Praying For Us
What's Life Like for Nuns in a Cloister?
"Normal" is a word cloistered nuns like to use to describe themselves, but cloistered nuns are not normal; they're otherworldly and their claims to sameness flatter this world too much. Life in the cloister today is hardly twentieth-century routine. There are no televisions or radios. No mirrors. No meat is served. The sisters don't wear shoes. But there is plenty of prayer, a river of it. Cloistered nuns pray more than eight hours a day.
So "normal" isn't the word most people would use.
"Most people cannot understand how a normal American woman who is not warped can really be happy in cloistered life," says Mother Miriam, the abbess of the Washington area's only monastery of cloistered nuns—a 750-year-old Franciscan order called the Poor Clares.
"We're normal," says the doorkeeper, Sister Clare, the only other nun in the community allowed to interact with curious outsiders.
Cloistered nuns know most people can't appreciate a nun's happiness if her life is seen as weird. But Poor Clares are not fanatical, crazed, or frustrated. Nor are they normal. Cloistered Poor Clares are happily abnormal in exceptionally nice ways.
The Poor Clare Monastery of Mary, mother of the Church, was founded in 1977 when six solemnly professed sisters moved to Stonehedge Drive in Alexandria from Roswell, New Mexico, where more than 30 nuns resided in the motherhouse. With the addition of two novices, two postulates, and a junior nun still in training, the sturdy, cinderblock monastery is now home to eleven sisters and is a treasured part of the local ministry under the Arlington diocese.
The building sits squatly on a hill and is encased on three sides by an enclosure wall that separates the sisters from the world outside. The nuns are not hiding. They try to make their calling clear. Even if the large sign that says POOR CLARE MONASTERY weren't there, the oversized crucifix in the front yard would be a sign that the place is a house of worship and a monument to prayer. The structure is modern and modular. The interior spaces are very clean. The floors are linoleum; the doors and their frames are of a blond wood veneer. Public hallways and the public part of the parlor are lightly furnished with tables and chairs donated to the sisters by George Washington University. The window panes in the public part of the monastery are clear; they look out to the crucifix and the neighborhood beyond. The windows on the cloister's sides are frosted. The sisters don't want to be distracted by the comings and goings of people living in the area.
" The enclosure is one of the major signs and one of the major stumbling blocks for people," says Mother Miriam. " But this is the most perfect atmosphere for prayer." The sisters are not permitted to go home to their families, even if a parent is ailing. " Home?" says Mother Miriam. " This is home. This is our home." Relatives can come to the monastery's parlor and visit with the sisters through an enclosure screen twice a year. Exceptions are made for younger sisters who may need to see family more often.
The lives of these women are segmented by bells, little friendly bells that prod them from one prayerful activity to the next. At 12:30 AM about the time most Washingtonians are drifting off to sleep, Sister Paul, the sacristan, rings a hand-held bell as she walks down the hallway past the individual bedrooms, or cells, rousing her fellow sisters from their sleep for Martins—the early-morning prayer. These cells are six by eight feet in dimension, so small that Fairfax County refuses to classify them as bedrooms; they're officially "closets."
"We live in a sixteen-closet boarding room house," says Mother Miriam. But each nun finds space for a writing desk, desk chair and bed frame for one single-sized straw mattress.
Once Sister Paul's bell for Martins has tolled, the nuns have ten minutes to get downstairs and into their choir stalls for this first part of the Catholic Church's seven canonical hours, called the Divine Office. It is considered a breach of discipline to hurry, so the sisters move swiftly but not summarily, and not without continual reflection. " We train ourselves not to have a natural kind of response to something like waking," says Sister Clare. Every movement, including the changing of the veil—from a short one for sleeping to a longer one for chapel—is an act of praise and is accompanied by a special prayer. The nuns symbolically renew their vows as they tighten their white rope belts. The cord gathers the nigh habit at the waist and is knotted in four places. Each knot represents an investiture vow: obedience, poverty, chastity, and enclosure.
Matins is one of three daily services at which the Blessed Sacrament is privately exposed. In this instance, Mother Miriam opens the door to the tabernacle—a box centered on the alter—and exposes the communion wafers and chalice, which are for Catholics, the Body and Blood of Christ. Of Matins, Mother Miriam says, "It's a beautiful way of praying in the middle of the nigh for all the needs of the world." If anyone happens to be strolling down Stonehedge Drive at that hour, they might be taken aback by the high clear sound of the nuns' voices. From the side of the building, one can see interior lights beaming out in the darkness.
