Growing up a Catholic in the South during the turn of the millennium, I suppose there was a number of experiences I missed out on which might be considered common in other regions and times. Some of these local differences are niche and not particularly interesting. For instance, the layout of parish rectories or the rich ethnic histories behind each parish. Usually, there's nothing terribly life changing about encountering these things. However, my perspective was broadened when I for the first time visited a cloistered convent.
For anyone unaccustomed to this phrase, a convent typically describes the place where religious women live together. While there are many dozens (perhaps hundreds) of different orders for women religious, they can generally be categorized into two main groups. Most people are familiar with the first group: “secular” religious sisters. These would be the nuns who taught in Catholic schools for decades and still today do a lot of public ministry. On the other hand, there are “cloistered” nuns. These women live in community together away from the world. Their convents follow strict guidelines about visitors and rarely do they leave from their designated dwellings, and so far fewer people would be acquainted with them. They devote their lives to a more private ministry of the Church: contemplative prayer.
As far as I can remember, my previous knowledge of contemplative lives was limited to saint stories. My family owned a DVD movie of St. Therese of Lisieux. She, of course, enters the Carmelite convent and willingly confines herself within its dusty walls, hidden away from the outside world. Though I had seen the passing religious sister from time to time, the idea of talking to a nun behind an iron grate seemed as fantastical as meeting George Washington.
And yet, talk to them I did. A few years back, a group of college seminarians, myself included, went together to such a place. One of our seniors was organizing this group to help do some basic labor; yard work and such. The convent of the Visitation Sisters was less than a mile up City Avenue from the Seminary, and the fall weekend weather was pleasant. We gathered up some pickup trucks and work gloves and I found myself in a new kind of place. After we had raked a few metric tons of leaves, the nuns welcomed us to sit in their lobby for lunch. A half-wall divided the room, so that we remained partially separate, but these were honest-to-God real life cloistered religious.
Since that experience, I have run across several others. Most recently, I was introduced to a Carmelite convent only twenty minutes away from my assigned parish. I sought permission to speak with them from the diocesan vicar for religious, the priest in charge of handling the sisters' needs. I called to ask if the sisters would be open to having a little chat so that I could learn a bit about them and share with the world a peak into their prayerful contemplative lives. I made my visit at 10am on a Monday morning and spent about an hour and a half scribbling in a notepad as the peaceful Carmelite sisters humored me; this time, behind that mythical iron grate.
Mother Mary Veronica of the Holy Face of Jesus entered the convent in 1964 at the age of seventeen. She told me from an early age, she had felt this desire for religious life. At the age of nine, she had read a children's book about St. Therese of Lisieux and was drawn to emulate her holy simplicity. Throughout grade school, she was taught by Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity, Dominican Sisters, Franciscans, but never by Carmelites. In school, she joined the Junior Legion of Mary, a prayer group devoted to prayer and some evangelization. As she approached the end of her high school days, Mother Mary Veronica told me, she went on retreat with her classmate. Together, they visited the Blessed Sacrament and discussed their desires to pursue religious life.
She began to look at the different religious orders in a catalog, “Guide to American Sisterhood”. She saw a picture of St. Therese on the page for this convent in Allentown, Pennsylvania and reached out by writing letters. This convent was home to the Carmelite Nuns of the Ancient Observance; meaning that they adhered to the original rule laid out in the 12th Century (alternative to the Discalced nuns, who adhere to the rule reformed by St. Teresa of Avila in the 16th Century). Based on my research, there are only four convents dedicated to the Ancient Observance in the United States and a few dozen Discalced Carmelite convents.
At length, she described to me the final days she spent with her family. Mother Mary Veronica graduated high school and after twelve days, her family packed up their station wagon and drove from Cincinnati to Allentown. Though she was resolute and determined, when her family finally made it to the area of the convent, she found herself feeling shaky. Her family- mother, father, and three siblings- took her to dinner at a local restaurant, where she didn't even feel like having ice cream. However, she described how this nervousness melted away when she finally met with the prioress and sisters. In the same little lobby where I sat for my little audience, her father had given away his eldest daughter to be a bride of Christ.
I find it curious and quite profound how many details Mother Mary Veronica described to me about that day in 1964. In relaying it through this medium, it may come off as sad or tragic as this young girl separated from her loving family. No doubt that it was difficult beyond my reckoning. Yet, she did not describe it as a tragedy. Rather, every detail was underlined by a sense of great peace. As though the Lord were lighting the path for her journey one step at a time, she found herself among the sisters, confident in God's provident care.
Mother Mary Veronica told me that she was allowed to write to her family once a month and that they were permitted to visit her for three days each year. When her parents grew old and could not travel, she was permitted a phone call once a month. She cherished these small comforts, but she knew that the convent was her home now; the nuns there, her family.
