Raspberries and Reverence
Reflecting on food and faith at a North Idaho monastery
Even in late July, the 6:30am breeze is cool at 4,000 feet so we’re all bundled up. That’s about to change, though, for a hot day is predicted—that’s the reason we’ve already been working on this northern Idaho hillside for half an hour.
Even now the sun nudges the crest of the mountains to the east, 40 miles distant. Soon the vast prairie of wheat below will burst into golden flame and the glare will obscure the notch, now clearly visible, through which Lewis and Clark emerged from their rough passage over the Lolo Trail.
As we’ve done every morning this week, we’re attacking a dozen dense rows of raspberry canes, picking from both sides in a futile attempt to stay even with their prodigious output. A chickadee calls “deedee-DEE”; a hummingbird buzzes by on its way to the sprawling lavender garden.
There’s no human noise here except tiny thuds as thumb-sized, garnet-red berries plump with sweet juice land in our buckets. My colaborers are Benedictine nuns, the Sisters of St. Gertrude of Cottonwood, and their rule prescribes silence until morning praise at 8:30am. Still, the mood is companionable, and I’m not the only one popping an occasional raspberry into her mouth. Sister Wilma—who at 93 has given up direction of the larger garden but still rules the raspberries—grins and nods when I deliver another bucket to the accumulating cluster at the patch’s edge. The assembly of buckets now covers more than a square yard.
The berries we’re gathering are designated for an event familiar to many people in North Idaho, Boise, Eastern Washington and wherever there are Catholics in Idaho: the annual Raspberry Festival that the sisters hold on the first Sunday in August to benefit their historical museum. This year’s festival takes place Sunday, Aug. 2, from 9am to 4pm. Over its more than two decades of existence, the festival has become a big deal. Yearly crowds have expanded to between 2,500 and 4,000 people who wander the monastery grounds under the tall pines, tour the chapel, browse the vendors and visit with the sisters. But, most importantly, they come to chow down on raspberry shortcake.
On the surface, this event might look like just another folksy regional food festival, but the Raspberry Festival at St. Gertrude’s has roots that run deeply and fundamentally into the heart of the community that organizes it. I began to see this connection between food and faith during the years of summer retreats I spent at the monastery. But only after conducting an oral history project in conjunction with the Idaho Humanities Council’s Key Ingredients program did the rich connections between food and core monastic values come home. These connections begin with the very nature of Benedictine life.
While some other Catholic monastic orders tend to the ascetic, Benedictine tradition honors and acknowledges this world along with the spiritual realm as God’s good creation. Practical-thinking St. Benedict built into his fourth-century Rule (the order’s guiding document) specific instructions for performing daily chores, including how monks and nuns should manage their fields, pantries, kitchens and dining rooms. He insisted that such work, just like prayer, provided opportunities to forge holy relationships with God and the community.
This particular Idaho Benedictine community has been honoring Benedict’s ethos for more than 100 years, though the particulars of food production and consumption have varied based on the evolving nature of religious life. When the sisters first arrived in Idaho in 1909, invited by local German Catholics, they attempted to maintain the strict traditions of their European motherhouse in Sarnen, Switzerland. They raised nearly all of their food on the grounds via unrelenting physical labor. What they ate reflected their vow of poverty: cabbage, potatoes, turnips, carrots, onions and occasional pork from convent pigs that became soups and stews. Meals were accompanied by bread and pickles; sweets were limited to applesauce or rhubarb.
After an epidemic of tuberculosis carried off dozens of nuns in the mid-20th century, their diet became more varied. Tomatoes, green peppers, broccoli and spinach were planted, along with fruit trees. Groups of nuns gleaned fruit from the orchards of friends and took fishing trips to nearby lakes and rivers, stocking their new freezers with bounty.
Another major paradigm shift in convent eating habits came after 1962, when the directives of the Second Vatican Council encouraged monastic outreach to the wider world. The sisters went out to work across Idaho as nurses and teachers, or went to school for training. Lay women were hired as supplemental cooks and introduced new dishes, including desserts.
Livestock disappeared with the decreased resident labor force. Meat came instead from patrons, who sent truckloads of chickens and sides of beef for butchering parties. The convent opened itself to a retreat ministry, so visitors’ food preferences had to be accommodated. Salads, low-fat main dishes, even vegetarian options appeared in the 1980s and 1990s.
The mature professional women—former poverty lawyers, social workers and artists among them who gravitated to religious life after Vatican II—further expanded the menu. Hot peppers, dark greens, basil and mints were planted in the garden. Small wars were fought over reducing the amount of sugar in monastery jams and the cooking time of vegetables. Influenced by green values, the sisters now garden organically and eat locally and seasonally whenever possible. Otherwise, they purchase food from Fair Trade sources.
But the best single example of the connection between community values and food at St. Gertrude’s is those famous raspberries. One of the literal fruits of the outreach connections fostered by Vatican II, the raspberries were donated by friends sometime in the late 1970s. By the early 1990s, the crop had become so prolific that the sisters were harvesting more berries than they could consume. A festival based on raspberries seemed like a natural way to use up the surplus and also raise funds for modernizing and expanding the museum. The first Raspberry Festival was held in 1993.