The nuns go back to bed at 1:30AM; then at 5 o'clock, Sister Paul pads barefooted through the hallways ringing the bell again. This time, the sisters rise form their cots and bend into a kneeling position, lowering heir foreheads toward the floor. This is an act of abasement, performed when rising at dawn and before retiring. They have fifteen minutes to get ready for chapel. They being by rinsing their hands and faces in the old fashioned wash basins kept in their cells; they strip their beds, open windows, change veils and habits, adjust their simple unstarched headdresses, and eventually file into their choir stalls for Lauds, the next office of divine prayer, which is followed by fifteen minutes of private meditation.
At 6 o'clock, as the sun is beginning to peer over the horizon, electric bells ring three times to commemorate the coming of Christ as man. The sisters say a special prayer. These angelus bells will ring again at noon and in the evening at 6. The bells also signify the structure of a nun's life. Prayer without distraction is though to be purer prayer. The bells are reminders, or breaks between the sentences of their days, like fresh paragraphs.
Mass is offered at 6:15 by the Reverend Vincent Heald, a priest from St. Louis parish down the street, whose heart condition has relegated him to semi-retirement. The sisters are proud of him and fond, always describing him as wonderful and kind in just the manner they describe all the other priests they've ever encountered. Ten to fifteen laypeople attend these early-morning masses regularly, and they sit on the public side of the choir facing the partitioned-off cloister. It delights the sisters that at least one of these laypeople works at the Pentagon.
Father Heald presents a short sermon during the General Intercessions portion of the Mass, at which time he might interject a salient piece of news—a development in the Middle East, the status of some legislation, a tragedy of a small or personal nature—something the nuns would find worth of further prayer. Because the sisters read only parts of the four periodicals—the Catholic Register, the Arlington Catholic Herald, L'Osservatore Romano (from the Vatican), and US News & World Report—they depend on Father Heald for appropriate tidbits. "It's so very important if we are to pray for the suffering of the world to know what the world is suffering from," says Mother Miriam.
Too much news from the outside would defeat the point of the cloister, which is to provide a tranquil center for prayer and reflection. Last December, when a neighbor phoned to inform the sisters that a terrorist was threatening to blow up the Washington Monument, the sisters had no desire to be apprised of the sensation details. They prayed for the demonstrator, the policemen on the scene, the policemen's children and wives. Then they prayed more universally: for troubled souls anywhere. "We only hear what we are to pray about," says Mother Miriam. "We don't want to be preoccupied with hearing every-five-minute news flashes."
They say their prayer has touched several laymembers of the parish a little girl with a "strange and serous heart condition" is still alive, and her parents bring the Poor Clares supplies and groceries every week. A workman once hired to repair something at the monastery claims his values totally changed after he met the sisters and became the temporary focus of Poor Clare prayer.
The sisters take turns praying for the President, a practice they have observed since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Shortly after the 1963 tragedy, one of the sisters carved a three-by one-inch plaque, woodburned an eagle on one side, and etched IN GOD WE TRUST on the back. Each nun has the plaque in her choir stall for one day, then passes it on the next. Wherever he is, whatever he's doing, the President can always use the kind of security that comes from God, they say.
A twenty-minute pause for breakfast follows Father Head's Mass. This is the only meal the nuns eat standing up. The nuns have so far said nothing outside of song or prayer. Only when absolutely necessary do they speak during the day, communicating chiefly with gestures and facial expressions.
Breakfast fare hardly ever varies: one cup of café au lait and two slices of oatmeal bread baked by the nun assigned to kitchen duty. On feast days, that oatmeal bread is served with jelly.
After breakfast, the sisters have time for personal prayer, before they recite Terce, the third hour of the Divine Office. The sisters have been awake now for almost two and half hours; the sun is up. It is 7:20.
Writers wishing to explore a cloistered monastery usually find their way barbed with much negotiation. That may be why little about American cloisters has been published by outsiders, except for scattered works by British journalists. Once entry is gained, the reported continually finds interviews interrupted by the sisters' recitation of prayers, each hour of which rests on the premise that a real and communicative God exists—something the inquisitor must accept as fact too, because it is on that particular premise that the whole structure of a cloistered nun's life subsists. Without the faith, everything falls apart. Therein lies the mystery. Sister Clare quotes Father Charles Schleck on this: " You cannot explain your life fully to those whose mystery it is not."
