The way of Beauty
“Just as in the Upper Room, Mary in her heart,
with her prayerful presence, watched over the
origins of the Church, so too now the Church’s
journey is entrusted to the loving heart and
praying hands of cloistered nuns.”
(Verbi Sponsa #4)
The enclosed contemplative religious life has been from the beginning a mystery to many. And in a sense it should be. It is a rare vocation, and the call to so intensely simple a form of Christian living necessarily baffles the world. Even in our own times when the yearning for a deeper life of prayer is happily evident in so many quarters, that form of contemplative life specific to the cloistered nun remains a source of bewilderment to many.
Charism: Our Contemplative Vocation
What do these enclosed nuns do? What are they all about? Verbi Sponsa, the document on the contemplative life issued in 1999 by the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, states clearly and beautifully what the Church expects nuns to do and to be: “The contemplative life is the nun’s particular way of being the Church, of building the communion of the Church, of fulfilling a mission for the good of the whole Church. Cloistered contemplatives therefore are not asked to be involved in new forms of active presence, but to remain at the wellspring of Trinitarian communion, dwelling at the very heart of the Church…by means of constant prayer, the oblation of self and the offering of the sacrifice of praise. Their life thus becomes a mysterious source of apostolic fruitfulness and blessing for the Christian community and for the whole world.”
Such is the life of the contemplative Poor Clare. Her mission is to be God’s, to let Him shine through her on all the darkness of misery which shrouds the world. And as in St. Clare’s age, so in our own, people understand this without any need to reason about it. They flocked to Clare’s poor little monastery in the thirteenth century to ask her prayers for their sick, their prodigals, and their friends. In our century, they continue to do so, taking it for granted that the Poor Clares, cloistered from the world, are closer to its heartaches and miseries than any others simply because they live hidden in the embrace of God. To understand the contemplative vocation properly is to know that its apostolate is universal and timeless.
The Poor Clare has stepped apart from the world and has thus gotten a better perspective on it. She has left the world not because she hates it, but because she wants to love it more purely and more realistically. Separated from the world, the Poor Clare is in a better position to love it selflessly and to compassionate its miseries. She has a spiritual perspective on suffering and on souls. And, as the bride of Christ, she has direct access to His listening ear. Being entirely His, she knows He is entirely hers.
The cloistered Poor Clare is destined for the spiritual maternity of countless souls. The more perfect her life of love and reparation, the more fruitful is her motherhood of souls. Consecrated virginity generates tenderness and compassion beyond what any other love can attain, simply because it is not limited. Virginal love partakes of the boundlessness of Christ’s love for souls. A Poor Clare’s Divine Lover has a heart of infinite Love. It is to be expected that her own capacity for love will go on increasing as she grows in union with Him.
St. Francis of Assisi was a great contemplative but God asked him to sacrifice his love of silence and retirement to preach the Gospel, to let his contemplation overflow into his active apostolate. St. Clare of Assisi had a burning missionary heart, but God asked her to channel all its energies into the love and reparation of the cloister. Her mission field was the whole world, though she would never see the world. Together their lives were a unit, and each the perfect complement of the other. It needs a great heart to fashion a contemplative, a capacity for love so wide and deep that only God can fill it, a missionary zeal so ardent that no fewer than all the souls in the world can satisfy it.
Christian motherhood and consecrated virginity form a marvelous entity. Each is a fulfillment, and each a symbol. The Sacrament of Matrimony symbolizes the union of Christ with Holy Church. Consecrated virginity symbolizes the union of Christ with the souls of the blessed. Each is a positive thing, and virginity is no more a mere negation of motherhood than human maternity is a mere negation of virginity.
Utterly dependent on Divine providence and the alms of the faithful by her solemn vow of poverty, a Poor Clare works hard as the poor must always do. She is glad to do so; and what her own works will not supply, she knows that the alms of the faithful who understand her life will supply. “Let them confidently send for alms,” wrote St. Clare in her Rule. “Nor should they feel hesitant, since the Lord made himself poor in this world for us.”
