Into the mystic, the movie

417017662 21a55631b3 oIf a producer wanted to make a movie of a day in the life of the Carmelite nuns, he or she could do worse than reading a recent story about them in The Washington Post. Reporter Michael E. Ruane’s article captured the spirit of the contemplative order’s daily rhythms:

In the dark of the early morning, a Roman Catholic nun in a brown tunic and black veil stepped from her cabin and walked to a nearby bell tower.

She rang two bells, calling her sisters to Christmas Eve prayer. Across the complex, other nuns emerged from their hermitages in the woods and gathered in a small chapel. From there, the 10 women embarked on a procession along pathways lit by the full moon, singing as they walked:

Sisters, Arise! Away with your sadness,

With love your hearts adorn;

All the Earth is full of gladness

Slumber not this happy morn.

Singing, praying, chanting — Ruane’s description will be familiar to anyone who has read a book about, prayed with, or spent time with members of a cloistered Catholic religious order.

It can be an impressive experience. I once spent a month in a Benedictine monastery, and I cannot remember a newspaper reporter better describing what being inside this type of monastery actually feels like.

That said, I think that Ruane’s story was incomplete in the way that movies often are. It lacked sufficient explanation.

The most glaring lack of explanation was about the purpose of the Carmelite order. What is the mission of the Carmelites? What is it about the Carmelites, as opposed to other religious orders, that attracted these women? Were they inspired by Saint Therese of Lisieux or Saint Teresa of Avila, the best-known Carmelite nuns?

From Ruane’s account, readers got the impression that the Carmelite sisters joined to escape the materialism and spiritual congestion of post-industrial America. As one nun remarks:

“I had everything life could offer,” said Sister Marie Bernardina, who grew up in Bowie and worked for the government before she came to the monastery 17 years ago. “I had money. I had friends. … I had a car. I had boyfriends. I just wasn’t happy. I had a good job. I had no debts. I just was searching for more meaning in my life.”

She is 42 now.

A memorable quote, but it fails to explain why Sister Marie joined the Carmelites.

To be sure, Ruane does quote from the monastery’s prioress about the Carmelites’ goal being to pray better to God. Yet he neglects to point out that, to quote Tim Watkins, an old religious studies teacher of mine, monks and cloistered nuns are “spiritual superstars.” Their vocation is to pray unceasingly so that people might go to heaven. As the order’s own website declares:

As the heart is enclosed in the body and hidden from public view, so are contemplatives within the Church. The heart performs a vital function — pumping blood to the other parts, even though it is not seen. The hand or foot are readily seen carrying out their works; but the heart works best when left alone, enclosed and hidden from view to do its work. The life of prayer and sacrifice is indeed the life-blood of the Church.

I don’t mean to be overly critical of Ruane’s story. He clearly spent a lot of time with a cloistered religious community, which is something that more religion reporters should do. But I think that his story would have benefited from using more of the reporter’s bag of tricks and not just those of the screenwriter’s.

There is that old journalism formula: Who, what, when, where, why and how. The “why” matters, too.

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  • Eric Chaffee

    Thanks, Mark –

    Your inclusion of the quote from the order’s website truly enhanced the piece. Pity that the reporter hadn’t used it. It was very refreshing.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Thanks for the lead to this story. I do a benediction service once a month for a monastery of strictly enclosed Carmelite nuns. This story has some good lines which can be used for part of the meditation time before the Blessed Sacrament, plus I think the nuns will like to see the story.
    Monasticism started in Middle Eastern deserts outside Christian city centers over 1600 or so years ago. The monks were fleeing growing decadence–even among those who purported to be Christian. Some of the history books of those early years of monasticism make fascinating reading.
    Much of the same dynamic seems to be at work today as the stricter and more contemplative of the Catholic religious orders seem to be drawing the most vocations. The trouble is that while these new or stricter Catholic orders are slowly gaining footholds–the older, more modernized (decadent???) Catholic religious orders are crumbling ever faster each day.

  • Julia

    Were they inspired by Saint Therese of Lisieux or Saint Teresa of Avila, the best-known Carmelite nuns?

    That’s a great question. Teresa was the feisty child of a Jewish converso who fled Toledo for Avila in the hinterlands and was herself harassed by the Inquisition. She scandalized 1500s Spain by travelling about the country alone on a mule seeing to the new convents she was founding. She was the mentor of St John of the Cross at a time when women were supposed to keep quiet and never instruct men. Author Cathleen Medwick (a former editor at Vogue, Vanity Fair and Mirabella)and not a Christian much less a Catholic, wrote an intriguing biography of Teresa that puts the usual drippy hagiography to shame. Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul available in paperback. Ms Medwick who is now an editor for Oprah’s magazine spent 20 years studying the fascinating Teresa of Avila and working to present her as an interesting historical figure.

    On the other hand, Therese of 1800s France, died very, very young of TB and never left her convent. Whereas Teresa could be played well by Ingrid Bergman or Kathryn Hepburn, Therese would require Natalie Portman or Pier Angeli. Her claim to fame is her “little way” – aiming to do the everyday things of life well as a form of prayer. Therese is known as the “Little Flower”, a term that nobody would dream of tacking on to Teresa.

    An interesting comparison of the two saints was made by another non-religious person – Vita Sackville-West, the lover of Virginia Woolf, called THE EAGLE AND THE DOVE; A STUDY IN CONTRASTS, ST TERESA OF AVILA, ST THERESE OF LISIEUX. It’s out of print and I got my copy from a bookseller in New Zealand, but it’s worth a look if your library has it.

    It certainly would be interesting to know which of these Carmelites inspired the nuns who were interviewed.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    About St. Teresa traveling around a lot–Great saints have a great sense of humor (or at least live with great joy) and one of the most commonly told tales about saintly humor is the one about what St. Teresa of Avila said when one day,when after some tough traveling, she was dumped by her donkey unceremeoniously in a muddy stream. Her comment: “Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”

  • Bosco Peters

    Thanks so much for this article, for pointing to the original, and for the moving photograph.
    On my Spirituality and Liturgy website I draw from my fascination for the Carthusians, providing photographs and reflections on bringing insights from their lifestyle to outside the walls.
    Enclosed orders are of value in and of themselves – and they also have much to teach us – those of us not enclosed.