The roots of Christian monasticism sprang up from the arid and unforgiving terrain of the desert—the ancient Desert Fathers (along with Desert Mothers) were early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century AD. The desert monastic communities that grew out of these gatherings of hermit monks became the model for Christian monasticism.
But another type of desert, which also features extreme weather and hardship, is the site of a new monastic community: the white desert of ice, snow, and cold in the northern hemisphere, specifically in the tiny village of Lannavaara, in Swedish Lapland. Home to only about one hundred inhabitants, it is located 250 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. It is here, amid silence, prayer, and very low temperatures, that two religious sisters are laying the foundations for a new order at Sankt Josefs Kloster (the Monastery of St. Joseph): the Marias Lamm (Mary’s Lambs) community.
The community’s story begins in 2011, when Swedish Sister Amada Mobergh received permission from the bishop of Stockholm, now-Cardinal Anders Arborelius, to undertake contemplative religious life in Sweden. Sister Amada, who converted to Catholicism in her 20s while living in London, had spent 30 years as a member of the Missionaries of Charity, serving in India, then-Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Italy, Albania, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. In a 2015 interview with the Italian Catholic news agency SIR, Sister Amada recounted that after discerning that a more contemplative life was God’s will for her, she and another sister, Sister Karla, visited several monasteries in southern Sweden. While Bishop Arborelius expressed his happiness over their decision, he had made it clear that he would not be able to support them financially, since the Catholic Church in Sweden is very small. Following a series of what the sisters considered miracles, they were able to find temporary free accommodations far to the north. “We arrived December 24th, 2011, the temperature was -30 C. I immediately understood that this is where I had to be,” Sister Amada recalled in the SIR interview.
After a year and a half, the sisters had to move, in part because their residence was too small to accommodate all the people who had begun to come to visit and to pray with them.
They found the old school of Lannavaara; it was remote and unused for years, but expensive. “We moved there even though we lacked the money to buy it,” Sister Amada recalled; she and Sister Karla placed their faith in God to provide the funds necessary.
And the miracles continued. “One day a man from Norway passed by, enthusiastic about our experience,” Sister Amada told SIR. “He had never heard of a monastery in the far north.” She said the man believed it was important to have a monastery in the region; after all, Lapland accounts for roughly one-fourth of Sweden and there has never been a stable Catholic presence so far in the north, perhaps not even before the Reformation. Moved by the sisters’ devotion, the man bought the property for them.
“Every day God helps us go on with his Providence,” Sister Amada said. “His daily miracles enable us to go on with great gratitude and joy.”
At their Monastery of St. Joseph, the two sisters’ vocation is to “to pray and to offer one’s life to God, following the example of Mary for the conversion of the souls, especially of Scandinavians and for the rebuilding and restoring of the Church and Catholic culture,” Sister Amada said.
Moreover, the experience of darkness nearly seven months out of the year helps them join in prayer for “all those who live darkness within themselves, to find the light of Jesus.”
“My suffering is to see there are no awareness of the sacraments in Sweden, and especially in this part of the country,” Sister Amada told me. “There is spiritual poverty, distance from God and from the Church.”
In 2015, the sisters were given official recognition as a “diocesan association.” Sister Amada says they have candidates interested in joining their community, and they hope to demolish the old school and build a simple but traditional monastery in its place. An English architect has been working with them on the project, which will include a chapel dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Queen of the Nordic Countries. It would be another miracle of Divine Providence to be able to build it.
In the beginning the sisters traveled to the nearest parish church in Luleå, some 400 kilometers south, to attend Mass. During the winter this excursion took more than five hours; in summer it takes “only” four. “It’s very dark during the winter, the roads are covered with ice, snow, wind—reindeer and all sort of wild animals cross the streets,” Sister Amada said. “It’s risky, but we got used to it. All you need is to pray and go on.”
Today priests come from all over Sweden to make spiritual retreats at the monastery, and to say Holy Mass and hear confessions. The sisters have a good relationship with the local people in the village, and groups frequently come to the monastery to learn about the sisters’ life and faith. They also have a few rooms for those who want to share in this silence and prayer.
In December 2016 Sister Amada asked one of the priests who came to visit them if he could celebrate the Mass in the Extraordinary Form during his stay at the monastery. He happily acceded to her request, and for the first time, the Latin Mass was celebrated at the monastery.
“We felt very much at home with it and loved it!” Sister Amada said of older form of the Mass. “It was majestic, silent—the sense of mystery was very present and even though we were totally new to the Latin language and that way of celebrating the Holy Mass, we felt very soon called to implement it into the Liturgy of the Lambs of Mary.”
If all goes according to plan, the “miracle of miracles” is expected to materialize in early May, when a Benedictine monk will settle with the sisters. He will offer the sacraments in the older liturgical forms, Sister Amada said; “like us [he] wants to live a contemplative eremitic life, praying the Latin Divine Office, saying the Latin Mass and praying and offering his life for the Church and the salvation of souls, which is our very charism.”
To some it may seem incredible, but in an increasingly secularized part of the world there is a tiny community of traditional nuns, fully backed by their bishop, living in the white desert of the polar circle.
• To contact and support the nuns: www.mariaslamm.se
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