By Michelle Boorstein
There is an amazing backdrop this week for the Benedictine nuns in Virginia who are reeling from a deadly drunk-driving crash: silent retreat.
The community of 33 women had their annual retreat scheduled when the crash happened Sunday morning, killing one sister and seriously injuring two others. There was discussion about canceling the event or at least the silent aspect, but the women voted by a show of hands in the kitchen Sunday evening to go ahead. This has created unusual conditions for mourning and resulted in scenes like those that unfolded yesterday: women silently folding napkins in preparation for their sister’s wake, women listening to a fortuitously-named lecture on “Forgiveness and Reconciliation,” special prayers being spoken at Mass for hospital staff and for “the safety of all those traveling.”
The decision to go ahead with their silent retreat was an unusual one, but the spiritual community at the Saint Benedict Monastery is unusual as well.
Like some monastic religious orders, the Catholic Benedictine Sisters’ priority is on their relationships with one another–as opposed to on service, for example–but for them it’s to the point that they take a unique vow, along with chastity and poverty, of “stability”–to remain based here, in Bristow. And this week, as three seats are glaringly empty in the tiny wood-beamed chapel, the women are facing the loss in intense, private prayer.
“I looked out at the women and here they are, with all red eyes and all cried out,” Sister Christine Vladimiroff, the key presenter for the week, said of the mood when she arrived Sunday. “I thought: What does this have to do with anything?”
But the community, which runs a counseling center, a grade school and a literacy program here on the wooded, 120-acre property, wanted to forge ahead with the retreat, even as pairs of two took turns driving to Fairfax to sit a vigil by the injured nuns’ bedsides.
In fact being together, instead of spread out doing their normal weekly work, and being in prayer, created a cushion, and a structure for their initial days of shock and mourning.
“Being all together gives us focus,” said Sister Andrea Verchuck, 81..
The women voted on an altered silence; anyone who wants to talk can do so in the kitchen or living room, but the halls of the dorm-like building and the grounds are to remain silent. Usually there is no TV, but some women wanted it on to hear the news of their community and the driver. And their voices were heard at Mass yesterday, when it came time for voluntary prayer calls. Most of the more than 20 women at the service spoke. The first prayer was for the two injured nuns, and for the driver, Carlos Martinelly Montano, “his little children and his parents, we pray.”
“Lord hear our prayer,” came the group response. Other prayers were requested for the intensive care staff at Inova Fairfax, volunteers helping prepare for Friday’s funeral, and “for peace in our world and peace in our hearts.”
“Lord hear our prayer,” came again and again.
Rev. Bill Schardt, the priest visiting for the day to lead the Mass, told the women in his homily to consider the Biblical story of Peter, who becomes afraid in wild ocean water as he tries to reach Jesus.
“We don’t have to be immersed in water to feel over our head, so it is with the tragedy that began Sunday and will unfold for many months.”
Like many American communities of nuns, the Benedictine monastery is small and filled with senior citizens. During Mass some remained seated, one leaned on the chair in front of her, another stood with a cane. With a monastery population that has long been small – usually about 40, its highest numbers about 100 – the absence of three people looms.
Each missing sister had her place here. Sister Denise Mosier, who died, was a vivacious musician whose hands always moved, expressively, as she sang hymns. Sister Connie Ruth Lupton was known as a homemaker who called her sisters “precious lambs.” Sister Charlotte Lange, Verchuck said, was a “whizbangie of a successful woman” – running a Richmond high school for 25 years as principal and securing money for a new gym and state-of-the art science lab. She had in recent years worked at a Richmond hospital in pastoral counseling.
Charlotte had been in Richmond for many years (she attended the high school she later led) and the other two were new to the city (having gone down in the spring of last year). But the women’s home was in Bristow, where the belief in interdependence is so profound that they literally believe their spiritual unity helps them go to God. While many orders send clergy on retreat alone, the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia take retreat only together.
In death they are together as well. Among the rituals they have created when one of their own passes, the sister sing at the wake the same hymn they sang when they first took their vow to join the order:
“Receive me O Lord, as you have promised that I may live, and do not disappoint me in my hope.”
A bell is rung for the number of years the deceased had been a Benedictine nun and the burial happens there, on the property.
Verchuck knew off the top of her head that 86 sisters had died in the 66 years since she came as a 15-year-old. When new nuns move to the monastery, she said sweetly, she takes them for a tour of the graveyard to meet the rest of the community they will hopefully join in the next life.
Sisters who spoke yesterday said they were disturbed to see their tragedy linked to the seething national debate about immigration. “That’s not part of our story,” Verchuck said at lunchtime.
“We would like to refocus attention on the consequences of drinking and driving, and on Christ’s command to forgive,” said a statement the order released yesterday. “We are also confident that responses of mercy and forgiveness, though not usually easy, are not optional for Christians.”
Vladimiroff made the same point in the afternoon, at an afternoon lecture. “Forgiveness is about mercy, not justice,” she told a dimmed sanctuary. “The word ‘contrition’ itself has its roots in language meaning to crush and pulverize .. it symbolizes for us the destruction of stony hearts which deadens us to life in community.”
The wake Thursday night and the funeral Friday are closed to the public and media.