Now in its 23rd iteration, the event is much more than a potlatch and fundraiser. As community members have realized, the work it entails offers multiple opportunities to affirm Benedictine principles, both venerable and contemporary. One of the most important is the valuation of physical labor, posited in Rule as sacred service. Though all nuns promise to perform labora (work) as well as ora (prayer), in the modern monastery many find themselves working with their heads, not their hands. Every summer, however, thanks to the avalanche of raspberries, the Benedictine tradition of physical work reasserts itself out of necessity.
The prioress and sub-prioress pick; the director of retreats and librarian pick; the Retreat Center staff picks. For three weeks, alarm clocks ring in the dark as women don long pants and thick gloves. Workers stoop, reach, bend and straighten. Thorns scratch and insects bite. Berries are processed in the basement kitchen, packed into five-gallon buckets and carried upstairs to the large walk-in freezer. Sometimes they’re made on the spot into flat after flat of jam and stacked in the pantry.
At raspberry harvest time the nuns are also invited to remember their promise of stability: disciplining themselves to stay put in one particular place. Raspberry season rituals invite these nuns to call to mind their own tenure on this North Idaho patch of land. Comparative memories of past harvests easily come to mind, for many sisters sign up to pick the same row summer after summer.
Sisters reminisce about their first seasons in the field as newcomers—idealistic, nervous and apt to make mistakes. As they age, they ruefully contrast their past and present energy and lovingly remember the quirky picking practices of their companions, now dead or aged. As they take well-worn buckets, jars and kettles out of storage, then lovingly clean and replace the equipment, these nuns literally touch the past and remember their own accumulating life spent here.
The Raspberry Festival also offers an opportunity to practice hospitality, a practice Benedict describes as welcoming “all guests who present themselves ... as Christ ... with all the courtesy of love.”
That commitment is inescapable for all but the most infirm on the first Sunday in August. So many visitors show up that the Idaho County Sheriff’s Department has to come to direct traffic. The nuns arrange and supervise; set up and take down; staff a gift shop booth and an information kiosk about religious life; circulate and greet. A few even bring up the rear in the fun run, shouting encouragement to competitors.
But the busiest of them all are the members of the frenzied kitchen crew, supervised by Sister Wilma until her death in 2010 and now by those she taught. They ladle berries over hundreds of servings of homemade angel food or chocolate cake and top each plate with a blob of Cool Whip. Servings have historically been so enormous (“Don’t be stingy,” was Wilma’s mantra) that some patrons laughed out loud upon receiving their plates. Though servings have moderated to reflect actual appetites in recent years, “a big piece” is still available on request, as is extra Cool Whip.
Besides evoking traditional Benedictine values, the cultivation of raspberries at St. Gertrude’s honors the community’s recent emphasis on responsible care of the Earth. As the community’s “Philosophy of Land Stewardship” document affirms, this concern is grounded in spiritual as well as ecological considerations:
“We, the Benedictine Sisters of the Monastery of St. Gertrude, have been entrusted with the gift of land by our loving God and Creator. Through the years our community and this land have been bonded together. With humility we recognize the Earth (humus) as the source from which we (humanity) received our life and sustenance. Our inner spirits are renewed by the contemplative environment it provides.”
Reverent contemplation of the world’s beauty comes naturally in raspberry season. On mornings like the one described above, harvesters cannot help but be aware of the fruitfulness and peace of Monastery Hill. Nor can they avoid thinking about the Earth’s rhythms. When sisters compare their hauls or hear the running tally for the year reported each lunchtime, they reflect on climate and microclimate.
“But you’re higher on the hill and get earlier sun,” one remarked to another. “No wonder yours are ahead of mine.”
More symbolically, the abundant raspberry harvest also links this community to its patron, St. Gertrude of Helfta, a 13th-century scholar, writer and mystic whose works glow with joyfully optimistic theology. St. Gertrude insists on God’s unconditional “lovingkindness” and forgiveness. At St. Gertrude’s, one needs to look no farther than the raspberry patch for presumptive evidence that a loving God is generous, indeed—especially to those who devote their lives to his service. No one else in the vicinity has ever had such consistently abundant berry harvests.
Expensive and fragile in the outer world, raspberries often appear on the convent table, fresh in season or in the form of jam out-of-season. Raspberries are heaped into enormous bowls to celebrate festivals, birthdays or “just because.”
“Here, we have raspberries in winter,” an elderly nun remarked. “God is so good to us.”
So if you find yourself sitting down to a plate of raspberry shortcake on the shady grass in front of the Monastery of St. Gertrude on Sunday, Aug. 2, take a moment to contemplate the beautiful implications of this beautiful dessert. This is local food at its most nuanced; it’s food that reflects a century-old commitment to this place, to this community and to an eco-spirituality that existed long before the term was coined. Raspberries are a tasty treat anywhere, but at St. Gertrude’s they’re also an incarnation of faith and love.
This article is dedicated to Sister Wilma Schlangen, OSB, 1915–2010.