What were you doing when you discovered your call to monastic life?
“Growing up” would capture it, I think. When I was around 11 years old, my mother had us spend half an hour every day reading the Bible. Over time, I clearly heard in Scripture the call God extends to every human person: the invitation to quench our thirst at the fount of living water, His divine life. A few years later I read A Right To Be Merry by Mother Mary Francis, P.C.C., and recognized in her charming description of monastic life the way I wanted to respond to this call by living totally for God.
It took a few more years of growing up before I was ready to embrace the monastic life at a particular time and place. While in high school and college, I visited several communities of sisters and nuns. The summer after college graduation I stopped by the monastery in Marbury, Alabama, and fell in love with the community. I already loved the Dominican Order, so it wasn’t a surprise that I fell in love with Marbury, but the cloistered contemplative vocation did challenge me because I always wanted to be a teacher. In fact, I taught 5th and 6th grade that next year while applying to enter the monastery.
How did Marbury, Alabama, end up with a monastery of Dominican nuns?
Our foundresses came from a cloister in Catonsville, Maryland, in 1944. Her desire was to establish a community in which any qualified woman, regardless of race, could aspire to a life dedicated to God as a contemplative nun. In this way, our foundresses sought to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our Dominican vocation with a gentle spirit of sisterly charity.
Our foundation is said to have been foreseen in a dream by a nun in Catonsville. In her dream, she saw a Dominican friar—St. Martin de Porres—walking through the midst of a violent race riot. He held up a rosary and pointed to a monastery on a hill where nuns of all races were praying the rosary with their arms outstretched. The crowd quieted, and the clubs that the rioters carried turned to rosaries. For me, this story is a beautiful icon showing how the Marian prayer of the cloistered Dominican nuns is at the heart of the Dominican friars’ preaching mission to reconcile all things in Christ.
Millennials are conspicuous for their striving to live a meaningful life. A lot of that striving is carried out in the public eye, namely on social media. By contrast, yours is a hidden life—no smart phones, no Facebook or Twitter, no electronic communication. Without these features of modern life, what meaning do you find in the cloister?
Although many cloistered communities today use technology and media to different degrees depending on their particular way of life, this question brings up a significant insight. In the cloister, we live very close to ourselves, each other, and God. We spend no time building an online “persona.” Thus our lives acquire meaning in the freedom of our utter dependence on God.
Continuing on this topic, “technology fasts” are becoming popular among secular and religious millennials alike. They recognize the value in “unplugging,” even for short periods of time. For you, fasting from electronic media is a way of life. What do the fruits of your observance promise to those still “plugged in”?
The interior life. I came into the monastery from a very internet-saturated lifestyle—and that was in the days before social media, just ten years ago! God was certainly drawing me, but I didn’t have much interior “space” to hear Him, to be present to Him. The stillness and “emptiness” of life in the cloister was a big change for me, and very striking. It takes time to calm down and let go enough to be able to live at peace with oneself and with God in the silence of one’s soul, rather than constantly seeking media input from outside of oneself. The line from Georges Bernanos quoted in Cardinal Sarah’s book God or Nothing strikes me as cutting straight to the point: “We understand absolutely nothing about modern civilization if we do not admit first of all that it is a universal conspiracy against any type of interior life.” Interior silence is the first step to living an interior life.
You’ve taken a vow of poverty. What does that mean for you concretely? How has it changed you? What lessons do you think that your vow might teach to the outside world?
For Dominican nuns, the solemn vow of poverty means giving up all private ownership of property, and relying on the community to supply for our needs, in order to be more free to grow in love for God. Our use of material goods is not marked by destitution but by frugality, simplicity, and conscientiousness. The deeper goal of vowed poverty is to detach our hearts from seeking our fulfillment and security in having things under our control. Poverty helps bring about our conversion from self to God.
On a practical level, my vow of poverty teaches me to be more critical and more attentive to the Holy Spirit in evaluating whether or not I have a genuine need for some article, and it frees me from wasting all that time over window shopping; spiritually, the vow teaches me to set my heart on God and to entrust myself freely to Him and to my sisters in community.
To the outside world I think the vow of poverty gives pause: what are these nuns seeking that is beyond the goods of this life? As an ex-hippie neighbor told me before I entered the monastery: “You are putting first what other people may not even think of in their lives.”
What is one thing that you would like your fellow millennials to know about monastic life?
The monastic life is not an exercise in historical reenactment, a leisurely pursuit of personal spiritual fulfillment in a holistic lifestyle, or an escape from the difficulties of human life. It is a life of engaging in the present moment the deepest realities of existence, of intense personal and communal struggle to grow in love of God and neighbor in the immediacy of the cloister, and of renouncing oneself and embracing the Cross of Christ as a means to more perfect union with Him and for the salvation of souls. In the words of one of our sisters who died right before her 90th birthday after 70 years in the monastery: “It’s been the best life.”
How would you encourage your contemporaries to find in Jesus Christ the satisfaction of their deepest desires?
The water of life is there for those who wish to come and drink: Jesus Christ offers the Holy Spirit to be poured into the hearts of those who believe in Him. “And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” God is the only one who can move our will from within towards its fulfillment in Him. Ask Him to move you.