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    Lessons from the Cheese Nun

    As you read creation – in my case, it happened to be cheesemaking – you can make analogies to spirituality.

    By Sister Noëlla Marcellino and Margarita Mooney Suarez

    June 21, 2022
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    Margarita Mooney Suarez speaks with Sister Noëlla Marcellino, OSB, about community and charity, creation and decay, scripture and nature, the elemental and the eternal, as seen through cheesemaking and traditional monastic life today.

    Margarita Mooney Suarez: Sister Noëlla, what led you to join a monastery?

    Sister Noëlla Marcellino: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, college students from East Coast cities started going to a Benedictine monastery in Connecticut, Regina Laudis. We were not looking for a monastery, nor did we have any interest in Saint Benedict. Even though we had been brought up Catholic, many of us had stopped going to church.

    That was the time of the Vietnam War. We had lost faith in our government and in authority. After visiting Regina Laudis, a friend told me, “I think you would love it there.” I could not imagine that I would. But, like others, I still went. We were at wonderful universities, but we were wondering why we were there, and what the future held.

    The monastic community invited us to meet at the monastery every few months as a group. They saw in us a kind of a lost innocence. I fell in love with this community of amazing women. They reintroduced us to life-giving structures; they helped us see the need for discipline in our lives.

    I discovered I had a religious vocation, and it shocked me. I had not been thinking of being a nun, believe me! People ask, “How did you know?” I think it is the same way you know when you fall in love with someone. It is a mystery. You cannot really describe it. But you know if you do not pursue that religious vocation or pursue that person, you will regret it. I have had no regrets. It has been a beautiful life.

    What does it mean to be a Benedictine?

    Saint Benedict lived around AD 480 to AD 547 in Italy. As was the custom then, his parents sent him to Rome to study. At this point, though, the Roman Empire was in decline through barbarian invasions and moral and political corruption. Saint Benedict did not want to stay in Rome. So he left and eventually went to Subiaco, staying in a cave by himself for three years. That was probably not his parents’ plan for him! Eventually people started coming to him for guidance and counsel.

    Before Saint Benedict’s time, the desert fathers in the East were hermits who lived alone. Saint Benedict, however, felt that men needed to live together to be saved. We call him the Father of Coenobitic Life: monks or nuns living in common. He started thirteen monasteries in the area of Subiaco. A priest actually tried to poison him at one point, so he eventually went to Monte Cassino. There he wrote his Holy Rule for monks, which has lasted for centuries and which both monasteries and laity live by.

    The Rule may seem dry to some, but you have to picture the kind of monastery he had. Many of the wealthy were giving their sons to the monastery. He had mere children there. He had barbarians. He had people who could not read or write. So to bring this community together he had to lay down many rules, which were informed by his insight into human nature and his compassion for others. For example, he said you have to have two vegetables at the meal in case someone cannot eat one kind. In a particularly beautiful chapter, he says you have to give the strong something to strive after but also be very aware of the weak and the fragile. “Let him always distrust his own frailty and remember that the bruised reed is not to be broken.” In that sense, everyone is not treated the same. And that can be hard in community.

    One element that distinguishes the Benedictine way of life is the principle of ora et labora – work and prayer. Saint Benedict valued getting your hands dirty. Why is manual labor so central to the Benedictine way of life?

    For one, he says idleness is the enemy of the soul; he wanted to keep the monks busy. But he also says a monk is truly a monk if he lives by the work of his hands: the sustenance of the community, taking care of the land, cooking, taking care of animals.

    Work can also open up a whole new world to you. In Pope Gregory’s dialogues about Saint Benedict, he said that just before Saint Benedict died, he had a vision of the whole world in a ray of light. That is something that we ponder because we feel it is constitutive to being a Benedictine. It is a comprehensive vision. And yet, how do you even begin to comprehend the universal? You need a way in, a specific entrance point. We call the area in which we each work an “elemental.”

    Coming into the monastery, I certainly never had milked cows or worked the land. Most of my generation had not. Of course, everyone cleans the house, does dishes, and other things we all do, but we encourage each person to find and develop a specific area she loves. You want people to be passionate about something. You do not want a community of sad people!

    Also, work is an aspect of our lectio, meaning reading and meditating. Work enriches our spiritual life. Many of the Fathers of the Church would use analogies of creation to explain something about the church, or a mystery, or a sacrament. St. Augustine said although some people learn about God by reading books, put your book down. Look around. Look at nature. “There is a great book: the very appearance of created things.” In doing so, you get a chance to read creation over and over again. As you read creation – in my case, it happened to be cheesemaking – you can make analogies to spirituality.

