If 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.