My regulars will recall that last summer I visited two cloistered communities: my beloved Dominicans and shockingly, the Cistercians. Unfortunately I didn't have NEARLY enough time with the Dominincans of Summit, NJ, although my time there was incredibly fruitful. And my weekend with the Cistercians has also borne fruit I could not have predicted nor understood without the luxury of time, prayer, and discernment.
In Summit, we discussed the nature of the cloister in response to the unbelieving world that would demand that those who answer a Call to such a life must be "running away". Sister gave me her own explanation, one that has carried through the ages and lives even today, for it is at the heart of any Vocation:
What does a married couple do when they are married? They steal away to be together, to enjoy each other, to be alone together, out of sight of the prying eyes of the world that cannot participate in such an intimate love.
So it is with a cloistered nun, who goes away into the garden with her Beloved Bridegroom, to be enclosed with Him, and there to bear spiritual fruit for the rest of the world. There they commune, but not just for themselves, for they, together, live sacrificially in order to benefit all who come to their doorstep...and all of those who don't.
I haven't read Corrie Ten Boom, although her works are well within my wish-list. Over our Christmas vacation I read "Interior Freedom" by Fr. Jacques Philippe, and he quotes her several times. For those who are unfamiliar with her, she was a Dutch Protestant woman imprisoned in a Nazi extermination camp, and there, she found true freedom.
Her insights, even through the lens of another, have helped me understand my own discernment more clearly, articulate it more coherently, and hopefully, to understand more perfectly what God may be calling ME to be.
I've never been one to question the "use" of cloistered life, but then, growing up Catholic,even without direct exposure to such an idea, the Saints never seemed to have a problem so why should any who chooses to follow in their footsteps? It never bothered me that St. Teresa of Avila or St. Therese of Lisieux was cloistered, and it was never a part of our family to question their "usefulness" especially considered we prayed for their help all the time. Who asks for the help of someone who has nothing to give?
It is only as an "enlightened" adult that I have come into the sphere of those so worldly they think of everything only in terms of "use", including marriage and children and the elderly. It is only through the limiting eyes of the "enlightened" that we must answer to the Divine Call of God, to those seeking utility, for the intensity of the discernment process itself rules out those seeking mere "escape". The religious life, and I daresay, the Priesthood, is a life lived intensely, and is far more real than ANYTHING we can find in the so-called "real" world.
Discerning a Vocation isn't a matter of mere emotional experience, or an ability to intellectually explain to oneself or others the reason and being for the mystery of God's personal invitation. Rather, it is a cohesive absorption of everything of God, surrender to Him and Him Alone, that allows any soul to find who they really are.
If you read the writings of those who have been imprisoned, especially unjustly, and even more especially those who are so for religious reasons, you are able to enter into their own transformation. Corrie Ten Boom and others have observed that after a time, they no longer recognize the walls of the prison that holds them, or the hardships that perhaps seek to destroy them.
Rather, they recognize a deep interior freedom, an interior cloister that belongs to God alone, and because of the prison walls, they find that they become who God intended them to be from Eternity, and see that all of those OUTSIDE the walls of that prison are the ones living a false life. It is only those within the walls that have any real freedom, for they are not held down by the distractions common to the modern man.
One of the biggest points brought home to me in my visits, especially to the Cistercians was this: Vocation is about becoming the fullness of WHO YOU ARE in relation to God! It is a life of such intensity that vices rise to the surface in order to be uprooted and eliminated and virtues are obtained in that process, such that the soul is constantly purged of what is false in order to live out what is Truth!
Sister spoke to me candidly about the benefit of being a later Vocation. She (and other Vocation Directresses with whom I've spoken) have noted that they don't accept younger vocations because, well...they are too scandalized by the reality of sin within the cloister....and within themselves.
Many Vocation Directresses I know have spoken of the fact that many younger women who sense a Call seem to have a sense that they have to be nearly a clone of a particular Saint. They enter religious life with a youthful expectation that, "If only I can be a perfect copy of St. Therese of Lisieux, I'll be fine." This attitude might go to such a degree that the girl will enter with the very mistaken impression that she already IS a Saint...only to come crashing down to reality within a couple weeks. She enters, at such a young age, with a sense of herself that does not bear on reality and finds that NO ONE she knows is exactly ready for a Cause for Canonization. Often these particular young women have grown up in somewhat insular families and groups, those who are very faithful and sincere but in their nature have actually brought them up in a world that is not really reality. Not even in the cloister.
The fact is that many who try to enter religious life seem to have a perception that since they are Called (or may be), they must already be very Saintly.
Not so much.
The reality is this: in the cloistered life, women realize quite profoundly how far they are, truly, from God, and some can't handle their reflection in that particular mirror. If they have no awareness of the reality of sin in the world, and more importantly IN THEMSELVES before they enter the cloister, It ends up being a terrible experience, can destroy a Vocation, and it can truly inhibit the real Call of that young woman/ young man!
It is often because of this unspoken reality that the Vocation Directresses and Mother Superiors often recommend a few years of life in the world, so as to enable exposure outside of a sheltered home life, not by way of "testing" a Vocation, but rather, by way of enabling it through a dose of reality that doesn't change once one enters the doors of the enclosure.
One of the things that Sister said to me, ironically, was that my own life of sin would actually AID me in the cloister, for I would not be shocked by the ongoing descent of humanity to new and interesting lows. I would not be shocked by my own propensity to sin.
Perhaps that was my biggest surprise last summer: that my very Vocation could be "softened" by the fact that sin does not scandalize me for I know the evils of the human heart...and have both perpetuated it and survived it in the extremes.
The main focus, in my visits, was that Vocation is about becoming who you ARE! If you are Hilda or Sarah or Michelle, then become fully Hilda and Sarah and Michelle! God didn't create ANY of us in a vacuum, but gave us EACH a particular personality, particular strengths, and calls us all to a personified spirituality so that we will NEVER become mere clones of the Saints who have gone before us!
Are we called to Sainthood? Absolutely!
Are we called to be CLONES?
AH, but the issue of sin STILL stymies many souls, for they think that if they but enter religious life, and more specifically, the cloister, their problems will be solved and they will become holiness incarnate.
If one thinks that sin ends at the Enclosure, one is living in a fantasy land.
There is no such thing as a "fantasy land" in religious life. Although one is free to leave, for only the exterior doors are locked, the interior is like the ongoing contemplation of virtue..that chosen, and that disregarded.
It is not a prison, for one enters a prison only by exterior force, and after a civil act of some sort. But no one can contain the interior freedom of a soul to know and love God, to engage in real life in spite of any exterior walls. In the case of a cloister, it is a chosen home, the castle of the Bridegroom, with the full freedom to remain or to leave, wherein the Bride chooses to accept her fulfillment, the unmerited gift of Vocation. She gives herself to the Bridegroom just as fully as He gives Himself to Her...through the Cross.
There is little in this world so beautiful as a soul so willing to die for love, so we have to wonder, in that statement, whether it refers to a woman for her Beloved...or for the Savior for the world?
They are one and the same. And we musn't confuse the two.