Personally Speaking/A Life Pilgrimage to Spain

My love affair with Spain began when I was 11 years old. Since then, the country has continued to woo me. The romance has colored my life as scholar, teacher and friend of the Norbertines.

My father’s company was planning to temporarily transfer him to Madrid and the first thought was that we would all accompany him. That plan changed, but still the spark had been ignited: Somehow or other, I was going to get to Spain. And I did, via a whirlwind high-school trip over spring break. It was love at first sight: I adored the country, the culture and the people.

In college I would double-major in Spanish and Italian, and, faithless for a while, I admit it, go on to pursue my M.A. in Italian literature. I focused primarily on Italian for the next 15 years. But Spanish would win me back when St. Norbert asked me to cover a section of Spanish 102 for a professor on sabbatical. The next semester, I was offered two additional courses, and there we were.

In due course I was appointed director of study abroad. In that role, I proposed programs in Madrid and Valencia, both of which continue to attract large numbers of SNC students. And all the while, I missed teaching; so much so that I enrolled in the Spanish School at Middlebury College to earn an M.A. and a doctorate in Spanish. While continuing as director of study abroad at SNC, I attended Middlebury over the course of many, many summers before earning my doctorate in 2013. It was the perfect program for me, and the love affair only deepened when I discovered Spanish history and politics.

I was preparing for my very first Norbertine Heritage Tour in 2008 when I found out that, although there used to be nearly 40 Norbertine abbeys in Spain, by 2008 only two convents of cloistered nuns remained. What happened to the rest of the houses? When I asked Father Ted Antry of Daylesford Abbey about the demise of the male branch of Norbertines in Spain, he responded, “That’s a very good question. No one has ever published anything in English about it.” And thus I had landed on the perfect topic for my dissertation, one which would blend my love of Spanish language, history and politics with my newfound interest in Norbertine history.

The spring semester of 2011 found me in Madrid where, for four months, my days were spent doing research in the National History Archive and my evenings in the National Public Library. I also spent several days with the “Sofías,” the Norbertine nuns in Toro. This community of cloistered nuns was founded in 1305, and they have lived in the same monastery continuously since 1316. (How’s that for stabilitas loci?) I visited other former abbeys too, like Santa María de Retuerta. This was the very first Norbertine abbey in Spain, in existence 1143-1835, and now a winery and a five-star hotel. (The former refectory is now a Michelin-starred restaurant.)

Although my goal had been to teach Spanish full time, my research on Spanish Norbertines would lead to another unexpected gift. In 2015, I was tapped by Father Andrew Ciferni, then-director of the Center for Norbertine Studies, to serve as his assistant director. When Father Andrew returned to his home abbey of Daylesford in 2018, I would assume the role of director. And along the way, I would end up back in the classroom too. For the past six semesters, I’ve been teaching a course on Norbertine history – where I’m always planting seeds for one of my students to become a Norbertine scholar.

I have returned to Spain multiple times – to conduct research at the Monastery of Santa María de la Vid, to lead a trustee heritage tour, to attend a conference at the former Norbertine abbey in Aguilar de Campóo, and for frequent vacations thrown in for good measure. And, in 2019, with the co-directors of the Emmaus Center, I led a group of students on a portion of the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route. We walked nearly 270 km over the course of 12 days. As I continue to tell my students, keep your hearts and minds open as you pursue your passions, for you never know what life and God have in store for you.

My love affair continues. This past summer, much to my delight, I was invited back to Middlebury’s Spanish School to teach. I had come full circle from being a timid grad student in 1999, who hadn’t taken a Spanish class in 25 years, to being a part of the Spanish School faculty.

Spain continues to call out to me as I make plans to retire. As soon as travel is once again permitted, I’ll be setting down roots in Madrid. Living there means I will be able to easily enjoy the many programs and exhibits throughout Europe in honor of the 900th anniversary of the Order of Prémontré. And I’ve already offered my services to the Norbertine nuns in Toro to help them organize their archives and assist in writing a history of their storied 700-year existence.

The college's publications team and the Center for Norbertine Stiudies were saddened to learn, after this issue of the magazine had gone to print, of the death of the Rev. Theodore Antry ’62. Antry, a Norbertine of Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, Pa., died Dec. 19, 2020. A prodigious scholar of Norbertine history, Antry worked closely with the St. Norbert College Press team on the production of "Man of Fire," the 2019 biography of Norbert of Xanten authored by President Emeritus Tom Kunkel.

Jan. 15, 2021