Big Monastery on the Prairie

I loved the Little House on the Prairie books so much that I read each of them at least twice – something I’ve never done with any other book. Almost fifty years later, I finally got to the prairie, specifically the Camas Prairie in northwestern Idaho, home to the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood, where I was an artist resident in October 2021.

I don’t need to reinvent the wheel by sharing what the Monastery is all about, because you can read about it and the way of life of the Benedictine Sisters on the Monastery’s website. To help you get an idea of what it’s like to be a temporary co-habitant (truly no pun intended since the resident Sisters do not wear habits; n.b. Vatican II) at the Monastery, you can also read an excellent description by another prior artist resident.

During my relatively short stay (2.5 weeks), I was one of two artist residents. Sister Mary Joseph, an illustrator and sister with the Daughters of St. Paul, was there, too, visiting from the Boston area. As artist residents, we lived with the Sisters, in our own private rooms, ate meals with them, and helped a bit with the domestic tasks (I was on dish-putting-away duty, which I am proud to say I got very good at by the end). We were welcomed to pray (2-3 times per day) with the Sisters and go to daily Mass in the beautiful, historic chapel. They generously welcomed this non-religious visitor, but it felt more authentic to let the Sisters commune in their meaningful way, and I would go off and muse in mine. I did attend prayers twice, once at the start of my stay, and once at the end, the latter an especially moving day when the new oblates were inducted in a dedicated ceremony.

Each day provided just the right amount of quiet/alone time and social/communal time. There was ample time to get to know almost all of the Sisters (there are about 30 of them there now) as well as resident chaplain Father Meinrad, the staff at the Spirit Center retreat facility, the volunteers (like Maureen who drives Sisters to their medical appointments and visitors like me to the airport) and the kitchen staff. The place is brimming with warmth, hospitality and kindness. The Sisters’ lives are full – of prayer and work. They all have different jobs to take care of the Monastery, the building, its operations, and the land around it. They all have incredibly interesting life experiences and perspectives. As former artist resident Mary Hambly describes them, they are a forward thinking group of people, and it was a pleasure to have daily conversations both big – politics, climate change – and small – the weather or how annoying it is that bananas in a bunch all ripen at the same time.

The Sisters’ days are ritualized, punctuated by the prayer and Mass schedule as well as meal times. I have always gravitated toward the comfort of sameness and repetition, and I appreciated the Monastery’s structured day. I established a comfortable routine from my first day. Breakfast, my favorite meal in any setting, is the one meal where silence is observed which suited me perfectly. Mid morning I would write or read a bit then go for a walk-run down a beautiful road cutting through acres of farmland. Lunch, which is Dinner at the Monastery, is the big meal of the day. The food was always delicious, the coffee was genuinely good, and the tea selection was impressive.

After lunch, a little more reading or writing for a few hours, then my favorite part of the day – the walk up the big hill into the woods behind the Monastery, a peaceful, fragrant, steep, winding path through enormous pines, past the stations of the cross, a small cemetery, a log cabin, and into an open meadow with a stunning view of the prairie. Everyone at the Monastery seems to cherish their solitary walks and the forested hill is a sacred place for the Sisters. It was for me, too.

After supper and before going to bed is when I would do most of my writing (if it wasn’t board game night of which I partook a few times, never getting strategic enough with Pegs & Jokers). Sister Placida’s description of the role of monotony in her life makes sense to me and deepens my conviction to continue in my ways: “Repetition feeds my spiritual life. Benedict put into his rule this creative monotony. The spirit will rebel against it. This culture is based on the next exciting thing. But you need monotony, sameness, a schedule to quiet the spirit within you.”  

The Monastery runs a Spirit Center for retreats, and many of the people I met during my stay were retreatants from various places in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Montana and California. If it’s within a 12-hour drive in the rural West, it’s “not that far.” Elizabeth, a retired Unitarian Universalist Minister visiting from Boise, was on a month-long retreat while I was there. She and I began by connecting about birds and walks – Elizabeth described an alternate path up the big hill that rewarded her with a view that “almost knocked me over.” It became my favorite destination, too. By the end of my stay, we felt like old friends. You can read her reflections in an Idaho Statesman column that she wrote during our overlapping stays.

I tend to bond with places as much as people, and that happened in an especially intense way at the Monastery. Every time of day and every type of weather casts a different light on the clean lines of the prairie in all directions. The quiet was astounding. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I would lie there just to fully appreciate the complete lack of sound other than the occasional wildlife squawk or howl.

Sister Teresa was kind enough to take time away from her Monastery work to drive us to her favorite spot on the Salmon River. The scenery on the way there (and the dearth of other people and cars) was stunning and dramatic to my East Coast eyes. Even the barbed cockle burrs that stuck onto my pants and shoes delighted me.

While I was pleased with the progress I made on my writing project – the supposed main point of my stay – at times I derived more meaning and satisfaction from putting away the dinner dishes than in any writing I did. It turns out I was on a retreat, too. The beauty of the area and the quiet were just what I craved. Now that I have returned to the striving, bustling and noise of New York City, where fortunately I do have my own “back yard” forested hill to visit every day, I hope I’ll be able to maintain at least some of the peace and kindness that seeped into me at the Monastery. The Sisters have very full lives. I hope that above all I can remember that busy and full are not the same thing at all.

This is a glimpse into the life at St. Gertrude’s, but it doesn’t do justice to the affecting experience I had. If Laura Ingalls taught me anything, it was to be grateful for everything that’s given to you, even the tiniest heart-shaped cake made with white flour in your Christmas stocking or the healing salve made by Sister Carlotta, or the rose that Sister Chanelle invariably had in a vase somewhere nearby that she would make sure you stopped to smell. I’m grateful to Dana Stevens (I learned about the Artist Residency from her endorsement on a 2019 Slate Culture Gabfest episode), Sister Teresa for accepting my application and providing the residency opportunity, academic sabbatical (which I experienced in every sense of the word and which every worker should have available to them), and the perfect autumn weather during my stay at this unique place with these special people.

If you find yourself within, say, a 12-hour drive of Cottonwood, Idaho, it’s well worth a trip to the Monastery. There is a beautiful inn where you can stay, the aforementioned hill and views you are welcome to enjoy, and a fabulous, absorbing, impeccably curated museum.

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