the Abbey, browse to AbbeyofReginaLaudis.com.