    Can you tell us more about lectio, and about the analogies between something specific in the material realm and the spiritual realm?

    Take cheese, for instance. The enzymes of microorganisms responsible for cheese-ripening are extremely important. Their metabolism breaks down the fat and the protein in cheese and produces flavor that we like. Enzymes are catalysts that enable a reaction. They bring together two components and then disappear. An enzyme itself does not change. But it is a mediator that brings together two things.

    By analogy you need mediators like enzymes in a community of people, people who do not act out of self-interest. I learned about this principle of community life in part through my experience as a microbiologist. Eventually, I became known as “the Cheese Nun.”

    Mother Noella Marcellino holding a sample of her Bethlehem cheese in her cheese cave at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in rural Connecticut.

    Mother Noella Marcellino holding a sample of her Bethlehem cheese in her cheese cave at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in rural Connecticut. Photograph by Nicholas Gill.

    How was it that your monastic vocation led you to earn a PhD in microbiology from the University of Connecticut? Is it common for nuns to go back to school and get advanced degrees?

    It is not common for cloistered nuns to get advanced degrees in agriculture. Ten years earlier, two members of the community had been sent for degrees in fine arts and horticulture at Michigan State University. Sending four of us at once to the University of Connecticut, with such a commute, was a first and a big sacrifice for the community. Initially I was asked to study nutrition in relationship to my work in cheesemaking. We are a small farm, and we were up against industrial farming and regulations. The community decided to send some of us for advanced degrees so that we could defend what we were doing with traditional agricultural methods.

    But none of us had really studied agriculture. To ultimately proceed to an advanced degree, I had to take undergraduate courses because I had never completed a bachelor’s degree. It was a long process, especially for someone who in high school avoided all science and math! Suddenly, after twelve years as a nun, I was taking algebra and trigonometry. It was a challenge. I never could have done it without the support of a strong community.

    At that time the Nutrition Department at the College of Agriculture at the University of Connecticut was very clinically oriented. I arrived with the smelly, moldy cheese that I had developed over the years according to a traditional French recipe. I did not fit in well into the department. It was the microbiologists who eventually appreciated what I was trying to do. So I ended up studying microbiology in the College of Liberal Arts. I later went on for a doctorate in that same department. I was also blessed to get a Fulbright scholarship to France where I studied biodiversity and the natural succession of native cheese-ripening fungi within traditional caves.

    So your journey from the Vietnam War protest movement into a monastery eventually led you back to college and then to cheese caves in France?

    Yes. Many years earlier, a young woman from the Auvergne region of France had visited the Abbey and shared a recipe with me for making cheese using a very traditional technique taught to her by her grandmother. I spent many months implementing the technique, and I fed many disasters to my community and to our pigs. When she visited the Abbey two years later, she was amazed to see that the same fungi growing on the surface of her cheeses in France were growing on our cheeses in our cellar in Connecticut! This was a natural ripening process, and the appearance of identical mold suggested that our visitor’s cheesemaking technologies and natural ripening process selected for the microorganisms that give this cheese its distinctive flavor.

    I had access at the Abbey to our natural cave, but I needed access to other caves to continue my work. So, I applied for a Fulbright and got it, and then the National French Agricultural Labs gave me a fellowship for three more years. Actually, the woman who founded Regina Laudis, Lady Abbess Benedict Duss, had come from France to found the Abbey in America. Even though she was an American, she spent most of her life in France and survived World War II there. For us at Regina Laudis, it was very meaningful to have a project so rooted in the French soil.

    Would you say that cheesemaking has helped you understand what a good human life is and grow in the virtues?

    Yes. As a part of my Fulbright scholarship, I not only studied science, but I also delved into the history and lore of the caves and the culture around them. It was quite moving to see how, for these traditional cheesemakers, especially those who lived through World War II, cheese was so connected to charity and love of neighbor. They had a sense of gratitude because they had been given this fruit of the earth. In fact, many of the dairy cooperatives are called just that in French – fruitières, from the Latin fructus, a Roman term connoting the right to use (usus) and benefit (fructus) from an asset you do not own. The cheesemakers believe that if they have this cow, this milk, then you share that with others. Cheesemaking is part of the bounty that God has given you to share.

    One woman, a dairy farmer, told me the story of her husband, who during World War II was a member of the Resistance and had been captured by the Gestapo. She thought he would never come home. When her husband came home alive and she saw him standing at her door, she knew that he had lived because she had shared her dairy products during the war.

