We live in “unprecedented times.” This oft-repeated phrase has not only made the headlines of the daily newspaper and graced the lips of many a newscaster but has also become an ever-present mantra of our everyday encounters. “Unprecedented times” describes the bewildering conglomeration of political chaos, religious tensions, and a pandemic-ridden society.
Yet, it is precisely times like these that have set a precedent for vocations to contemplative life: The Roman Empire crumbled while St. Benedict composed his monastic rule. The Great Western Schism plagued the papacy while St. Catherine of Siena did penance for the healing of the Church. Nuns of the Lisieux Carmel were dying of the Asiatic flu while St. Thérèse prayed for the health and healing of Europe.
In just a few months, I will follow this precedent by leaving behind the life I know to enter as a postulant with the contemplative Dominican nuns of the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace in North Guilford, Connecticut. To me, this seems like the best response I can give to our current social climate, and to life more broadly.
But maybe this idea doesn’t translate as well as I might have hoped. In sharing this intention with others, I have been met with an increasing number of puzzled inquiries from friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers, all questioning my decision to enter a monastery: Why would I enter a monastery right now? Why would I want my last experience of “the world” to be that of a pandemic-ridden society? Why, amidst the chaos of the political and religious climate of the time, would I shut myself in a cloister? Some propose that a person would only make such a choice in order to run away from the problems of the world. Others see it as a heroic denial of those things that are “worldly.” These responses miss the mark.
It is precisely the desire to address these “unprecedented times” that strengthens my resolve to pursue a life as a contemplative Dominican nun. I am not entering a monastery to escape the world or to display false piety. I am entering religious life so that I may follow the particular vocation by which I can most perfectly fulfill my purpose as a Christian member of human society. In denying herself the things of the world, a nun radically affirms the reality of both good and evil in the world. In entering the cloister, she frees herself to enter more deeply into the suffering of a suffering world. And, by closing her eyes in prayer, she is able to open her heart to a world so desperately in need.
One of the mottos of the Dominican Order is contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere (to contemplate and hand on to others the fruits of contemplation). Upon first discerning contemplative life, I was unsure of how this motto manifests itself in the life of a cloistered nun. I now realize that it is through a life of contemplation that I will fully and fruitfully engage with a suffering world. By living a life of prayer and penance away from the world, a contemplative nun is intimately joined in solidarity with those suffering in the world. This solidarity is defined by the offering of her whole self for the sake of a good far greater than herself; a pouring forth of her interior life of prayer and penance for the common good of the world around her. It is by means of this solidarity that she fulfills her vocation: contemplare et contemplata aliis tradere.
Pope St. John Paul II states exactly this in his Apostolic letter Salvifici doloris:
Therefore one must cultivate…sensitivity of heart, which bears witness to compassion towards a suffering person. Sometimes this compassion remains the only or principal expression of our love for and solidarity with the sufferer…. We can say that he gives himself, his very “I,” opening this “I” to the other person. Here we touch upon one of the key points of all Christian anthropology. Man cannot “fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
Every person is called to live out a particular manifestation of this “sincere gift of himself” through his or her personal vocation: Parents sacrifice their own comforts for the sake of their children. Healthcare workers put their own lives on the line for the health and well-being of others. Members of the clergy are obligated to rise to the challenge of living and preaching the truth, no matter the cost. I, along with my soon-to-be sisters, am called to participate in all of these sufferings in a supernatural way through the gift of contemplative life.
Contemplative nuns are called to offer prayers on behalf of the weary mother unable to pray after a sleepless night with her child; to offer penance for the man dying alone who is in need of the grace of conversion; to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and plead for peace in our nation and fruitfulness in the Church. As a nun, I will use my life to unite all of these sufferings to Christ’s suffering on the Cross. Christ became human and sacrificed His human life for the salvation of all humanity. Within the walls of the monastery, nuns sacrifice their own human lives and unite them to Christ’s in such a way as to bring all humanity to Him and bring Him to all humanity.
Once I enter the monastery, my “window” to the world will consist of a small opening in the chapel grille where sits the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament. I will, quite literally, see the world outside through Christ. What a perfect expression of the vowed life I wish to pursue! G.K. Chesterton writes: “The vow is to the man what the song is to the bird or the bark to the dog; his voice whereby he is known” (The Barbarism of Berlin). It is in pursuing a vowed life of poverty, chastity, and obedience within the silent walls of the cloister that I wish to have my voice heard. This is why I am following the precedent of Sts. Benedict, Catherine, and Thérèse in these “unprecedented times” and entering a monastery in 2021. Because, sometimes, you have to leave the world to love it.
[Photo Credit: Monstrance at the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace, supplied by author]