Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Norbertine nuns in Tehachapi, CA

Last month I spent a weekend in Tehachapi visiting this order of nuns, and I thought I'd post a few pictures of it.

So this was the view from my window in the guesthouse when I arrived on Friday. Not too shabby. You can see a nun on the road. They own the hill in the background.

The room was simple, as they always are. There were two other girls visiting that weekend too, all of us thinking of becoming nuns (though with varying levels of certainty). Both of the other girls were from St. Stephen's in Sacramento, the church my friends and I keep making road trips to visit! (I saw both of the girls just a few weeks after this visit when I was at St. Stephen's for the Triduum.)

So the huge news of the weekend was that it SNOWED, a phenomenon I had never before witnessed. This is the same view from my window on Saturday.

It was such a trip to see my car slowly disappearing under the snow. I fretted at first-- could it handle the cold?-- before it occurred to me that cars are in fact built to withstand worse than 70-degree California weather. Oh, that's the chapel you see behind my car. The buildings are sort of temporary... it's a very new order and they're hoping to build a bigger, more permanent monastery later. For now they're sleeping two to a room, which is certainly sub-optimal; it would be better for each sister to be able to retreat to solitude in her own cell.

The chief work of the Norbertine nuns is prayer (eight hours a day), and particularly the Liturgy of the Hours; in fact that task is sort of officially delegated to them by the Church, which is why they're also called canonesses. But they also have a farm with cows and goats and such, and so the fridge in the guest house offered this tantalizing prospect. Five kinds of homemade cheese (I liked the brick cheese and goat cheese best), fresh goat's milk, and yogurt made from goat's milk. It was all reeeeally good. The nuns are vegetarian (or was that just for Lent?) and I never missed the meat because I was too busy pouring another glass of goat's milk and spreading chèvre on toast. They have lots of people wanting to buy the cheese-- even restaurants are interested-- but for that they need to comply with expensive regulations by building a bigger facility, something they hope to do once they get the money.

Back to the snow. Here's another picture of my sweet little car, all white.

Snow, snow, snow! By the way, I already posted a picture of me in the snow here.

I realize this is old news to most everybody, but look at how snow coats each little branch and every single leaf!

Aaaaaand.... ICICLES! Icicles on my car!

The next day much of the snow was already gone.

But the icicles remained; what fun!

I would have broken one off to suck on, but... well...

And look, by the time I was about ready to leave on Sunday, you'd never have known it had been cold. Everything melted so quickly. Tehachapi is several hours away from the Los Angeles area and at a much higher elevation (about 5000 feet, I think), so it's another world.

The nuns are pretty strictly cloistered, but we joined them in praying all the Hours in their chapel. One whole wall of the chapel is windows looking out at the white landscape. The nuns all have choir mantles that are essentially thick white blankets (good thing too, because the chapel wasn't kept very warm), and they looked like cozy snowbirds against the snow backdrop.

If you read the article I linked above, you know that they rise in the middle of the night to pray Matins at its proper hour, midnight. Now, I always thought that would be a pretty cool thing to do... praising God even in the middle of the night... so you'd never be away from Him for longer than four hours of sleep... but I'll tell you, when my alarm went off at 11:40 pm on Friday night, I wasn't as enthusiastic as I had been. The other two girls and I had been told our attendance was completely voluntary, but we wanted the experience, so we dressed in many layers and made the cold (but thankfully short) walk between our guest house and the chapel, and prayed Matins with the nuns. They did three sets of Psalms and chanted slowly. It took an hour!

The next night... I won't lie... we all elected to get our beauty sleep.

I had a good talk with the mother superior, who told me (among many other things) that they accustom new members very slowly to praying Matins every night. Postulants don't have to go at all, and neither do novices until the day of their first vows nears. Then they start going once a week... then twice a week... and so on, working their way up to seven days a week. All the nuns get a full night's sleep, just not all in one session. I'm sure one gets used to it to some extent. But given that my least favorite moment of the day is getting out of bed in the morning, it would indeed be a sacrifice to have that moment twice a day...

