The Benedictine Rule of Cheese Ecology

What does the microbial biology of cheese have to do with Benedictine spirituality? Mother Noella Marcellino—nun, cheesemaker, and microbiologist—of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT, didn’t find her particular vocation until she dropped out of two colleges and left the convent laundry room. Last Sunday, she shared her story with a group of students, professors, priests and congregants at Yale University’s St. Thomas More Catholic Center, in a talk on integrating spiritual life with professional life. After not completing degrees at Sarah Lawrence College and then Boston University, Noella went to Regina Laudis on the invitation of friends, hesitant to be in a Catholic monastic community and yet exasperated with the politics of the Vietnam-War world she was leaving. Noella started out washing bed linens and clothes, as the work component of her service to the abbey. But she was always talking about food. Someone suggested that she move from the laundry to the dairy farm, where she discovered her affinity for cheese cultures and, in the process, her professional goal—to carry on the ancient craft of cheesemaking.

The sisters at Regina Laudis live the Benedictine motto of ora et labora, prayer and work. They pray the daily hours, study the Scriptures, and get their hands dirty, serving as stewards of the earth. Many work in land and animal management on the abbey’s 400 acres—home to Bethlehem cheese, a vast compost facility, a sculpture of St. Anthony made from a piece of rusted metal, forty nuns who are experts in everything from theater to animal husbandry, and a non-commercial farm devoted to conservation and sustainability. Every sister is required to cultivate one aspect of creation. God called Mother Noella to cheese.

By the time Mother Noella began working on the dairy farm, the abbey had begun sending some sisters to school, so they could acquire professional accreditation to practice traditional methods of stewardship, back home on the Regina Laudis farm. So Noella went with three of her fellow nuns—commuter students in full habits, to the University of Connecticut, where she completed a PhD in the microbial ecology of cheese ripening. On a Fulbright Fellowship to France, Mother Noella collected strains of mold from the walls of caves where traditional French cheeses are aged, so she could test them for biodiversity. 

Mother Noella began her presentation with a slide of a gold-gilded icon of St. Benedict beholding a ray of sunlight. She also showed images of yeast budding in aging cheese, under an electron microscope. She played a video clip of a monk who said that his Benedictine vows of stability and obedience have made him a better cheesemaker. Mother Noella spoke about practicing her vocation by analogy. She likened the cheese ripening process to St. Benedict’s maturation, during three years of solitude. She also suggested that traditional cheeses are losing their souls, largely due to the centralization of production, just as centralization can undermine diversity in monastic life. She showed pictures of her scraping endangered fungi from cave walls in France. She invited us to imagine St. Benedict as a young boy, living alone in a cave. After three years of contemplating God, he left the cave to found monastic communities, his particular vocation. And rising to that occasion, emerging from that cave of voluntary solitude, he looked at the sun. Sister Noella brought her talk on spiritual and professional integration home—to St. Benedict’s ray of light, in the microscopic light of ripening cheese.

How to make a work of prayer and a prayer of work? As a writer, surprised to be in divinity school, I wonder what integrity it would take to cultivate a single aspect of creation. I wonder how to live a rule of stability and obedience that would make me a better writer. I pray for a discipline of daily labor, patience to sustain the writing process, the acute and tender attention it takes to make a poem. A friend says she answers her call to writing by obeying it like a command. In my notebook, I scribble a writing exercise to do, a command to try: break open a psalm; sing a new song.

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.