Marking the Hours – Chapter 1

The Liturgy of the Hours is the official set of prayers “marking the hours of each day and sanctifying the day with prayer”.

Lessons Learned Living in Community

The Monastery of St Gertrude’s is located in Cottonwood, Idaho. It is 4 hours by car (6 hours by bus) from Boise. Built in 1924 of porphyry stone from a quarry on site, the monastery is on the National Register of Historic Places.


St. Benedict of Nursia, Italy lived as a hermit in a cave for 3 years and emerged with 200 guiding principles – the Rule – adhered to by monastics throughout the world.

The Sisters of St Gertrude’s support the teachings of St. Benedict as written in their mission statement:

We are a community founded by creative, courageous, pioneering women ministering to the needs of the times.

Using early Christian communities as our model, we live out the values of praying together, living together, sharing all things in common, and serving the wider community and one another.

They also offer a Residency for Artists. It is a month-long “opportunity for women visual artists, musicians and writers to spend time with their practices in a monastic setting amidst the Benedictine Sisters.“

The Benedictine sisters pray 5x a day. Since I had been researching Books of Hours and prayer,  I hoped living within a prayer-based community would provide direction for my artwork or at least words to fill the sheets of my handmade paper.


I arrived in Idaho on the first day of river rafting season and the opening of salmon fishing. The road to Cottonwood was jammed with RV’s, rafts, tents – people setting up temporary ‘villages’ along the highway.

As we crested the mountain, the Camas Prairie stretched before me.


The population of Cottonwood is 916 or so – about the same as Union Bridge in Maryland and Peaks Island in the winter. There is a coffee shop, hardware store, café that also serves ice cream, and a grocery store. The monastery is located 3+ miles from town.

cottonwood sign

Thanks to a 50+ year friendship with a generous friend living in Idaho and her SUV, I arrived at St. Gertrude’s with several boxes of art supplies and dehydrated paper pulp.

Lesson 1: Healing Hospitality

I had been corresponding with Sr. Theresa Jackson for several months. She was aware that I was  “stuck.” Therefore, the only real requirement for my stay was to help in the kitchen. It would be my first lesson in living in community. Rinsing pots proved to be the best way to meet every Sister and for them to learn about my art work. (Not to mention learning how to make Heavenly Fudge and Wacky Cake.**) .

In exchange, I would be provided with a room, meals, studio space.

With its high ceilings, oak moldings, wide baseboards, polished floors and antique furniture, St. Gertrude’s echoes the architecture of  the 1920’s. Statues of saints fill every niche and religious artworks adorn the walls.

My room consisted of a single bed, dresser, comfy chair, desk and an unfettered view of the prairie. For the duration of my residency, I chose to disconnect from all electronics: computers, TV, radio and cell phones. A book by Joan Chittister Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St Benedict Today sits on the desk. Every morning I read a chapter to learn how the Rule can be applied to current day life.

bell towers

Bells ring when it is time to pray.  The sisters ring them by pulling on ropes through the ceilings of offices located in the bell tower. The mass is led by the sisters. There are multiple prayers books. They sing in a style of call and response. Their prayers focus on issues in the world.

Lesson 2: Grateful Simplicity

There are 100 Benedictine monasteries throughout the U.S. St. Gertrude’s, once the home for 150 sisters, now houses less than 50.

Everyone has a role in the support of their community and maintaining the various buildings, community projects, and stated mission. They have  mixed sources of income-producing ventures which allow them to continue to live together and care for each other.

Everyone – sisters, cleaning personnel, workshop attendees – took meals together and cleared their own dishes.

Everyone serves themselves at meals. The compost bucket held very little waste.

At the end of the week, leftovers usually appear in a soup.

Nothing is wasted.

The 1920’s kitchen was converted to a processing center for making herbal products and raspberry jam.

Vats heated with wood once used for washing clothing are now used to process apricots and peaches for canning.

peach tub

All paper and cardboard are recycled.

Clothing is chosen from donations.

Dust cloths and cleaning rags are washed.

Before my arrival, I envisioned a bucolic setting enveloped in silence. While there were intentional silent retreats, there was always a buzz of activity  – Sisters mowing lawns, greeting visitors to the museum, preparing the rooms at the B and B and registering attendees for workshops and retreats at the Spirit Conference Center.


