Poor Clares: "What a waste…"

“What a waste…”

You hear that from people, often, when they meet a handsome priest or a pretty nun, and even more often when they encounter monastic life. They either cannot believe that a life “apart” can be rich and meaningful or they believe (as one gent wrote me) that “women were made for bearing children and enriching the world through the family” and take issue with this sort of life – a life of prayer and separateness which has a long tradition in Christianity (predating Protestantism) and – although differently – in Buddhism. From a Christian perspective it’s pretty hard to ignore St. Paul, and his thoughts and appreciations of the distinctions between a vocation of marriage or of a life dedicated solely to God:

An unmarried woman or a virgin is anxious about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy in both body and spirit. A married woman, on the other hand, is anxious about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.

The Poor Clares in Galway, Ireland have a very comprehensive website that received over a million hits its first week out. They have a picture gallery, personal stories, various prayers, lots of FAQ‘s and so forth, and you can lose a very merry hour clicking around over there, which is not surprising since – in general – Poor Clares tend to think they have “A Right To Be Merry”.


(Poor Clare of Bethlehem Monastery, Barhamsville, VA)

Which, in fact, they do, as do we all. But a merry heart seems to be the particular hallmark of the Poor Clares, wherever you find them. In full disclosure, I was thisclose to becoming one, a long time ago, and so I have always had soft spot for these gals.

Getting back to the Irish Poor Clares, I like the musings of the father – visiting his daughter, Sr. Faustina, who has been enclosed for 13 years:

“The Poor Clares are hugely important to Galway, I think…after the doctors, the psychiatrists, the alcoholic counselors and everyone else has had their say, people end up at the door here, and seeking their prayer and consolation.” — Visiting Father of Sr. Faustina, who has been enclosed for 13 years.

(source)

I wouldn’t call that sort of life – one that offers prayer and consolation for the sake of the whole world – a wasted one at all. Here’s how the sisters, who St. Francis referred to as the “poor ladies” or “those Christian women”, describe their day:

Our day is centred on the Mass and Eucharistic Adoration, which is at the heart of our vocation. The community prays the Divine Office together seven times during the day. Again at midnight we rise to pray together and spend time in Adoration. This prayer is our most important “work”, around which our day revolves…

They rise at midnight to pray for us, for those who cannot or will not pray for themselves, or who – in those tempting hours of the night – are lost and trying to find themselves by the emptiest means.

Nuns have no holidays; imagine not having a full, uninterrupted night’s sleep, for the rest of your life!

The Poor Clares go barefoot or – when that is not practical, as in a cold, damp Irish climate – wear rough sandals. They eat no meat, and while they grow vegetables in their garden, they have a silly habit of growing even more flowers. They depend upon the kindness of benefactors for much of their proteins – milk, eggs, cheese – and if cabbage is all there is to eat of a day, then cabbage it is, for every meal. What moneys they make through altar breads and sewing (if they even offer such work, as this house does) usually goes fully toward the upkeep of the house.

We haven’t turned our backs on the world and its troubles, even if the opposite may appear to be the case. We believe that our prayers reach the deepest recesses of human suffering and draw down God’s grace.

Our withdrawal from the activities of the world is not a flight from the reality of suffering and the struggles of life but a place of encounter with them. Many people write to the monastery to share their problems and ask for prayers. As we struggle with our own difficulties in the light of God’s love, we feel a deep solidarity with them, believing that God can transform the most desperate situations.

It has been incredible to discover a deep inner freedom that lies in facing the reality of who we are – warts and all – and embracing every part of ourselves in the midst of a loving community. This can be hard but liberating as we continue to find an inner peace and joy that does not come from what we own, being in control, gaining approval, or following the latest trends. In appreciating and accepting the beauty and giftedness as well as the weakness and brokenness in ourselves and in each other we see the transforming power of God’s infinite and unconditional love in our lives.

Nah, I don’t see any “wasting” going on there. Seems pretty rich and full of meaning, to me.

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About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • dmd25

    I really enjoyed reading this! The personal stories were very interesting. Thank you for this entry!

