Imagine life in a cloistered monastery, away from the world and immersed in silence.
Days knit together with just the other nuns and God. Mostly God.
For he is the reason they live behind the grate, forsaking families and loved ones for the love of Christ, at Lent and always.
I had a small glimpse of the cloister last spring, thanks to my dear friend and fellow writer Roxane Salonen, who invited me to meet Mother Madonna of the Carmelites of the Carmel of Mary in Wahpeton, North Dakota.
We were speaking at an event nearby. Roxane had a special friendship with Mother Madonna and an eight-year relationship with the Carmel (“Carmel” means God’s garden), occasionally staying at one of the guest houses for inspiration and the luxury of uninterrupted writing. Many Catholics are familiar with Carmel via the Little Flower — St. Thérèse was a Carmelite.
The Carmel’s cloistered life is a vocation of prayer and contemplation in the presence of God, praising him and intervening for the Church and others. The very lives of the sisters are wholly dedicated to this as in marriage — a full immersion and commitment to God and his people.
The Wahpeton monastery began in 1954, when the Carmelite nuns in Allentown, Pennsylvania, sent seven nuns to Wahpeton, North Dakota.
At one point, there had been 22 nuns, some of which were sent out to Texas on Feb. 2, 1989.
At present, several nuns are in nursing-home facilities, and others have gone home to Our Lord.
There are now only four sisters and one novice, who completed a year of discernment and is proceeding in prayer, study and formation, with an eye on making a final profession of solemn vows after completing nine years of formation.
Roxane and I met with Mother Madonna for almost two hours. We sat in comfortable chairs on one side of the grate while she was on the other. Conversation came easily with this personable nun, a veteran of the Air Force who had actually wanted to be a bride of Christ since second grade. I continue to communicate with her occasionally by email, and she enthusiastically agreed to let the sisters share their thoughts on Lent with me in writing.
Sister Margaret Mary (in Carmel 65 years) and Sister Joseph Marie (in Carmel 64 years) are total opposites, according to Mother Madonna, but have served God together for 64 years. “I have a feeling when one goes home to the Lord the other will soon follow,” she said. “My mourning will be great, but, hopefully, I will be able to pull myself together and rejoice that they are in total bliss.”
Sister Joseph Marie
What Sister Joseph Marie likes most about life in Carmel is rising to pray the midnight Divine Office “to adore the Lord and pray for the world … and giving my life in love and adoration of God.” More than any other practice during Lent, she most likes focusing on entering into a great silence interiorly and exteriorly and never missing an opportunity to practice charity and make sacrifices.
“Lent, for me, means turning away from self, my own will, and entering more into the great love of Jesus in his sacrifice for me and for souls and for the many needs of the Church,” she wrote. “The Hypostatic Union in Christ has so much to be pondered, and it is in this union of the God-Man, infinite in Divine love that moved Jesus to sacrifice himself, and that motivates me.”
Sister Margaret Mary
“There is a great sense of freedom, unity and joy as we carry out our assigned tasks,” Sister Margaret Mary commented. “They are done prayerfully in Our Lord’s presence.” She noted that intentions which come by way of mail, email and phone are taken to the heart and that praying for priests is especially dear to their hearts.
Sister Margaret Mary looks forward to Lent every year. “For one thing, the changes of the Divine Office are especially beautiful during Lent. There is a greater sense of recollection and prayerfulness, yet we still follow our regular schedule. Our meals are simpler than usual but still healthy and well-balanced.”
Sister Veronica, originally from Maryland, has degrees in French and history.
“Paradoxically, by staying in one small place, we are empowered to be present everywhere at once,” she explained. “The love born of contemplation cannot be measured or limited. In Carmel, we begin to taste the joys of heaven while we are still on earth.”
On Lent, she mused: “Lent is about something greater than just my own personal life. Lent is a reminder of the communal character of our Christian faith. It invites us to enter anew into the magnificent drama of salvation history, the redemption of humanity, and the transfiguration of the universe by the Blood of Jesus Christ.”
The superior of this Carmel was attracted here to pray for souls, especially those of priests. “I want to do my part by offering prayers for them 24/7 because just as I need prayers to persevere, so they, too, need prayers to stay strong in the midst of temptations and trials.” Mother Madonna recommends everyone attend a chrism Mass, which is celebrated on Holy Thursday morning by the bishop with priests of the diocese, manifesting their unity and blessing the holy oils used throughout the year.
Lent, for her, is a time to grow closer to Christ: “I look at Lent as a time to reflect that while on earth we are undergoing pain and suffering; so, too, during Lent, we reflect and ponder what Jesus suffered for our salvation.” Mother Madonna said she keeps in mind the joyful outcome: Lent leads to Jesus’ resurrection and the celebration of Easter.
“Alleluia is sung around the world, and we rejoice for 50 days,” she said.
“Just as we celebrate after Lent, so, too, after our earthly pilgrimage, we will celebrate in heaven — except it won’t last for 50 days, but for all eternity.”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.