What was your first experience of monastic life? How did you come to experience a pull toward the cloister?
I was over in Krakow in 2008, studying Catholic social teaching with the Polish Dominican friars. A marvelous experience! Far more decisive than anything I learned in the lectures or discussed over pierogies, however, was an excursion we took one Sunday to the Dominican Monastery of St. Anne. At that point, I’d been quietly discerning a vocation for several years, but somehow hadn’t known that the cloistered life was still alive and vibrant in the family of St. Dominic.
Yet here we were, young people of the third millennium, peering through an iron grille at women clad in a medieval habit—and, most surprising of all, they weren’t so different from ourselves. One young nun spoke English and served as our interpreter, though the laughter of the evening needed no translation. The nuns were happy! It was then that the little seed of my cloistered vocation stirred to life. Behind that grille was a foreign land, a mystery of faith. But the glimpse I’d had told me that theirs was a beautiful life, hidden with Christ in God.
What has surprised you most about life in a monastery? Are there any disappointments?
Before I entered the monastery, a few of my siblings charitably pointed out (as only siblings can) that I hadn’t reached the level of holiness expected of angels, saints, and cloistered nuns. The Little Flower—not quite! About this latter point, I had to admit they were right. But, I remember adding, that is usually why God calls men and women to such a radical way of life. In the words of the ancient monks, the monastery is a “school of charity” for those who need extra help along the way.
Seven years have now passed—the number of perfection—and long enough, I would have thought, to have made some good progress toward perfection. Yet I find myself still very much a beginner, asking the Lord each morning to give my soul its daily bread, to teach me how to pray. But here is the amazing thing: We may be tempted to give up on ourselves, but God doesn’t give up on us. After all, as St. Paul says, His power is made perfect in weakness. The mercy of our Father knows no bounds.
By and large, millennials put a premium on education. Millennial women especially are entering and finishing college in record numbers. While there are no formal academics in the monastery, as a Dominican nun you dedicate your life to study. How have you found the cloister to cultivate the life of the mind?
Study is a form of worship. When I first heard this as a postulant, I was delighted but a little perplexed. You see, in the world I had studied for pleasure or for work, and usually the two overlapped. When I came through the enclosure door, however, I left formal academics and public discourse largely behind. Yet, as a Dominican nun, I didn’t give up study—just the opposite. I read and write now not only because I love to learn, but because I love God, and I want to know Him more and more. I want to understand, as deeply as I am able, the divine word proclaimed in the liturgy and encountered in lectio divina. I want to ponder, like Mary, the mysteries of the Faith; to taste, in however small a way, the truth and goodness and beauty of the Lord. Thus study is truly a form of worship, leading the human person into deeper communion with God.
As a Dominican nun, I have the privilege of giving special focus to this aspect of Christian discipleship. During a woman’s early years in the monastery, there are formation classes taught by other sisters in the community and sometimes various friars. With that stage complete, I am now taking part in a cycle of correspondence courses, designed especially for young nuns of the Order. It is wonderful! But study won’t end there. All our lives we are committed to seeking the truth, Veritas. In this way, we learn to love God as He Himself asks: not only with all our heart, but also with all our mind. Put simply, knowledge and love go together!
St. Thomas Aquinas said that while it is good to contemplate alone, it is better to share the fruits of one’s contemplation with others. How does the cloistered nun “let her light shine” in this way? Does your life provide some utilitarian benefit to the world, or is the benefit it provides of another kind?
Cloistered nuns in the Order of Preachers—isn’t that a contradiction? Not for St. Dominic, and not for the Church today either. All bodies need hearts, and that is what contemplative nuns are called to be—Love, as St. Thérèse put it, at the heart of the Church. And so we pray not just for ourselves but for all those who are in need of God’s mercy. Our world is so thirsty! We offer our prayer in a special way for those to whom our brothers will preach, that they may be open to the word of God. In this way, we truly live out the ideal of the Order: “To contemplate, and to share the fruits of contemplation.”
“Sister Preacheresses,” the first Dominican nuns were called—founded even before the friars! Besides supporting St. Dominic and the later brethren through prayer and penance, the nuns “preached” through the witness of their lives dedicated to the worship of God. We still do today. In psalms and hymns and all we do, we sing both to God and about God, proclaiming that He is, and that His love is worth our lives—indeed, that His love is what gives us life.
An image from the prophet Baruch expresses well, I think, this mystery of contemplative preaching: The stars at their posts shine and rejoice; when He calls them, they answer, “Here we are!” shining with joy for their Maker. Such is our God; no other is to be compared to Him. (Bar 3:34-36)
By high percentages millennials claim to be spiritual persons, but by similarly high percentages they claim to be distrustful of religion. You’ve dedicated your life to perfecting the virtue of religion. What have you learned in the monastery that might assuage the fears of your fellow millennials concerning religion?
True spirituality is inseparable from true religion. Think about it this way: Outward conformity to a litany of commands doesn’t make people happy. It is transformation of our spirit that we desire—harmony within ourselves, harmony with each other, harmony with God. But how? How can we achieve lasting peace with our neighbors, much less friendship with One who is so totally “other”? The answer is simple: We can’t! God, however, can, and that is what He does, sending His Son and His Spirit to draw us to Himself. Religion is thus not a burden but a gift, the Jacob’s ladder, as it were, by which God comes down to us and leads us back to Him.
As a contemplative nun, I experience this gift with special intensity. Just imagine living with ten or twenty very different women, cloistered for life. Impossible!—were Christ not present at the heart of our home, guiding us, teaching us, loving us, forgiving us. The grace of His word and of His sacraments is real, and it is powerful indeed!
What is the one thing that you would like your fellow millennials to know about monastic life?
I’ll answer in the words of Pope Benedict XVI. They ring true for monastic life, but also, I believe, for any Christian life lived in joyful fidelity and self-giving love: If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful, and great….Be completely convinced of this: Christ takes nothing that is beautiful and great, but brings everything to perfection for the glory of God, the happiness of men and women, and the salvation of the world.
How would you encourage your contemporaries to find in Jesus Christ the satisfaction of their deepest desires?
Pope Benedict said it above: Let Christ into your life! Or, in the words of St. John Paul II, “Open wide the doors of your heart to Christ!” Go before the Lord in silence, with empty hands and a thirsty heart. Take some time each week—each day if possible—to be still in His presence, especially His presence in the Eucharist. Bring Him your pain and your poverty, your doubts and fears, your desires and your joy. Listen to Him. Then follow where He leads, confident that true happiness is found, now and for eternity, in friendship with Jesus Christ.