Cloistered nuns live lives of prayer and contemplation

Thu, Feb 9th 2012 10:00 am
The schola sing at Mass inside the monastery of the cloistered Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary. (Courtesy of Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary)
The schola sing at Mass inside the monastery of the cloistered Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary. (Courtesy of Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary)

Cloistered nuns choose to live entirely removed from the world, having almost no contact with those outside the walls of the monastery. To some, this might seem daunting and even frightening, but to the communities of cloistered nuns in the Buffalo area, it allows them the space and silence to have a deeper, richer relationship with God.

"The reason for the silence is so that we can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, so we can be attentive to the spiritual world," said Mother Miriam of Jesus, prioress of the Carmelite Nuns at the Shrine of the Little Flower of Jesus.

Unlike active-contemplative orders, which minister out in the world, cloistered orders dedicate their lives exclusively to prayer and contemplation. The Buffalo area is home to two cloistered communities, the Carmelites and the Dominican Nuns of the Perpetual Rosary.

"The most important part is the prayer life, which includes liturgy of the Mass, the Divine Office and private prayer, and what we call lectio divina, which is the very prayerful reading and praying over the Scriptures," said Mother Emmanuel of Mercy, prioress of the Dominican Nuns at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Perpetual Rosary. "That is what holds the life together."

In order to concentrate exclusively on their life of prayer, cloistered nuns do not leave the inner part of the monastery, a papal enclosure. They have limited contact with people from the outside world, although both orders allow nuns to exchange letters with their families and visit with them once a month inside the monastery.

"To me, I've found more and more personally, certainly through what I've read about monastic life, that the more one lives the life radically, more and more you come into a solidarity with all people in whatever their situation of despair or hurt or brokenness, in whatever it is," said Sister Mary Lucy of Divine Mercy, a Dominican nun. "So even if we didn't know what was happening outside, we would still be able to bring all of them before God in our prayer."

Nuns who live in the enclosure do not leave unless mitigating circumstances, such as sickness, require it. Instead, volunteers and "extern" sisters do shopping, drive sisters to doctor's appointments and interface with visitors.

Both the Dominicans and Carmelites do not watch television or listen to the radio, and limit themselves to Catholic periodicals as reading material. They are also occasionally allowed to view a DVD, such as a documentary on the lives of the saints. The Carmelite nuns do not have mirrors in the enclosure. This, explains Mother Miriam, helps to minimize distractions.

"I'm not missing a thing," she said. "Maybe in the beginning there could be a temptation to think you are being cut off, but it's a process. You have to learn how to adjust to a new life. I'm sure that whoever gets married feels that they are missing out on the things they had before they got married, but they wouldn't trade it for anything, I suppose, if they're happily married."

Contrary to popular belief, cloistered nuns are not required to be constantly silent. Although they remain silent for the majority of the day, the sisters are allowed to speak at specific times and also use their voices when they sing and pray. Both orders said that they are allowed to speak if necessary, for example if they have a question.

"There is a sense in which the silence enables our prayer, so we do really try to keep silence through most of the day and that includes actually during meals," said Sister Mary Lucy. "We don't speak to each other at meals, instead we listen to readings together. We are all hearing the same thing. It is something that we offer to each other as a means to union with God."

At both monasteries, the nuns accept requests from anyone who has a prayer intention. In the future, the Dominican nuns plan on receiving prayer requests on their website, in addition to the current options of receiving requests via phone, letter and through volunteers.

"We receive phone calls through the day and actually we keep our answering machine on at night and the tape is always full every morning with people requesting things, heartbreaking things," said Sister Mary Lucy.

"We are not here just for ourselves," Mother Miriam said. "We are really praying for the world. We are praying for everyone in the world. We would like everyone to be saved. We can see that so many people out there are really, really lost."

Both communities are relatively small. The Dominican monastery is home to 22 nuns and there are 14 nuns in the Carmelite community. According to the rules of their order, the Carmelites must split into two communities when they have 21 nuns.

Cloistered nuns acknowledge that a life apart from the world is not for everyone and the process of joining a cloistered community reflects this reality. The process takes years, beginning with the postulancy, lasting from around six months to one year. If the community and the postulant feel that she is still called to become a nun, she enters the novitiate, which lasts from one to two years. Then, she will take temporary vows for three years. Finally, she will be able to make solemn vows, which last until death.

"When you feel a calling, that is a grace from God and you have to correspond with that, you have to cultivate it, you have to develop it," said Mother Miriam. "It's precious, it's priceless. Don't let it slip away. Do everything you can to foster that."  

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