The Why of the Cloister

If you grew up before Vatican II and were taught by sisters in parochial or private schools you are familiar with the idea of nuns. But the nuns you knew were probably not “enclosed.” They walked right into the classroom and you had direct contact with them — perhaps by way of a ruler, true, but they were for real, and an important part of your world. You knew that they prayed, before school and after school, that they belonged to God in a special way and wore a different kind of clothes that they called “habits.”

As you grew up, you discovered that besides being teachers, they made very good mentors and friends. You even got to know nursing sisters if you had any experience of hospitals.

But cloistered nuns? They didn't teach, they didn't nurse — what on earth did they do all day long? Why the high walls around the Carmelite monastery? Why the black grilles and curtains that cut you off so you couldn't even see them from their chapel? If cloistered nuns were a mystery to many Catholics, probably the majority, how much more so to the world at large.

Now, a new Church document, long awaited by contemplative nuns the world over, has appeared, dated May 13. Entitled Verbi Sponsa (Bride of the Word), it was authored by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and for Societies of Apostolic Life.

Beyond the World's Secularism

This new document throws light on the role of cloistered nuns and their value to the Church and the world, for all to see. It shows contemplative life for the signpost it is, pointing up and beyond the ozone layer of secularism that stifles, blinds and deafens our world.

Monasteries bring life to deserts and make pools of silence in cities. They are there for everyone. The hands of prayer lifted up from their sanctuaries, the cries of praise and jubilation rising from their choirs, are the hands and cries of Everyman, caught up in a surge of love to God.

The first section of Bride of the Word is a rich unfolding of the Church's vision of the contemplative life. Zeroing in on the essence of the life, which is separation from the world for the sake of total dedication to God, it shows its Gospel roots and the theological, spiritual and ascetical ramifications.

The nun's movement away from the world is more truly a movement toward the divine Bridegroom. By her enclosed life, Bride of the Word explains, the nun becomes a unique sign of the entire Christian community's call to intimate union with God. Cloistered 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.” These words capture the paradox of the life: withdrawal from the world for the sake of a union with God that includes a rediscovered union with the world embraced in God. Bride of the Word asks contemplative nuns “to remain at the wellspring of Trinitarian communion, [that is, the communion between the three divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit], dwelling at the very heart of the Church. … [Their] life thus becomes a mysterious source of apostolic fruitfulness and blessing for the Christian community and for the whole world.”

Beyond this paradox, part one of the document looks at other significant themes such as the contemplative nun's role in the local church, her concern for the sanctification of all the members of the Mystical Body, her part in the universal call to evangelization, and in achieving the Church's eschatological goal, which is definitive union with Christ her Bridegroom at the end of time or end of the world.

In the local church, a contemplative monastery represents what is most intimate to that church — its heart. It is “the place guarded by God; the dwelling place of his unique presence … where the thrice-holy God fills the entire space. … It may be compared to Moses who, in prayer, determined the fate of Israel's battles (cf. Exodus 17:11), or to the guard who keeps the night watch awaiting the dawn (cf. Isaiah 21:6).”

Fundamental Mission

The contribution of contemplative communities to the Church's mission of evangelization, ecumenism and the growth of the Kingdom in various cultures, is essentially spiritual. Bride of the Word quotes St. Thérèse of Lisieux's splendid intuition of this in the Story of a Soul: “I understood that the Church had a Heart,” she wrote, “and that this Heart was ablaze with love. I understood that Love alone enabled the Church's members to act. … Yes, I found my place in the Church … at the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love.”

For a monastery to carry on its fundamental mission of contemplative prayer, enclosure is indispensable. Bride of the Word moves on, therefore, in Part 2, to the updated norms.

Papal enclosure, so named because the rules governing it must be confirmed by the Holy See, is of obligation for monasteries of nuns devoted exclusively to the contemplative life. “Real separation from the world, silence and solitude, express and protect the integrity and identity of the wholly contemplative life,” the document explains.

“Enclosure” refers to the residence and to all areas, indoors and outdoors, that are reserved to the nuns. The means of separating these areas from the outside “must be physical and effective, not just symbolic or ‘neutral.’” A caveat is included here: “The participation of the faithful in the liturgy is not a reason for the nuns to leave the enclosure nor for the faithful to enter the nuns' choir.

Guests cannot be allowed to enter the monastery enclosure. … The law of enclosure entails a grave obligation of conscience both for the nuns and for outsiders.”

Who lives in the enclosure? Nuns, novices and postulants. Extern sisters, who are an essential part of the monastic community and serve as a link between the nuns and outsiders, also live within the enclosure. They may leave it, however, whenever their duties require. The superior of the monastery, that is, the prioress or abbess, is responsible for the maintenance of enclosure. She is the one to judge the advisability of entries and exits within the context of particular law.

The superior, sometimes consulting her chapter of council, allows entries and exits for ordinary reasons such as the maintenance of the monastery and the health and formation of the nuns. The Holy See may also authorize meetings of nuns belonging to the same contemplative institute within the same nation or region.

Use of Media

Concerning media, the Church's regulations for contemplatives are intended to safeguard the spirit of recollection and prayerful silence in the monastery. The media may be used with moderation and discretion as to content and the amount of time spent. “Radio and television can be permitted on particular occasions of a religious character. … With prudent discernment and for everyone's benefit, in accordance with the decisions of the conventual Chapter, the use of other modern means of communication, such as fax machines, cellular telephones or the Internet, may be permitted in the monastery, for the exchange of information or for reasons of work.”

In Part 3, Bride of the Word explains that the renewal of contemplative life within the Church today depends in large part on both individual and community formation. Ongoing formation should continue for the whole of a nun's life. This includes study of the Scriptures, the tradition of the Church Fathers, the documents of the Holy See, spirituality and theology.

Regarding relations with institutes of men, Bride of the Word, while safeguarding the effective self-rule of the monasteries, encourages their association with the male institute of their own religious family, if there is one. Such a sharing, with the nuns for their part preserving the solely contemplative dimension, can deepen the genuine spirit of a religious family.

In Part 4, the Church recognizes that associations and federations of monasteries can help to promote the values of the contemplative life of member monasteries by providing mutual support in the areas, for example, of formation, exchange of nuns, and financial assistance. Each member monastery in a federation retains its juridical autonomy.

For the uninitiated, and there are many in and outside of the Church, Bride of the Word should be an eye-opener. Its candid discussion of why there are monasteries at all, and what their role is, opens the field to everyone.

At the present writing the document has not yet been published in English in this country, but the complete document is available on the Internet. The Daughters of St. Paul plan to publish the English translation in September.

Pope John Paul II's words, quoted at the close of the instruction, are the best summary of the document: “As the Apostles gathered in prayer with Mary and the other women in the Upper Room, were filled with the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1, 14), so the community of the faithful hopes today to be able to experience, thanks also to your prayer, a renewed Pentecost for a more effective Gospel testimony on the threshold of the Third Millennium. … May the Mother of the Lord grant that from your monasteries a ray of that light which enveloped the world when the Word was made flesh and came to live among us should shine forth again!”

In more than 50 years of life within a contemplative enclosure, I have found an enormous sense of vastness and freedom. Inviting, invigorating, liberating. Our space is small — by the yardstick — about eight acres in all. But so is the lens of a telescope small. What we are focusing on is beyond the galaxies. So I am jubilantly grateful to the Church for Bride of the Word — both a reminder and a most certain trumpet blast.

Dominican Nun Mary Thomas Noble writes from her contemplative monastery in Buffalo, New York.