It is not surprising that contemplative nuns themselves have written the most insightful descriptions of cloistered life. Mother Mary Francis, the abbess at the Poor Clare monastery in New Mexico, is probably their best living chronicler and has been of particular importance in describing life as it's experience by the world's 19,000 Poor Clares. She writes nonfiction books and poetry. Mother Miriam thinks that poetry comes closer to touching the heart of contemplative life than any other form of expression."
The harder the reporter tries to get answers to questions any curious reader might like to know—Do you take baths or do you shower? Are you afraid of the world and is that why you've locked both body and soul away?—the quieter the nuns become.
Contemplatives are also wary of report-romanticists who might over-dramatize life inside a monastery. In A Right to Be Merry, Mother Mary Francis writes: " Nothing makes us laugh more quickly than those romantic pictures of some Ścontemplative' strolling in a garden at sundown or gazing dreamily at the trees. This is not to say that we do not walk in our lovely garden on Sundays and feast-days (working in it on other days!), or that we never look up at the curtseying trees. It is only that these pictures are always and obviously slanted at those who think the contemplative life consist of leisurely hours in the choir with the soul steeped in sweetness, followed by a stroll in the garden, and perhaps a spot of embroidery—just to keep fit." But then, according to one photographer who recently took pictures of the Poor Clares, these are the only kinds of pictures the nuns allowed.
Cloistered nuns admit their public profile is puzzling, even amorphous, and when it comes right down to it, they really do not care. They insist they're not troubled by outside opinions. " Contemplative nuns have been labeled as useless, parasitical, shiftless, for centuries. But we just do not run a temperature over it," writes Mother Mary Francis. " What matters is what God thinks."
As Mother Miriam described it one day while easing out of a telephone conversation in order to return to her prayers, " This way we promote our life is to live it. Talking about it just takes us away."
At 8:15 every morning, the sisters pray " for work." Unlike cloistered orders that make vestments or communion wafers for a wage, the Poor Clares have no requisite labor besides their greatest task at hand—which is, of course, to pray. St. Clare, the Poor Clares' founder, believed that work was a grace, not merely a penance. Her notice of work never manifested itself in the form of tangible materials. As Mother Mary Francis points out., " St. Claire is a true mirror or Mary. She built no hospitals, made no political pronouncement, inaugurated no new system of pedagogy, and wrote no books." What she did was give her whole being to Christ as Assisi's first female follower of St. Francis. Cloistered Poor Clares follow this example. They work to be. A Poor Clare brochure says: "The Poor Clare is called by God not so much to do anything as to be something. Her life prefigures eternity."
This doesn't mean that the sisters sit around all day conjuring up images of themselves. They sew. They cook. They garden. A sample morning's work for one sister might be to turn a bushel of bruised windfall apples into a winter's supply of applesauce. Other sisters make liturgical banners out of burlap and felt with messages like: God, your fingerprints are everywhere," or "There is no way man can earn a star or deserve a sunset."
The tasks involved in maintain the monastery—cooking, sweeping, cleaning, washing—are called charges. A nun's specific charge is a temporary calling, and its assignment is up for review every three years. Even Mother Miriam's position as abbess, for example, is not permanent.
Another charge is to each Christian doctrine, liturgy, and scripture to the young girls in the monastery's novitiate. Classes are held at 10:15 in the morning and then again in the afternoon.
But prayer is always the main charge. Mother Miriam says that a priest once brought shelled walnuts to the sisters and that when they asked him to bring the less expensive walnuts in their shells time, he said, "No sisters, I want you to spend the extra time you might have spent shelling these nuts in prayer."
Sext, the sixth hour of Divine Office, is recited at 10:45. The sisters chant psalms in their choir stalls until 11:10, when they break for private prayer and then dinner, their largest meal, which is brought forth in the refectory, one of the monastery's cheeriest rooms. Vegetable soups, hearty servings of silvered carrots and cabbage, sweet potatoes, and usually something fairly high in protein—a cheese soufflé, for instance—compose a sample meal. The sisters have had bad luck with their garden; the land is fairly rocky, so most of their nourishment comes from the local Giant grocery store by way of the Poor Clare Guild—a lay group that delivers groceries through the "turn," a revolving doorway that shields the nuns from unnecessary interruptions. For dessert, they have some fruit, and on feast days, hard candy and a cookie.