    Creation is finite. All of what lives also decays and comes to an end. In the case of cheese, that decaying becomes part of the flavor we enjoy. As a Benedictine, how do you understand creation and decomposition? Does decomposition in the natural world, like cheese decaying, tell us something about the spiritual journey?

    Flavor is created through breakdown. The components of cheese and milk are lactose – that is the carbohydrate in milk – protein, and lipids, or fat. In the environment of a cheese rind, microorganisms get their nourishment and a place to grow. Their metabolism in turn contributes enzymes that break down the components of milk, transforming the flavor and consistency of a young unripened cheese into an aged creamy cheese with a distinctive aroma.

    I have come to think that the process provides us with an unconscious way of preparing for death. We eat a breakdown product, and it is delicious. Even though it is the end of a cycle, at the same time, there is something opening up that is unexpected.

    When people visit monasteries, even if they know nothing about the history of the Benedictines or understand their charism, how can they enter into your way of life? What are people looking to experience during their visits?

    Sometimes, what happens to people who come to the monastery is not what they expected. Many women come to the Abbey to have time away from their families and away from what they have to do every day. It is their rare occasion for contemplative time. They will cry and say, “I don’t know why I’m crying.” I think it is because they finally have a chance to get out of the rat race of everything that they have to do. It is the same with professional women working in the world. They feel they cannot be too vulnerable in their professions. They have to keep a certain persona within their professional lives. But when they come to a monastery, they can let go.

    I also think that because of the grille, because of the monastic enclosure, people feel safe. In this place apart, they might leave with new insights. In The Ratzinger Report, published in 1985 before Cardinal Josef Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger said there was a misunderstanding of contemplative life. Monasticism used to be called the flight from the world, but: “You didn’t go apart from the world to abandon the world, but you are set apart to get another perspective. The monasteries tried out new models of civilization to give back to the world.” That is what we hope a guest would find in coming: a new perspective, new insights, and rekindled energy to go back to her family and profession.

    For those of us who visit a monastery seeking peace and then go back into our daily lives outside the monastery, how do we step out of the rat race of life?

    When my friends and I first went to the monastery and found peace, we would be so afraid to leave, thinking, “Uh-oh. When I go home, is this going to all go away?” But the more we went, the more it stayed with us.

     
     
     
     

    At the Abbey, we give a lot of attention to each person to help her become who she is meant to be. In the prologue of the Rule, Saint Benedict talks about this. We call it the bonum, the good. What we find is that many visitors often have no sense of the good that is in them, of who they are, and that they are good. People just get ground down and do not realize how beautiful they are. They do not know the gifts they have; they are unaware of the gifts their families gave them. So, we encourage each one to find her bonum, the good that she brings, and to develop it.

    Having welcomed young people as visitors to the monastery for so many years, what advice do you give them for discerning the will of God in their own lives?

    For one thing, find time to be apart from your daily life where you can be more vulnerable and listen. When you go to an abbey, you get to speak to one of the nuns or the guest mistress. They help you try to figure out what has prompted you to come in the first place, or to identify an intuition or passion you want to pursue. We are not counselors, but we feel people come looking for peace. We try to help people find that peace.

    One of the things unique to monastic life is that we live the cycles of life – of birth and death – with creation. We celebrate the liturgy, the cycle of Christ’s life. I think back to that first visit with my friends to the monastery when we were college students. Coming into the monastery, we felt despair over the Vietnam War and the death we were seeing. We felt we could not affect anything. But by living out the rhythm of a liturgical cycle, we learned that while death is a reality, there is a resurrection on the other side.


    This article is adapted from Margarita Mooney Suarez, The Wounds of Beauty: Seven Dialogues on Art and Education (Providence, RI: Cluny Media, 2022), Chapter 3: “The Beauty of God in Cheesemaking and Chant.”

    Contributed By portrait of Noella Marcellino Sister Noëlla Marcellino

    Sister Noëlla Marcellino is a nun of the Abbey of Regina Laudis, a Benedictine community. She is an artisanal cheesemaker and holds a doctorate in microbiology, special­izing in the biodiversity of cheese-ripening fungi. Sister Noëlla was installed as prioress at Our Lady of the Rock Monastery on Shaw Island, Washington, in September 2020.

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    Contributed By a portrait of Margarita Mooney Suarez Margarita Mooney Suarez

    Margarita Mooney Suarez is the founder and executive director of Scala Foundation, an associate professor of practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary.

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