I have the pleasure of being great-niece to one of the holiest women I have met, Sr. Andrea Verchuck, OSB, or as the family calls her, Aunt Zuzu. Aunt Zuzu has been a religious sister with the Order of St. Benedict since she was 15 (she is now in her late 80s) and in addition to being a loving, kind and prayerful woman, she is also incredibly intelligent, witty, a world traveler and a true leader. In other words, I - and everyone who meets her - learn a lot from her.
Every once in a while I go to visit her and the sisters at St. Benedict's Monastery in Bristow, VA. The monastery is situated on acres of land, set back from the road, and is a quiet and peaceful place for reflection. When I made my annual Christmas visit last month, I learned that this year the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia are celebrating their 150th anniversary on May 1, 2018. That is to say, 150 years of a Benedictine presence in the Commonwealth of Virginia; and in 2019 they will celebrate 125 years of having a presence in Bristow.
One of the very creative ways they are celebrating this milestone and drumming up interest among the public is by doing a daily email countdown, called Countdown 150, for the 150 days leading up to May 1. Each day they send a message that contains a picture, a story, a related psalm and a prayer that delve into the deep history of the community. With roots in Virginia going back to the immediate post-Civil War years, there is much to cull from. From stories of typhoid to a (supposedly) haunted cabin, and the vision of those early pioneering nuns - who basically showed up to the wild lands of Bristow with nothing but prayers and the good will of those around them - the story of the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia is fascinating. You can jump into the action by reading the first 35 days here and sign up to receive the updates directly to your inbox here. I highly recommend!
During that visit, and while Sr. Joanna showed me their recently-made "Meet the Sisters" video (see it at the top of their Facebook page here - see if you can spot my dear Aunt Zuzu) and explained about the countdown, I realized this was absolutely something I had to write about. So, in my January article for Catholic Stand, I did just that:
It has already received a higher than usual number of shares, and I believe this can be attributed to a few things. One, given the breadth and depth of their presence in the Commonwealth, they've got a few friends. That includes the generations of children educated in their schools in Richmond, Bristow and elsewhere; individuals served in their ministries, which include literacy services, transitional housing for homeless women and children, and a clothing ministry in Appalachia; and then their community right there around them. Something I realized particularly on this most recent visit is that although the nature of a Benedictine monastery is to be self-sufficient, the sisters do still rely heavily on the community for many of their needs and wants, and the public often happily meets them in their needs. For example, all the sisters get their hair cut monthly by a stylist who loves the community and donates her services in kind. Little things like that you wouldn't even think about, on the outside of monastic life.
The other reason I think this article is resonating with people is because of the notion of Benedictine living. I don't mean "the Benedict Option," which I haven't read, but rather the actual Benedictine way of living, pronounced in their motto, "Ora et Labora:" Work and Pray. It is seeing Christ in others, which is, as Sr. Joanna told me, rather counter to the current secular way of doing things. But then, following Jesus is defined by its counter-culturalism.
In their guest house there is a sign that says something along the lines of, "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ." This comes from the Rule of St. Benedict, which forms the foundation for the sisters' way of life.
Aren't we all crying out for that? To be welcomed by others with love, as if we were Christ? Where else do you receive that kind of reception? Aside from your dog, of course. It's a radically different thing than what we receive on the metro, in traffic, waiting in line at the DMV, at an interview, etc. And it's genuinely what it's like to be a guest at the monastery, and, I assume any Benedictine monastery around the world. Those who experience it don't soon forget it, and those who learn of it hunger to experience it.
Religious orders come and go, and St. Benedict's has been long-lasting, the proof of which is seen in Virginia. As the sisters enter this jubilee celebration I will be keeping them and the future of their community in my prayers, and I hope you will, too. St. Benedict, St. Scholastica and all the others of this blessed order, pray for us.