  • Klaire

    Wow Anchoress, I never thought it was my business to ask, but always wondered if you had ever thought about being a nun. This, in addition to your recent retreat, sheds much clarity. I suspect that while God gave you the heart of a Poor Clare, he needed you in the world, perhaps to be that bridge to people like us who either could never imagine such a sacrificial life, or to be reassured, that somewhere in the world, in our darkest hours, “someone” is praying for us.

    I would even go so far as to suspect that your “vocation”, after wife and mother of course, is to be the “Poor Clare connecter” so to speak, to the outside world. In fact, I believe your retreat proved that, in that it was, in a sense, at least to me, like a “virtual monastery.” You were indeed the “foundress”, but also, wise and humble enough to “let God be God”, and bring in anything you may have lacked, i.e., your wonderful contributors. I think that is why your retreat was so “complete” for lack of a better word.

    Yesterday on Catholic Answerers I was listening to Rosalind Moss (soon to be Mother Mariam come this Friday when they take vestments). She was answering a caller regarding the plethora of applicants, from teenagers to the 80 year old women. Rosalind said she preferred the older women because they brought with them life experiences, many of whom were repentant sinners who learned from their mistakes. Soon they will be out walking the streets of St. Louis, in full habit, being the “light of hope” for all who live in darkness.

    [...edited because your very kind comments seemed to me like way too much praise for public consumption, Klaire, what an egoist you'll make me! I thank you, and boy, I wish I had more info on Moss' investiture this week! - admin]

  • kuvasz

    Dear Miss A,

    As Lutherans consider Augustine the first Protestant, I am not so sure about th sisterhood predating it. :-)

    Regards,
    Sarah

    [ Sarah - some Catholics consider Anna, the woman who prayed day and night in the Temple - to be the first monastic woman! ;-) But if she doesn't count, there were the Desert Mothers and St. Thecla, who lived during Paul's lifetime and had maidens living with her in a desert cave, praying and healing. ]

  • DWiss

    “From a Christian perspective…”, yes, that’s exactly the point. A Christian perspective should change our outlook on everything, turn our upside down world right side up. Is that what it really means to be born again, to have that new, radically different view of things? If so, the Poor Clares have got it right. What if we all ordered our lives around the Mass and the Eucharist? His kingdom would come, and His will would be done on earth, as it is in heaven.

    I heard Rosalind Moss yesterday, too. She said her nuns will walk the streets of St. Louis meeting people who are waiting for God to come into their lives. What a new perspective! That’s humbling. Maybe I need a new career.

  • Joseph

    In an overwhelmingly secular culture, people are often deceived into believing that the ephemeral is the eternal, not knowing that ephemeral is, in fact, the prime reason we on the outside are largely not merry in the least.

    Of all the Catholic monastics you have written about these ladies are the closest I have read to the intense 3 year lama training retreats of my own, Tibetan, Buddhist tradition, amazingly so, in fact. The dietary vows, for example, are extremely close, with our Sojong or novice vows only going further to exclude garlic and onions.

    The timing of the prayer cycles are slightly different and I suspect our liturgies are longer: four times a day starting at 3:30 in the morning. These prayers are also dedicated to the welfare of the world. Because of the short length of time, the intervening hours are almost exclusively dedicated to hearing teachings and doing very intense private prayer.

    At the end, the retreatants make a decision whether or not to stay in group retreats, go solitary for a set number of years, or return to the world–and, with any of these alternatives, whether or not to take full monastic vows.

    Two of our local Buddhist group are going in for this, our latest such retreat–and one has just come out from the last. The abbot and retreat master is finally confident enough about Americans for this one to be totally silent except for the prayers.

    All who do such things, whether Buddhist or Christian, are the true warriors of the world, and it is our belief that to even aspire to do that, as you have done [and I also], generates incalculable benefit for both oneself and the world. Even merely to read and hear about it does so.

    Your own retreat was tremendous to attend, and I cannot but praise you for the many times you have given us all glimpses into the Catholic contemplative tradition, thereby benefiting all who read and all whom they pray for as well.

    [Thanks, Joseph - very enlightening and interesting info - admin]

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