Thursday, September 04, 2008

What Are Contemplatives All About?

The Apostolic Work of Prayer

So many people, including Catholics, have no image in their random access memory to attach to the words contemplative life, monastery or cloister. Such images have faded from the radar screen of our culture. There was a time when you could mention Carmelites, St. Therese of Lisieux or Teresa of Avila to help people focus the lens of association. Those words draw blanks now. People ask, “So what work to you do?” And you know they don’t get it.

Then I explain that the life of contemplative nuns is enclosed (confined to the monastery) in service to the apostolic work of prayer; communal prayer in the regular recitation or singing of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) and daily private prayer. Such concentration requires that we stay close to home. Our enclosure is no longer the ancient protection against invaders, nor a necessary shield from any violation of precious virginity. It is not a barrier preventing contamination from things and people of the world. Enclosure is rather a withdrawal to the center, enabling constant focus on the monastic search for God. This is the ambiance of recollection. It is the means by which we can maintain silence and solitude and attain the interior peace and grace for prayer and the spiritual journey. Our enclosure is permeable; the door to the monastery swings to open wide to those who wish to experience, in one way or another, this way of life with God. We walk out through the door to satisfy the practical needs of our lives and to educate ourselves in ways essential for personal, communal, and spiritual development and support. But the work of prayer constantly recalls us to the center, to a constant striving for greater intimacy with God and fidelity to our vows.

Monasteries of contemplative nuns invariably become the nexus for expression of human needs and desires before the throne of God. In our daily prayer we give special voice to the needs, ministries and protection of our Redemptorist brothers, members of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, with whom we have a special relationship. These days we are praying for the political process working its way in our country, that the wisdom of the Holy Spirit will be poured out upon those seeking to serve and that the “better angels of our nature” will prevail. We are praying for a wide variety of global human needs; for peace and justice, for refugees and those enduring violence of man or nature, for undocumented immigrants, for the poor and the homeless, the addicted and depressed. The list is very long. We also pray for Zachary, a six year old, dealing with treatment for leukemia; for Christine struggling to hold on to her unborn twins until they are mature enough to enter this world; for Riley Jo born very prematurely, now only thirteen inches long and fighting for survival; for friends enduring chemotherapy; for those suffering with depression and other psychological illnesses. This list too is long.

Never far from the prayer of petition is a song of praise in the melody of gratitude. It begs a voice at the sight of rolling hills and flowing river; in realization of the gift of one’s own life and the gift of lives constantly intertwined with mine; in appreciation of gifts received and the ability to use them for good; in gratitude for faith, for the call to religious life and for the gift of community. Such is the blessed context of our prayer.

Much of my own prayer is a conscious coming into the presence of God carrying these prayers and praises and many more; of sitting with them in the sight of God and begging God’s mercy and care. And finally, asking for the grace to accept God’s will in all things.


Barbara said...

Funny how your words touch me today as I emerge from a period of depression and begin to formulate my life as a retired person. Thank you.

dina said...

Wish I could memorize this post, so beautifully said. Often I am asked to explain my several years living as a volunteer at a contemplative monastic community. People, especially my fellow Jews, don't have a clue and still don't get it after I try to explain. Almost everyone keeps coming back to the question, "So what do the sisters DO all day?"
I wish every person could have at least a month in a monastery.

Sr. Hildegard said...

Many thanks, Dina. This is too much of a leap for most people, especially in our fragmented, noise permeated, action oriented society. So glad you had the opportunity to live it. You carry it with you. It shows. Peace

Dina said...

Thank you for your observation in the comment. I am glad it shows.
Reminds me of a saying in the Talmud of how, ideally, a person should be: "Tocho kevaro," literally, his inside is like his outside.