everything you have to lose
St. Cecilia's Abbey is a convent of contemplative Benedictine nuns (connected with the Solesmes congregation) located on the Isle of Wight, south of Portsmouth, England. A website gives a history of the foundation and a glimpse of the monastic life. It's obvious from the start that these gals are serious about contemplative prayer -- no chakras or labyrinths here. The site provides a list of frequently asked questions, including some realistically naive ones, followed by what we can call less-frequently-given answers. The candor, and the independence from cliché, are signs of honest and thoughtfully-digested personal experience instead of the hand of a PR consultant. After a grisly half-hour bouncing about the L.A. Religious Ed Congress, I found the following replies refreshingly sane:
5. Do [your vows] include a vow of silence?
No religious order has ever had a vow of silence. We do try to refrain from talking in order that we may continue to pray and ponder God's word even while we are working. This custom of silence does not exclude necessary talk about our work or a quick word of kindness or gratitude. The daily time-table does include two periods of recreation, in total about an hour, in which we go for walks together, or sit together, and during that time we talk freely. From Compline (night prayer) until after Mass the next day the silence is absolute.
7. Is your life very austere?
Monastic poverty does not mean living in destitution but it does mean cutting out, as far as possible, all that is superfluous. So we eat sensibly and have sufficient clothing and heating but we try to avoid luxuries. Benedictine poverty includes taking care of material things, even if they're old and worn, and avoiding waste. We do not each plan our own finances but we can exercise responsibility about not wasting water or electricity. We do a certain amount of fasting in Lent and Advent and at certain other times, and newcomers accustom themselves to this gradually. The Abbess has to take into account St. Benedict's principle that the regime should be such that "the strong may still have something to long after and the weak may not draw back in alarm" (Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 64).
8. Do you get on with each other or do you ever argue?
The test of an authentic prayer-life is not whether we are rapt in ecstasy or having visions but whether we love our neighbour. Also, there's not much point in praying for the cancellation of third world debt if we're bearing grudges against the nun in the next cell. So we do try to love each other. It's natural that we find some personalities more sympathetic than others; it's also natural that we rub each other up the wrong way at times; but we try to go beyond natural affinity or irritation to find and love Christ in each sister. Individual nuns will have strong opinions on every conceivable subject and by no means do we all see eye to eye on everything, but if we're putting love before everything else then we'll know when to enjoy a lively discussion and when to swallow our views. Learning to love is the work of a life-time.
9. How can you give up so many things? If you have withdrawn from the world, what value can your life have for others?
Any worthwhile life involves the sacrifice of some good things for the sake of even better things.
If there is no God, if the revelation of Jesus Christ is not true, then our life is a terrible waste. We believe, however, that every person was made for the love and praise of God and that God is indeed worthy of our love and praise. In the Divine Office and throughout our monastic day we are doing what we hope we shall be doing for all eternity -- gazing at him who is all beauty, truth and goodness -- although here we do it "as in a mirror" and there we shall do it "face to face". Any baptized person, when he or she prays or does what is right, raises up the whole world because the prayer or action is done "in Christ". The enclosure of the monastery enables us to do this with special concentration. Our talents and personalities are not on display in the way they would be if we were following a glamorous career; rather, they are focussed entirely on God, and used for him.
I like the forthright admission: "If there is no God, if the revelation of Jesus Christ is not true, then our life is a terrible waste." Not much equivocation there. There's a noble audacity in being able to say, in effect, "I'm not hedging my bets. I'm staking my entire life on the belief that our faith is true, and that God reveals Himself to those who seek Him."
Not a few self-described Christians (including some we know very well) congratulate themselves on their intellectual boldness, yet grow old in their faculty lounges and law offices without ever committing themselves to anything, continuing to live with one foot in the world of materialist heathendom -- not because they're on a soul-wracking search for the truth, but because, at bottom, they're scared to face either alternative honestly: viz., that Christianity is really false or Christianity is really true. It's nuns who are conventionally portrayed as temperamentally timid, but how many folks have the guts to relinquish what these women relinquish on the gamble that their beliefs are right and it's the world that has it wrong?
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Posted by: -
Mar. 06, 2007 4:51 AM ET USA
Thank you, Diogenes. This is truly inspiring -- one more convent to recommend to young women discerning their vocation. As these nuns remind us, the human vocation is to live for the praise of God's glory (Ephesians 1:5-6). God calls each of us to do that: a religious or a consecrated single person or in the Sacrament of Holy Orders or in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Orthodox nuns, such as these, are powerhouses of prayer, helping us all, giving us a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven. AMDG.
Posted by: -
Mar. 05, 2007 12:36 PM ET USA
"... there's not much point in praying for the cancellation of third world debt if we're bearing grudges against the nun in the next cell." Ted K., Nancy P., et.al. would not understand that statement at all.
Posted by: -
Mar. 04, 2007 7:47 PM ET USA
When I was fourteen and attending the (Benedictine) Abbey School in a small town I went to a "mixer" at St. Scholastica's across town. As I went in the door I was approached by a visibly disturbed nun who asked i) are you a Catholic? ii) would you help bring sister xx downstairs on a gurney? They are too heavy! The real obstacle was that I was a male, and the word "pshaw" doesn't appear in the Rule of St. Benedict. Charity covered the sin of it and I am one of the few men to enter a cloister.
Posted by: -
Mar. 04, 2007 6:04 PM ET USA
Thanks for posting this! It's beyond encouraging to see a group of religious women who take Christ seriously and bear witness to him this plainly in public. Our Lord shall surely not be ashamed of them on the Last Day. Oh, and GREAT ANALYSIS too, Uncle Di. As usual. God bless!
Posted by: -
Mar. 04, 2007 5:41 PM ET USA
This IS a refreshing story. So much more uplifting than the nitpicking I often read here. God bless these sisters.
Posted by: -
Mar. 04, 2007 3:17 PM ET USA
What this mainly shows is that there are still a handful of Christians in Christendom. Even if you have to go the Isle of Wight to find them. Thanks for finding them, Diogenes, and for adding the comment that "[n]ot a few self-described Christians (including some we know very well) [are] scared to face either alternative honestly: viz., that Christianity is really false or Christianity is really true." We know one of them, perhaps, well enough to shave him every morning.
Posted by: -
Mar. 04, 2007 2:31 PM ET USA
How refreshing indeed! Their honesty and grasp of reality while keeping focused on Christ is what will attract vocations. May God bless these nuns and keep them close to His Son's Sacred Heart.