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The call of the cloister

Monastery of Our Lady of Grace

Photo Courtesy of the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace

Gretchen Erlichman - published on 05/19/21

A young woman's discernment of a vocation as a contemplative Dominican nun.

Three years ago, if someone had suggested I enter a monastery, I would have laughed politely and continued to pursue the neat little plan I had set up for my life: I was dating a great guy, working toward a PhD, and pursuing my career. And, yet, here I am, just months away from entering a monastery.

Over the course of these three years, my thoughts on the matter have obviously changed, as it gradually became clear to me that God had plans other than the ones I had meticulously mapped out. I quickly realized that I didn’t stand a chance trying to do otherwise.

But what exactly did I get myself into? 

When people think about religious life, they often think first of active religious life. In schools, hospitals, and homeless shelters, active religious sisters give their lives in service to God and the Church. I must admit, I find such a way of life to be an attractive gift of self. However,as beautiful as the life of an active religious is, I have felt an undeniable pull toward the hidden life of a contemplative nun.

Beyond the pious talk of hidden holiness, not long ago I had very little idea about what nuns actually do. Life in the monastery was a mystery to me. So, like a true millennial, I read countless articles, watched far too many YouTube videos, and scoured innumerable monastery websites to gather as much information as possible. To my dismay, I soon discovered that the only way I could move forward in the process of discernment was to actually contact a monastery. And so, I held my breath and clicked “send” on the inquiry email I wrote to the novice mistress at the monastery. She wrote back and we scheduled a phone call.

During our conversation, each detail that the novice mistress shared about monastic life stirred within me a further sense that God might be calling me to pursue a vocation as a contemplative Dominican nun. The idea of walking through the door of the monastery and staying there for the rest of my life was intimidating, but I felt that I could do nothing other than continue to explore this particular way of life. 

Last summer I spent a month living life alongside the nuns within the cloister, experiencing life in the monastery. There is a lot of prayer. But what I found was not my preconceived notion of veiled, motionless figures spending all day on their knees in prayer. Nuns are far more than just shadows behind the grille.

Each day began in the early hours of the morning with the sound of the bell. Profound silence was broken by the chanting of the psalms for Lauds, which is the first of the seven Hours of the Divine Office chanted by the community. The daily routine was shaped by participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Divine Office, and Eucharistic Adoration.

And yet, though they do spend a lot of time in the chapel, I learned that a nun’s life is not restricted to formal prayer; every facetof her life, big or small, becomes an offering to God. Even the more mundane tasks of the day, such as cooking, cleaning, and weeding the garden, became opportunities for recollection.

I also adopted some of the community’s penitential practices, such as eating simple meals and sleeping on a thin, narrow mattress. I devoted two hours each day to private prayer, lectio divina, or spiritual reading, and an additional hour to the study of Scripture and theology, an essential part of a specifically Dominican vocation. The day closed with Compline followed by the chanting of the Salve Regina, which placed all the work of the day under the protection of the Blessed Mother.

I can’t deny that, after what seemed like far too long of a day, I was absolutely exhausted. And I had never been happier. Honestly, I can’t quite put it into words. It is beyond me why I find it so desirable to leave everything I know behind for such a simple, structured life. All I can say is that I was captivated. So, I requested to enter into formation and was accepted as a postulant with the contemplative Dominican nuns of the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace in North Guilford, Connecticut.

Despite my enthusiasm, there remained a challenging question: As beautiful and attractive as I found monastic life to be, how in the world would it be possible for me to live this way? How am I going to stay in the same building, with the same community, and follow the same schedule for the rest of my life?

The answer? Grace. It is only by grace that I will be able to make the difficult transition from a life “in the world” to a “hidden life” within the walls of the monastery. And truth be told, I’m still not quite sure what it really is to live a contemplative life. By God’s grace, I hope I’ll eventually learn a thing or two; I’ll let you know when I see you in heaven.

So, on July 22, 2021 — the feast of St. Mary Magdalene — I will walk through the doors of the cloister and begin my new life. I will trade in my jeans and sneakers for a plain blue postulant jumper and a short blue veil. I will “put away the old self … and put on the new self” (Eph.4:22-24). Newly clothed as a postulant, I will enter the chapter hall, where I will greet my new sisters in St. Dominic as they chant Psalm 122: “Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord.”

Then, I will enter the chapel to pray Vespers and, as I genuflect before Our Lord, I will gaze upon Him in the monstrance: “My heart is ready, O God; my heart is ready” (Psalm 57). It is at that moment that I will know that I have begun to answer the call — the call of the cloister.

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