"The littlest change makes it a great feast day, and it doesn't take a lot to make us happy," Mother Miriam says. "St. Francis thought it was wonderful if you had a running stream for water and an old dried piece of bread for something to eat, and he thought that was a feast. We try to keep the same simplicity."
The bell for None—the Divine Office's fifth hour—usually sounds just as the sisters are finishing the glorious task of washing the dishes. They quietly file back into the choir and remember St. Francis by praying the " cross prayer" for about five minutes, their heads inclined upward, their arms stretched out.
The eldest of five children in a Catholic family of mixed English and German descent, Mother Miriam attended California parochial schools and was fascinated by the teaching nuns—a normal infatuation, she says, for most girls. In the seventh grade, she read Mother Mary Francis's book A Right to Be Merry and began to imagine herself as a Poor Clare. " I thought that I would be a Poor Clare from a distance, a lover of Poor Clares," she says, " because I was just an ordinary person and I thought Poor Clares were special people."
In college, she studied pharmacology, and though she was becoming more interested in medicine, she still found something missing form her life. With a friend's encouragement, she finally wrote to Mother Mary Francis in New Mexico. "Things seemed to go very quickly then. It was a long search for my place, but when I found it, I felt completely at home," says Mother Miriam.
This is what nuns mean when they talk about their vocation, or call. Mother Miriam compares it to a woman's intuition that she's met the man she wants to marry. "It's intangible," says Mother Miriam. "There will always be that element of sureness and uncertainty. You bridge the gap with faith."
She was twenty years old at the time of her call, in Berkeley during the late 1960's. "I knew many young people who were so confused," she recalls, "and I discovered then that there was no use in talking to them. They would not listen. They would not listen, so I thought to myself: I'm going to remember this when I get into the cloister, only God's grace can touch a heart."
Five years after entering the cloister, Mother Miriam took the vows of solemn profession. Because the sisters see the vow ceremony as a spiritual marriage with Christ, they call themselves Brides of Christ and wear traditional bridal gowns—usually dresses donated by recently married women in the outside community. Five years later, Sister Miriam of the Blessed Passion (as she was then called) was one of the six pioneering sisters ready to found a monastery in the Washington area, where they felt the country needed an important religious presence. As the capital of our nation and perhaps the most powerful city in the world, Washington, the sisters believe, is in need of constant prayer.
Mother Mary Francis, the New Mexico monastery's abbess, was instrumental in establishing the sisters in their new home here. She worked closely with the Most Reverend Thomas Jerome Welsh, Bishop of Arlington, who encouraged the sisters to move and who now describes the nuns' arrival as "providential." Welsh says he is grateful for their presence because of the "value of the witness they give any place." The sisters are a symbol to the rest of us, he says, that we should be praying more often ourselves. "They are constant reminders to people that we are not put on the earth just to have a good time," Welsh says.
Mother Mary Francis temporarily served as the new monastery's abbess because the new community was still a protectorate of the Roswell motherhouse. Only last year did the nuns elect Sister Miriam mother abbess: new leader, new spokesperson, executor of new responsibilities. As abbess, Mother Miriam is obliged to spend more time with members of the outside world. She's the one who speaks to the bishop on the phone, pays the bills, decides what's worth reading aloud from the monastery's copy of US News. She's the diplomat, the negotiator. And she does this without becoming too entangled with the world and its problems. She must work twice as hard to sustain the spontaneity she feels with God.
"We're just passing in this world as pilgrims and strangers," she says. "We mustn't get rooted. We see so much of that in our country, the rootedness in material things. If it's really two televisions and two cars that will make you happy, how can we be so happy without them?"
Mother Miriam prays for all the lost souls in the world, for those who want to change, she says, but who can't quite make the necessary "commitment."
"Sometimes we pray so much for young people addicted to drugs," she says. "Other times for women whose husbands beat them—that's something we'll never suffer—and for women who live in fear all the time. Well, it's just heart-aching. For weeks last winter, all I could think about were those children in Washington out there in the streets at night with insufficient clothing, with no one to care for them in the freezing cold."
Mother Miriam delights in man's sense of invention, the ability to create the magnificent and new. "This microsurgery, for instance, doctors can now do surgery on unborn children and the tissues heal so much more quickly. This is just marvelous and so beautiful.
