Why go snowboarding on a mountaintop, ride monster waves in Maui or climb Devil's Tower in Wyoming when you can experience an equally difficult and more fulfilling challenge--finding yourself and God--by living in a monastery?
So believes Jan McCoy, 46, a former veterinarian and avid sportswoman who made her solemn profession of vows last week as a member of the Cistercian Nuns of the Strict Observance. The Roman Catholic order also is known as the Trappistines and has close ties with the Trappist monks.
Six years after entering Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Va., Sister Jan became its seventh full-fledged member in an Aug. 6 service in the monastery's chapel. Sister Jo Ann Doane, 40, who will take her final vows Sept. 14, will bring the 12-year-old group to one-third of the population envisioned by the order's "mother house" in Wrentham, Mass.
The ceremonies mark the end of a lengthy, often grueling initiation for the two women, who were featured in a Nov. 24, 1994, Washington Post article about the increasing number of people who become nuns after having other careers.
Sister Jan had been a veterinarian in Virginia Beach for more than 15 years before entering the monastery. Sister Jo Ann had served in the Marines and was working as a machine operator in an elastic plant in her home town of Tappahannock, Va., when she decided to join the order. Neither had been married.
"I was really, really nervous," Sister Jan said of her ceremony of consecration into monastic life. She thought she might faint or cry during the service. But "once it started, everything inside of me said, 'Yes!' I enjoyed it immensely."
The Cistercians follow the 6th-century Rule of St. Benedict, a treatise that calls for a simple life of prayer and manual labor. Cistercian sisters prefer to use the ancient, neutral-gender term "monastery" in describing their residence rather than the more modern word "convent," said Our Lady of the Angels spokeswoman Sister Barbara Smickle.
But it also better defines their identity as a contemplative order, which unlike many other orders does no "active" ministry such as teaching or social work, Sister Barbara said. Instead, Cistercian nuns spend up to eight hours a day in prayer, beginning shortly after they arise at 3 a.m.
The nuns pray for people who leave requests with the monastery, either in a box on the monastery grounds or on its answering machine, or include them in orders for Gouda cheese sold by the sisters. They pray during the early morning hours for medical technicians, firefighters, police officers and others who work at night. They pray for the victims of school violence. And they pray for the citizens of Yugoslavia, Ethiopia and other war-torn countries.
As a "balance" to the prayers, offered seven times throughout the day, the nuns perform such physical tasks as gardening, making habits, making cheese and cleaning guest cottages used by visitors who come there on retreat.
The nuns leave the 507-acre monastery once or twice a month, usually to buy groceries or gardening supplies such as mulch and fertilizer in nearby Charlottesville. Jeans and other work clothes are donated, and the community keeps a store of toiletries and other personal items.
None of the nuns has a stereo or television in her room, though Sister Jan has a passion for bluegrass gospel and a few tapes she tries to persuade the other sisters to play at mealtime on a portable player.
In many ways it's a tough life, Sister Jan said in a telephone interview. She had just spent several hours at the cheese barn pasteurizing milk for the 750 pounds of Gouda cheese the community would make that day.
She said it's neither the physical work nor the demands from the other sisters that drives away many potential monastics. "It's not a spiritual boot camp," the nun said. The greatest pressures come from within, pressures of confronting the inner self against a "backdrop of silence."
"The solitude [can] grind you down in ways that are not healthy for you," she said. "It's oppressive to some personalities. . . . For me, I have to be here to be. It's who I am."
Since Sisters Jan and Jo Ann arrived six years ago, several women have been invited to stay at to the monastery as observers or as postulants, the first stage of becoming a nun. None has stayed more than a year, Sister Barbara said, although she "feels fairly certain" that two recent observers, an Air Force major from Virginia and an office administrator from Brooklyn, will return as beginning members.
It takes six to nine years to become a Cistercian nun. Women who show a sincere interest are invited to visit for a few days or weeks, usually on several occasions. Those who like what they see then move into the community full time as postulants, after they have "tied up loose ends and made a definitive break" from their former lives, Sister Jan said.
After six months, postulants may request to become novices. If the community votes to accept them, the initiates state their intent to become nuns in a special service and turn in their street clothes for white veils, white habits and white scapulars--or aprons--with cloth belts. They also begin an intensive, two-year study of the order and theology under the spiritual direction of a senior nun.
The next step is to become a "junior professed," junior for short. The novices profess their intention of following the vows of fidelity, chastity, poverty, obedience and stability for one year and are given black scapulars and leather belts to signify their new status. They renew the vows each year, for a minimum of three years, until they feel they are ready to take their final vows, which they promise to follow for life.
At that time, they receive a black veil and become full members of the community. They are given increasing amounts of responsibility and are allowed to vote on future prospects and, when necessary, elect a new mother superior.
Sister Jan said there "never was a time" in the last six years when she didn't want to be in the monastery. But there were moments "when I was not sure I'd be able to make it, to live in the intense reality" of introspection. Silence, being alone and looking inward magnifies one's "millions of mistakes" in life, almost to the point of torture, she said.
But the faith, prayers and love of the community brought her through.
"It's an incredible thing," she said of the support of her fellow nuns. "They are not alarmed at anything. You say, 'I'm going to have a nervous breakdown today.' And they say, 'Fine. We've seen it before.' "
Sister Jo Ann, who didn't want to be interviewed during her final weeks of preparation, sent an e-mail saying the temptation to give up the monastic life is always present.
"If I draw back from seeking the goal of monastic life--purity of heart--then I have left the monastery," she wrote. "It is not necessary to make a physical departure. Temptations come and go and [I learned] to see them for what they are--immature aspects of myself that would rather not go through a difficult time."
What kept Sister Jo Ann at the monastery were "precious moments of grace that confirm me in my commitment, [the] times when I know without a doubt that I share in the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."
Sister Jan, who was raised Southern Baptist in Greenville, S.C., said she "renewed the faith" of her childhood when she jointed the monastic life. She has even kept many of her old Baptist hymnals, which she plays on the organ.
She said she wouldn't give up the experience of the last six years for anything, including her onetime favorite activity of hiking through the Grand Canyon. Her old life is behind her. Her new life, she believes, will provide further spiritual growth and fulfillment as an individual and as a woman.
"I have a hard time understanding why more people don't see how wonderful it is," she said.
CAPTION: Shortly after taking her consecration vows, Sister Jan McCoy hoists her niece Carson McCoy, 4, into the air in the monastery courtyard. At right, McCoy stands with her father, John McCoy, after the reception celebrating her vows.
CAPTION: Six years ago, Sisters Jo Ann Doane, left, and Jan McCoy entered Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, Va. Both became nuns after having other careers. In the monastery, they spend up to eight hours a day in prayer.
CAPTION: In 1993, Sister Jan McCoy entered the monastic life, turning her back on her former life as a veterinarian in Virginia Beach.