The work which re-creates a nun for more prayer is also the complement of prayer which ennobles and gives significance to her work. All share alike the work and maintenance of their monastery home. Whether she bakes bread or types letters, sweeps the cloister or paints cupboards, patches habits or plays the organ, the Poor Clare strives to remain united to God. All or any of these works have meaning only insofar as they are the functions of her obedience, the sacrifice of her hands or mind, the overflow of her prayer. “The prayer of an obedient person,” said St. Colette of Corbie, “is worth more than one hundred thousand prayers of a disobedient one.” It is thus that a basketful of weeds pulled up from the cloister garden may shine as gold and curl as incense in the sight of the Lord.
And so are the works of the cloistered Poor Clares offered to God in a daily symphony of love, each sister aware of the blessed paradox that her work is her own particular grace while yet an indispensable part of the symphonic whole in which each one busy at her own tasks is likewise in blessed measure serving in all tasks. The idea of work being “a grace” was a novel one in St. Clare’s thirteenth century. It is more novel in our century. A thousand laborsaving devices seem to be in use to abolish work, with shorter hours, higher wages, increased compensations. The Poor Clares would like longer hours for accomplishing all the works of a monastic labor schedule. Wages? St. Francis was mockingly asked to sell a drop of his sweat. The Saint smilingly refused the prospective buyer, saying that his sweat was already sold to God for a very great price. Compensations? An eternal reward for the small work done in obedience could not be considered meager. And work is itself a reward. Work is good. Work is a grace. And to season both prayer and work, there is the daily hour of recreation.
In a booklet on the contemplative life, Mother Mary Francis describes the call to the cloister in this way: “‘The King has brought me into his rooms.’ A vocation to the cloister is just as simple and yet as incredible, as exquisite and still as demanding as that … The most enduring right to be merry is realized within the King's rooms” (from The King’s Rooms). In a letter to Pope John Paul II written after the Synod of Bishops on Religious Life, she urges, “It is vital that we offer young people a clear and uncompromising modus vivendi as the enclosed contemplative nuns whom we have been called by God to be. What we have to offer the young who seek us out is nothing ‘active’ or ‘useful’ or ‘modern’ as the world might reckon it. It is, rather, the intense interior activity of contemplation which calls us not out of our enclosure but deeply into it from which alone is our religious calling answered. We can reach the whole world in the ‘activity’ of prayer and compassion and sacrificial love. Young people readily understand that the enclosed contemplative life is ‘useful’ to the Church and to the world. These modern young folk find our ancient way of life an inviting mystery which demands the whole of their modernity to fathom” (Letter to Pope John Paul II, 1994).
This wondrous call is further explored in Mother’s book, Forth and Abroad: “For what the enclosure encloses is a woman in love. Consecrated spousal love pertains to the core of the heart, and it can make suffering demands, demands in their turn made desirable just because of love. It is a blessed circle and expressed in the ring circling the Poor Clare’s finger. The ring bears the outline of a heart. And of a cross. Spouseship is, in the end, the most beautiful expression of power, the unleashing of such love and willingness to suffer the lot of the Bridegroom as alone makes for the triumph of womanhood in whatever vocation. At the ceremony of a Poor Clare’s solemn profession, when a young nun tosses her life like a song into the Heart of Christ as alms for all in his kingdom, a ring is placed upon her finger. And then a crown of thorns upon her head. That is the proper order of things for it is only love that makes bearing the reality of thorns possible. The newly ringed and crowned young nun who has pronounced her vows with her hands placed in those of the abbess while the bishop looks on in witness lifts her gaze to the eyes of her abbess. It is a moment that never fades.”
It is a hidden life, this life of the cloister.
It is a replica of the life of the God-Man who
for thirty years worked in a carpenter shop
and prayed on the mountaintop.
And that is why the contemplative life is at once
the most limpidly simple of all lives,
and the most mysterious.