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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Juxtaposition of Cloister and Prison

I've been seriously discerning the contemplative life, which often (although not always) translates to entering a cloistered community.

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:

A Garden Enclosed:

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.

The Interior Cloister 

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.

Surrender to God

 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.

Vainglory and Vanity

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.


Anna said...

Adoro great post on contemplative life. Corrie Ten Boom is a wonderful example of strength and prayer in adversity. One small correction: Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Protestant who helped shelter Jews and smuggle them out of Holland, which is why she got put into concentration camp. At one stage she was in solitary confinement and someone smuggled her miniature copies of the Gospels which she learned by heart.

Gabriella said...

"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" ...

How beautiful! What a heavenly description! :)

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for this. It's just what I need this morning. See how Providence makes use of us?

If you really want a mind-blowing experience in reflecting on cloisters and prisons, read Michel Foucault.

Jeanne said...

Great post! I loved the analogy of the bridegroom. When I try to explain to non-Catholic friends why people chose the religious life, they never 'get it' until I make a few analogies to marriage...then they sort of get it!

And do read "The Hiding Place" by Corrie ten Boom. I can't recommend it highly enough. I read my copy so many times it fell apart. There is a story in which her sister reminds her to put into practice the words of St Paul "give thanks in everything" and she is horrified. Give thanks for fleas, lice and a concentration camp? Read that story - it's really a testament to God's grace and mercy in the midst of human cruelty.

Adoro said...

Anna ~ Oops! As I read your comment I realize I DID know that, but for some reason my brain wouldn't make that connection last night when I wrote this! LOL! Quickly going to correct that section. Thanks!

Gabriella ~ I have found that description to be helpful, too, in explaining it to others, especially those who so question such life. So glad Sister gave me that explanation!

Fr. Charles ~ Hmmm....I'll look him up. Thanks!

Jeanne ~ Oh, it's on my list, maybe when I finally get done with Grad school!

Mandrivnyk said...

What an excellent post, Adoro, and just what I nearly always need to hear. Not necessarily in the context of vocation - there's a complicated question if I ever saw one, but I'm prone to almost *constantly* thinking things like "God couldn't possibly call me to ‘X’ because I'm far too wicked," right down to questioning why He would even want me to begin with. Pride is such a wretched thing.

Warren said...

In the Liturgy of the Hours, in the "office for one or more virgins", the common texts used when a cloistered female religious' feast day is observed, we are often asked to consider this woman's life, in the words of Scripture, which clearly establishes the values, and venerates the ideals, that those who seek the Cloistered life are seeking.

I particularly see the "maiden companions", and their love of their Lady (Wisdom, if we are to stick with old-testament analogies, we can speak of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom) and their King (God), in this Royal Psalm (Psalm 45) as an apt scriptural analogue of the love of the Holy Christian Women
who have left the world, in order to serve, love, and enjoy God alone:

"From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad; daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor; at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir. Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father's house; and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him; the people of Tyre will sue your favor with gifts, the richest of the people with all kinds of wealth. The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; in many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions, her escort, in her train. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king. Instead of your fathers shall be your sons; you will make them princes in all the earth. I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations; therefore the peoples will praise you for ever and ever."


Angela M. said...

Corrie ten Boom was instrumental in helping me become a Magisterium adhering Catholic! If you can't get the book I will send you mine!
You can hear her speak on youtube as well.

I have heard that the cloister is a microcosm of the world and that sins are magnified there. I believe it.

Laura The Crazy Mama said...

I read The Hiding Place to my daughters and cry every time. It's so beautiful.

I remember when I was around 9 or 10 years old and we went to the final vows of a sister at the convent where my aunt had gone to school and had become a sister herself. We got to stay, overnight, in the convent and I remember such a warm feeling of safety and peace that I had never known (nor have felt since) even though it was dorm-y, kind of cold, and sparsly decorated. This convent is now mostly full of older, retired sisters and is no longer really very lively, but I can see the draw of the contemplative life and I'm pretty sure this experience made me really desire NOT to get married or have children...God chose to show me a different way, but I still remember that feeling and I don't wonder why anyone would choose that sort of life because of it.

Adoro said...

Warren ~ That particular psalm is found, as you know, not just in the section you cite, and it means the same thing to ACTIVE Sisters as well! :-)

Ever since my Mariology class it's so cool to read them so I can see the double meaning of consecration as a Bride of Christ AND the personification of Mary found within. :-)

Angela ~ I'm sure I can get the book, but getting the time to read it? Not so much. Not until at least mid-May. Maybe later. It's been on my "must-read" list for a very long time.

Laura ~ LOL...God showed you a different way because He called you differently! Too many people choose their Vocations based on mere "feeling", so glad you didn't do that!

One thing I've learned from my convent/monastery visits: if it was about "feeling" I wouldn't still be discerning. I'd have run away, far away, last summer!

nazareth priest said...

Being "set apart" can be in married sacramental life, consecrated celibacy, apostolic religious life, or the contemplative cloistered life.
God is the origin of all vocations.
He calls; we answer.
Externals can be important to symbolize what commitment we make:
the wedding rings of the married; the solitude of those called to celibacy in the world; the cloister of a religious, apostolic or contemplative.
But is is Jesus, only Jesus, Who makes these symbols and realities true and full of divine life.
Bless you on your road of discernment!

Adoro said...

Thank you, Father.