The land was pretty, and the nuns own hundreds of acres, enough to cushion them from neighbors and give them lots of room to walk. They never leave the enclosure unless they have to for jury duty or something. Their brother Norbertines, the priests from St. Michael's Abbey, make the 3.5 hour drive up to say Mass for them. (The way they work it is to stay for three or four days at a time, which makes the drive more worth it.) The priests say a lovely ad orientem Mass and people from the town drive up on weekdays to join in on the non-cloister side.

There's a picture of the nuns in their fuzzy choir mantles here. The best part of the weekend was when Mother gathered most of them together and had them tell us three girls their vocation stories. I wish I remembered the stories better. One of the nuns joined when she was eighteen. She'd wanted to join at fifteen, but the nuns made her wait.

Another one of the nuns was a young Catholic woman getting into liberation theology, reading books on the topic that her priest was giving her, and forming critical opinions of the current pope (John Paul II). She went to a youth meeting where the speaker, another priest, praised the pope and his relationship with the Catholic youth, and that frustrated her. After the talk people were going forward to receive a blessing or something, so she went forward "just to give that priest a piece of my mind!" She let him have it, and he turned red in the face and funneled her off to an Alhambra Carmelite sister who happened to be in line behind her. The sister's full habit freaked her out; she escaped her and ended up talking with some Mexican members of Regnum Christi. They didn't speak enough English for her to realize that they were a kind of consecrated religious too, and by the time she figured that out she was hooked. She started to get involved with their movement, went to one of their retreats, and had a huge experience of certainty that she was called to be a member of Regnum Christi too.  Then she starting hanging out at St. Joseph Radio (they have some sort of youth group) and the folks there encouraged her to look around at the different orders, and she found the Norbertines. She's now a nun much like the one that freaked her out that first fateful night. :) I wish you could have heard her tell the story.

And there was another nun who had a wrenching breakup with her perfect boyfriend as she was moving into religious life. It seems that a lot of nuns find their vocations when they get engaged (or nearly) and then find that that doesn't satisfy them, or realize that they never consulted God about their life's plans.

One of the nuns also talked with the three of us alone and gave us such a clear, cogent, concise and satisfying explanation of religious life that it really needs to be recorded and disseminated all over the internet.

We said farewell to the nuns on Sunday, and they gave us parting gifts-- some more homemade cheese! I was quite happy about that.

Oh, if you ever get up to Tehachapi, I can recommend the banana preserves and kiwi preserves, both available in their gift shop (with about ten other flavors). Also, their guest house is available for private retreats, so if you want to go where there will be all sorts of delicious milk products available in the fridge, I highly recommend it. :)


Rachel Ann said...

I vote you have vocation in Tehachapi. So nice and close. =)

Rachel Gray said...

Good food, too. :) Did I mention that?

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

If I manage to get ordained, and you go there, I'll be sure to visit to offer a few Masses :)

Rachel Gray said...

If you get ordained you'd better say a few Masses for me wherever we are. :)

ASSISI said...

Sounds like a wonderful retreat! Don't worry about waking to pray during the night. That will come with time if you felt this order was your calling. You'd be surprised what you can do when filled with that fire and desire for God.
Thanks for sharing!

ASSISI said...

Check out these nuns - and the like cheese and of course Mother Earth.

Rachel Gray said...

Thanks Assisi. :) Yeah, I'd be happy to join an order with midnight Matins if I thought God was calling me to it. Those were great pictures you linked to!

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

Of course I will Rachel, that goes without saying :p

Randy said...

Interesting place. Suppose your biggest attraction to married life was waking up for those middle of the night feeds. This seems to allow you to have it all. You can be a nun and still jave your sleep interupted.

The truth is you can get used to many things. It is hard to visualize how one life vs another will impact you over the decades. I know the church needs people who are committed to prayer. I am so glad there are men and women who do that. They can make up for guys like me who struggle to pray.

God bless you. I am thrilled to see you closing in on your vocation. I know it has been a long time coming. You will be an awesome nun.

Rachel Gray said...

Excellent. Thanks Joe. Now you've biased me toward wanting you to become a priest. :)

Randy, darn right it's been a long time coming, and for all I know it'll be a long time yet. Thanks for the encouragement!