Members of one of the strictest religious orders in existence, Poor Clare Colettine nuns make a vow of enclosure and seek anonymity. The nuns embody their faith in monastic customs, which take years to learn since the nuns observe monastic silence: When a nun passes her religious sister in the monastery’s corridors, each bows her head – an acknowledgement of the other nun and the other nun’s guardian angel. The elected vicaress, Sister Maria Deo Gratias, told me it would not be courteous to greet one and not the other. In a similar way, this long-term project that led to Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns has resulted from my desire to acknowledge what cannot be seen.
As elected Novice Mistress at the Corpus Christi Monastery, Sister Mary Nicolette is responsible for overseeing the training and formation of postulants and novices; she buffers young women from a cultural clash. Sister Mary Nicolette helps women make the transition from the outside world; she was nominated and then voted into the position because the other nuns recognize she is uniquely situated, as one of the younger members, to under- stand the current challenges of adapting to monastic life, and to relate to the young women. “The monastic culture is a culture of itself, of its own. Of its own,” Sister Mary Nicolette says.”So while we have many different sisters coming from different cultures, we all learn the monastic culture when we come.” To this end, Sister Mary Nicolette says an aspiring nun must shed presuppositions and routines, in order to arrive at the monastery with an open disposition to relearn even the simplest of tasks.”When they come we explain to them that you’re relearning everything and you just have to be very humble, you know, and willing to listen,” Sister Mary Nicolette says. “And teachable. Be very teachable.”
Each member of the cultural time capsule that is the cloistered monastery is a product of her upbringing, her familial context, and her geographic framework. Within the enclosure, novices and postulants are integrated gradually into the rest of the community, as required by canon law; they reside in a separate wing from the cells of the professed nuns who have made temporary and permanent vows (typically three and six years, respectively, after entering). Today, the contrast between mainstream culture and the cloistered monastery is so stark, and departure from the world outside to the ancient rules so radical, that novices are given more time than they were given in past decades — one extra year before making final vows — so that they can adapt to monastic life. This steady and gradual immersion is intended to allow them adequate time to discern if they truly are called and to learn if they can adapt to the deliberate environment of unceasing prayer.
“You’re just so used to functioning in a normal way,” Sister Mary Nicolette says. “Eighteen is the youngest a woman would come. But already, at eighteen, nineteen, twenty, you’re used to functioning a certain way. Usually, the younger women find it easier to adapt because they’re not as set in their ways as an older woman would be, perhaps, who’s had a career and a home. But still, at that age, it’s like, ‘Hold on!’ You know?”
They say only what is necessary, in a low tone, in order to complete a task, and ask another nun to step out into the hall for the conversation so as not to disturb anyone else in the room. Anything a nun says must serve a purpose; otherwise she must refrain from talking (except during the daily evening recreation, when they are allowed to socialize). “Obviously, some- times we slip,” Sister Mary Nicolette says, “but it’s a discipline that we try to cultivate and foster, and it’s a learning process because when you first come, you’re not used to that. So the novitiate is good for that.”
As a novice, Sister Maria Benedicta describes the process of integrat- ing into the monastic community as “a time of orientation and learning.” “It’s really kind of unraveling for everybody,” she says. One evening as a postulant, Sister Maria Benedicta took her assigned seat next to her Novice Mistress for collation. When the dish of potatoes was passed, two portions remained — a full potato and half of a potato. Sister Mary Nicolette told her, “You may take a full potato.” She was not hungry enough to eat a full potato, though, and thought, “I may, but I may not.” She served herself the half-potato. “And then I realized, I think ‘may’ actually meant, ‘Take the full potato,’ ” she says. “It was like, ‘whoops!’ You realize what this really means is, I need to give my full consent, but I need to take a full potato. Even though you have the fundamental attitude that I’m coming to do God’s will, it’s really in the small things. Talk about countercultural from independence and doing things your way, to say, ‘Okay, I’ll eat a full potato.’ “
Any domestic idiosyncrasies Sister Maria Benedicta possessed when she entered the enclosure have been undone during her tenure.She has relearned how to make her bed the monastic way, folding the blankets lengthwise in thirds — a symbol of the Trinity and also a practical measure that keeps the blankets from dragging off the low beds, sweeping against the floor, and getting dusty. She has relearned, too, how to hang the laundry outdoors with her Novice Mistress silently, crisscrossing the courtyard in sync; how to clean her plate with her bread, then wash her dishes in a tub on the rolling cart in the center of the refectory, and then replace her dishes in the drawer at her assigned place at the table. “It’s like, I thought I knew how to do dishes,” she says, remembering her first impressions of the monastery. “But it’s like you don’t even know how to do dishes anymore! You don’t know where anything goes, you don’t know how anything is done. We have a very systematic way and it goes very smoothly, you know. But it’s like every aspect of your life you’re relearning and it’s like, ‘Wow, you know.’ And at first, it’s really like, ‘How do we do dishes again?’ Everything in your day is like this: ‘How do we do this? How do we eat? What’s the ritual for eating?’ You take out your plate at a certain time. You know, it’s very, very different.”
Through the daily upheaval to her own habits, Sister Maria Benedicta slowly became familiar with the monastic customs. She drew consolation by reframing her foibles within the grander schema. “We know it’s between us and God,” she says. “In Scripture, it says, ‘Man looks at appearances, but God looks at the heart.’ That’s very comforting. I can be messing everything up, I can be doing everything wrong, but trying to do what God wants, and He’s pleased with us. And that’s very freeing. He doesn’t ask us to be these perfect beings all the time. Yes, we try, but He looks in the heart and He knows that we’re trying. That’s all we have to do. It’s so simple to live for Him.”
In this built and controlled environment, twenty women with varied experiences and personalities attempt to undertake radical lives. “If you really have the call, you won’t feel hedged in,” Sister Maria Deo Gratias says. “If you don’t have the call, then the rules are burdensome. But, really, the rules are just a loving response to the Lord who called us to the life, and so there have to be some guidelines. That’s what the rules are. And there have to be some challenges of, okay, you said ‘yes’ to God, you said you would give yourself to God, so there has to be something to give.” Until making solemn vows, a nun can petition the community to leave the monastery.
Reprinted from Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns by Abbie Reese. © Abbie Reese 2014