In the hills twenty minutes outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, the nuns are making cheese. They have come to the Shenandoah foothills from a variety of places and professions to live quietly ensconced in curds and whey and contemplation. There, you can find them—Monday through Saturday from 2 to 4—clinging to their unwavering faith in God and Gouda.
Friends of mine used to stay at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery for week-long retreats in one of two pay-as-you-are-able log cabins. It is from these friends that I learned of this monastery, its cheese and the Cistercian philosophy of working with one’s hands while spending stretches of time in contemplation.
Having never dabbled in Catholicism, I thought all nuns were like Mother Teresa—tending to the desperately poor and sick in places like Calcutta, but that’s not the life of a Cistercian. These nuns (or monks) craft cheese or candies, jams or breads to sell online or in onsite shops in order to pay their living expenses. They spend the rest of the day reading, thinking and praying. In short, they are a contemplative order.
Last week, I drove 30 minutes from my home, creeping up the last mile on a dirt road, past two enormous vultures and into Our Lady of the Angels to see this for myself. In my pocket I had exactly 32 dollars in cash, enough to buy a two-pound wheel of Gouda. Signs directed me into the chapel building to a kiosk. There, I rang a softly-tinkling bell. Some minutes later, a pair of brown loafers shuffled across the tile floor.
The sister smiled, “How may I help you?” She seemed surprised to learn that I had come to buy cheese. We chatted briefly. I asked if she made this cheese, but she told me that she was retired from cheese making.
She went on to recount that she moved to Virginia in 1987 when the main building was purchased from a Dutch man who ran a small Gouda business here. He taught the first wave of sisters how to make Gouda. They added a chapel. Prior to that, she had made jam in a Massachusetts monastery since the 1950s.
Quick math—and a glance at the deep grooves criss-crossing her face—put her well into her 80s, yet she moved gracefully and talked about her life with no sign of a decline in her mental acuity. I paid for my cheese and thanked her. She smiled broadly, “God bless you.”
I returned home and began reading books by the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton and buying goods from monasteries across the United States. So far I’ve received biscotti from New York, caramels and maple syrup from Iowa and fudge from Oregon. Come Christmas, there will be fruit cake from Kentucky (where else would you expect to find bourbon fruitcake?)
If you google “monasteries that sell food,” you’ll be amazed.
I gave a wedge of Gouda to my friends, and we talked more about Cistercian abbeys and monasteries. Knowing about my obsession with France, they mentioned that this all sprung from the 900-year-old Cîteaux Abbey in Burgundy.
Wait. What?! The Cîteaux Abbey that I’ve been trying to find a means to get to during my hike in Burgundy next month is the first ever Cistercian abbey? I take this as a sign. Come late September, I will crawl to Cîteaux Abbey if I must.
At Cîteaux Abbey on the plains of Burgundy, a group of Cistercian monks live from the proceeds of their this-is-France-so-not-Gouda cheese. My brief pause last week from The Paris Project as I dabbled in local monastery food has looped back—as all things in my life eventually do—to France.
Lying in bed one recent morning, I recounted everything to Pat. The tale of the two abbeys. What I’ve learned about Cistercians. All the food he should expect by mail in the following days. I ended by describing the nuns, a group of women who spend every day cooking and reading—and wearing the exact same outfit while doing it. He laughed, “You missed your calling.”
Since that morning, I’ve thought a lot about my calling. In retirement, my life revolves around cooking meals based on locally sourced foods plus reading and studying about France. It turns out, I’ve managed—unwittingly—to craft an arguably more secular version of a Cistercian life.
Who knew that all this hooey—reading stories of Paris and wine and kings—those bits of my life that I tend to classify as a colossal waste of time, could be bucketed under the much more erudite label of ‘contemplation’?
And who knew that my two lives could meld so well? That a crisp white burgundy from Meursault—part of my pre-trip research—would pair so nicely with a slice of fresh Virginia Gouda.