Spirit Center




Bed and Breakfast Inn

Historically, the sisters of St. Gertrude’s raised all their own food and animals. Today, they grow a limited amount of vegetables and fruit and herbs for a line of Nature’s Gifts products. They cultivate raspberries and when ripe, everyone harvests them by hand. The annual Raspberry Festival takes place in August and features their homemade jam.



Lesson 3: Creative Peacemaking

The art studio had been originally designed for making stained glass and small icons. Upon arrival, my clutter busting tendencies that led to the shredding of all my journals  kicked in — I cleared surfaces, organized tools, categorized books, and set up a coffee center. I even created an excel spreadsheet of the materials for future residency participants. This was another lesson in being a part of a community,  I first had to be sure changing the space was permissible.


Then I unpacked my boxes. And I sat. And I looked. And I breathed.

I make paper. I reconstitute the pulp using a blender from the raspberry jam kitchen, create a pulp bath in the sink, mop up the floor from a leak in the sink. And make more paper.


I make smaller deckles to make smaller pages that can be cupped in the hand. Collected together they form a kind of breviary. The contents of the breviary might have included psalmsScripture lessons, as well as hymns and prayers. Often breviaries were carried by women.






Sometimes a Sister would just walk by.

Sometimes a Sister would just look in.

Sometimes a Sister came to talk.

Sometimes they would ask what I was making.

Sometimes I would respond:

I don’t know yet.

Sometimes they would respond:

Just ‘listen with the ear of the heart.’


Lesson 4: Prayer awakens. Justice impels. Compassion acts.

The Sisters pray 5 times a day. Attendance at prayers is optional. At the end of each day I attend vespers and then walk a path through fields of wild lupine and swaying pine trees to the property boundary.

To view the distant mountains and surrounding river,  I climb a stile over a barbed wire fence.stile

Unlike Marc Chagall’s painting of Jacob’s ladder with angels ascending and descending from heaven, I am firmly earthbound.








The Benedictines follow the Principles of Catholic Social Justice teaching. As part of this commitment,  the Sisters watch the nightly news – in community. Often their request for a specific prayer relates to current events.

One night, their prayers revolved around concern for the children being separated from their mothers seeking asylum.

An image appeared to me as I sat in the sanctuary.


It was a woodcut by Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) – a committed pacifist – who had lost two sons to war. Entitled Die Mutter/The Mothers. They form a circle – of arms – surrounding their children. They were bound together in the effort to provide protection.

That night, I began work on Religare. – It is a handmade book composed of multiple accordion folds – each fold sewn to form a pocket. Within each pocket is a card inscribed with words from the Rule. The book forms a circle when opened and a breviary when closed.  Religare is translated as ‘ to bind together.’ The Benedictine sisters are bound together within their community and committed to justice through prayer.

religareIn my time at St. Gertrudes’s, I witnessed acts of kindness and compassion – within and outside the community. My role as an artist was supported. I was relieved of daily responsibilities and protected from worldly intrusion.

I resolved to seek imagery in my own work that would reflect that same kindness and compassion. But, I had done all I could do…for now.

On my walk after vespers, I listened as the wind in the trees resounded  like the ocean.

It was time to go back to the island…


** Cooking Lesson #1:  Wacky Cake

9×14 pan. Dump all ingredients into the pan.

2 cups sugar

3 cups flour

½ cup cocoa

2 tsp baking soda

1 tsp salt

1 TB vanilla

2 tsp apple cider vinegar

¾ cup vegetable oil

Add 2 cups of cold water and mix with a fork until blended. Bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes


1 ½ sticks of butter – melted

1 cup cocoa

1 ½ tsp vanilla

2/3 c milk

Blend in 4 and ½ cups powdered sugar until correct consistency for frosting.  Frost cake shortly after removing from oven.

Cooking Lesson #2: Heavenly Hash

12 oz chocolate chips

½ c crunchy peanut butter

Melt together in microwave for 3 minutes

Add 3 cups of miniature marshmallows

½ – ¾ c crushed walnuts or pecans

Spread in buttered pyrex dish.

Cut up into squares

Wrap individually and put one piece on a pillow

Thank you to Sister Chanelle Schuler, BnB Host, for the recipes (and lessons.)

One comment on “Marking the Hours – Chapter 1


    How could you remember that you memorized a specific poem by Sandburg in 4th grade is beyond me! LOL

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