"But I'll tell you, there is one thing that put me off recently, and it's just because of the economic situation. I really am perturbed about it."
"It's all these different styles of telephones! I mean really; it's as if we have nothing better to do with our money...with people starving, and then we've nothing better to do but get this new telephone when the old telephone is perfectly good. It's not that I mind different kinds of colors or anything like that. But really—to be realistic—and in having a heart for all: There's something wrong about having that luxury."
A Poor Clare's afternoon is no less busy than her morning. At 3 o'clock, bells ring three times in memory of Christ's death. The nuns glance up from their work and turn toward the nearest crucifix—it might be the cross on their silver investiture ring or it might be the rosary cross that hangs from their belt and makes a little jingling sound whenever they walk. The sisters murmur a special prayer.
Vespers is at 4:10, followed by a light evening meal called collation; bread, fruit, milk, and cheese are served in the refectory while the sisters listen to poems, articles, or general items of interest read aloud. Forty-five minutes of free time follows. Several sisters use this opportunity to practice musical instruments. Sister Clare plays the organ, violin, and block flute (a recorder), and several of the others are following suit.
Between 6:30 and 7:30, the sisters take their sewing and embroidery into the chapter room to meet for recreational conversation. The novices and postulates gather for conversation in a different chamber,, "We just enjoy each other's company," Mother Miriam says. This is really the only designated hour of the day during which a sister can converse freely, but only one sister talks at a time. Interrupting is a fault that the more excitable sisters must conquer. A program they call " Cultural Reading" is sometimes the subject of the conversation; the sisters select books every few weeks to read aloud together. Recent selections have been Jesus Rediscovered by Malcolm Muggeridge, Lamy of Santa Fe by Paul Horgan, and various C.S. Lewis volumes.
Back to the choir they file for Compline at 7:30, the final prayer of the Divine Office. "It's a special time to remember all those who may die during the night or who are in danger," Mother Miriam says. The sisters pray in a cruciform position and then retreat to their individual cells. There they may read until 8:45, when the cell light, hitched to an automatic timer, goes out. The Poor Clares kiss the floor and get into bed.
Some liberal Catholic factions contend that cloistered nuns should abandon their "ecclesiastical museums" and go into the mainstream. Officially, however, the Church has always revered the contemplative life. The Second Vatican Council, held during the 1960s, proclaimed cloisters worth maintaining at all times, "no matter how pressing the needs of the action apostolate may be."
When the Poor Clares first arrived in Alexandria, Bishop Welsh told writer William F. Willoughby: "The symbolism of what they do is so important. In our society that is attempting to be more and more self-sufficient, they remind us that we don't have a lasting city here."
This kind of praise has its effect on cloister population figures. Despite the calls for Church modernization, the population of cloistered nuns nationally has been increasing at a rate of about seven percent a year. During the same period, active ministries for female Catholics resulted in fewer vocations than ever before.
"It is significant," Mother Miriam says, "that the traditional orders—the ones that have kept a structured community life—they are the ones that are flourishing."
Both Mother Miriam and Sister Clare say that too many outsiders think cloistered nuns are preoccupied with their own salvation, that they care only about their own holiness. They recall an impression relayed to them by a member of the Poor Clares Guild, whose friends believed that nuns stayed young because they didn't have any serious problems. "Don't you believe it," this friend of the cloister is said to have replied. "They carry all the world's problems in their heart."
"If we could put an enclosure wall around the word—that is kind of the ideal, "says Sister Clare one evening just as the sun is going down, before going off to Vespers and more prayer. "Part of our purpose is to witness to the world that this is the way we should all be living."
"Evil," she says, prevents all of us from seeing" the world the way it should be. People tell us there's so much evil out there—the crime and everything—but I see good. I know I see it as good..."
She leans forward to peer through the enclosure screen and out of a clean pane in the nearest parlor window. There's a regular street scene out there: a house of aluminum siding, a child on a bike, a man trying to jump-start a red car.
"...It all looks so peaceful, doesn't it?" says Sister Clare. "But it's I. It isn't necessarily the world itself. Our world seems so simple and it makes sense to us. We know where we're going. We know what we're doing, and it all has meaning for us...We are normal, we're human, we're the same kinds of persons, but we always have something: a rock to hold on to."