I spoke the longest with Mother Mary Veronica, but I was given some details by the other sisters as well. Sisters Gertrude of the Divine Heart, Joseph Marie of Jesus, and Maria Juliana of the Sacred Heart each told me a little about their own vocations and many details about their shared life. The oldest sister, Sr. Therese, was not able to join at that time. She had entered the convent in 1950, nearly seventy-one years ago. Between the five sisters currently in residence, they boast around 276 years of religious life between them.
Sister Joseph Marie of Jesus entered the convent in her early twenties. She did not tell me much, but I must conclude that her family had some wonderful piety. She boasts of two priests and another religious sister among her siblings. Her chosen name, a reflection of the Holy Family, reminds me of the family's role in encouraging holiness for their children. Although Joseph and Mary had the most perfect child, Jesus was still called “Son of the carpenter” in His ministry. Although I do not know it, I believe that Sister Joseph Marie of Jesus must have come from a holy family of her own.
Sister Gertrude of the Divine Heart entered the convent at a young age in 1952. At that time, there were forty sisters living there. While I said how amazing that must have been, she chided me not to be only concerned with age and numbers. “Like with Gideon,” she said, “God can do great work with very few.” and, “And like Abraham,” another sister chimed in, “He doesn't only rely on young people!” I was happy to be so corrected.
Sister Juliana of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the youngest among them at this time. She comes from the Philippines, where she previously worked as a science teacher. She relayed to me how close she came to martyrdom on more than one occasion as she found herself caught between the Communism government and the sometimes radical rebel groups while she worked as a missionary sister. As a religious sister dedicated to teaching, she had to remain a neutral party, which caused trouble for her. The government came to inspect her school desk in search for rebel literature. At one point, she was imprisoned and afraid of execution or worse. On the other hand, radical rebels had put her on a target list. Through it all, she had to place her trust entirely in the hands of God. In response to her faith, she was delivered from these evils, finding that both sides of this conflict protected her from the other in a way. For her safety, she stopped teaching and returned to her convent in the Philippines. From there, she was sent to the United States here to assist the older nuns for a period of time.
They impressed on me a bit about cloistered life as well. “The days go by like lightning,” they said, “We are not bored.” Although I cannot hear their confessions, they admitted to me that there is some challenge in community life. After living together for so long, they know one another like sisters. And, like sisters, they can get on each other's nerves from time to time. But it is easy to tell that such small annoyances were all but evaporated in their attitudes of gentle kindness.
They laughed to me as they described their practices of prayer and penance. Together, the sisters spend at least five hours a day in common prayer. In addition, they have private and personal prayer. As a penance, they make their own mattresses stuffed with dried corn husks. “You put me to shame!” I told them.
I received a little variety of answers when I asked about their favorite saints and devotions. The Blessed Mother, of course, was number one. Saints Therese of Lisieux, Anthony of Padua, Bernadette and Pope John XXIII were all familiar to me. Two I had not heard of before were St. Benedict Joseph Labre and Blessed Anna Maria Taigi. A favorite prayer beyond the rosary is the Memorare. Sister Gertrude told me with a modest smile that when she prays the Memorare, little miracles happen for her. When she has trouble threading the sewing needle or such, she pauses to pray and finds that the task seems to complete itself.
At the heart of religious life, of course, exists the interior life of prayer. The sisters of this convent are justly called “Brides of Christ.” Like a bride gives herself to here husband, whole and entire, these women have given themselves to Jesus. They told me that to be His bride is the main thing, the very center of their identity. In response to their complete gift to Jesus, He cares for them. They do not live in jealousy or envy of marital intimacy. Within their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, they possess already a deep intimacy with Christ. Meditation and contemplation, they said, is like letting Jesus kiss you. He is their beloved, and they live knowing that they are beloved by Him.
The beautiful relationship between these nuns and Our Lord demonstrates to me the necessity of contemplative religious in the life of the Church. By dedicating their whole lives to prayer, they maintain an image of the reality of God's love for all of His children. By withdrawing from the busyness of the world, they preserve and cherish the divine gift of peace which the world does not give. Even though they are hidden away, these religious are like the precious gems of the Church. By their long hours in prayer, I am sure they achieve far more than we will ever recognize or appreciate in this life.
Concluding my visit with the Carmelite Nuns of the Ancient Observance, I carried in my hands a little paper plate of cookies, an envelope of holy cards and pamphlets, and a pad of notes to write out this little post. In my heart, though, I carried a greater gift; a new insight or perspective on life. Although the outside world might scoff at this simple way of life, I knew that behind that iron grate, in the dusty walls of the convent lived a handful peaceful, beautiful, holy brides of Christ who had learned to love God with their whole hearts, minds, spirits, and strength.