I started writing this while I was in Carmel for my three week live-in...
Anyone who thinks that living in a monastery is like being on vacation with nothing to do but gaze at the sky (or one's navel) and float piously down polished hallways and golden garden paths has never lived in a monastery. That being said, the hallways are pretty well polished, and while the garden paths aren't without tufts of grass and dried leaves, they are beautiful to behold.
Keeping up an 88-year old monastery is hard work, and despite the physical limitations of several of the older sisters, things get done. There is help, of course, with regular workmen to do the heavy duty stuff like tree-trimming and painting, but by and large, these women live in community with each other, with God as their center, and hard work is part of the package. This is no house of laziness or effete living.
I've been here almost two weeks, with one week and a half left to go. I've settled in fairly easily and quickly, which is a good sign, as they say. I love praying the Liturgy of the Hours with my sisters here, and the time set aside for mental prayer (contemplative prayer) and spiritual reading as part of the day is an incredible blessing. Despite the manual labor that is required of this life, the focus on prayer and loving God is what this life is about at its core.
There is a balance that this particular monastery has achieved between the solitary life in prayer, mealtimes, and personal interests and community life in prayer, mealtimes, and recreation. Every Carmelite monastery will strike this balance in a slightly different way. For me, the Carmel of the Trinity seems to catch the wave at the perfect moment, allowing the heightened suspension between heaven and earth.
Part of the personal development and formation of each sister is spiritual reading, and there is a library that can sustain that for decades. Their library is rich in everything from natural sciences to philosophy to religion (with a heavy emphasis on mystical spirituality and Carmelite spirituality, as you'd expect). There is also a computer with internet access that is shared by the sisters (each with her own login). A few of the sisters have their own computers, depending on the work for which she is responsible.
Some of the jobs that the sisters do here, aside from the cleaning and cooking: answering mail, keeping up the bulletin boards with emails and phone messages requesting prayers, maintaining an internet presence through the website and Twitter, librarian, vocation director, prioress and sub-prioress, and filling orders for communion hosts that are packaged from wholesale bulk and distributed to churches and other communities. The cooking schedule rotates between sisters for supper, and most breakfasts and lunches (dinner) are "pick up."
The sisters receive news magazines such as TIME, as well as religious magazines from different ends of the Catholic spectrum, and the daily papers. They also watch the news on TV and of course can watch news and special reports on news websites. The main apostolate of a Carmelite monastery is intercessory prayer, so it's imperative to know what is happening in the world. They are informed about the society in which they live, and are not by any stretch cut off from the world in that sense.
Nevertheless, Carmelites do live in a cloister. They may receive visits from their family and friends, but the sisters don't go out of the monastery except for Carmelite Association meetings or other business, specific family reasons, doctors appointments, necessary banking or extra grocery shopping (groceries are delivered weekly), voting, or jury duty.
There definitely is a difference between out there and in here, but it's not easy to express. I felt the difference in a sublime sort of spiritual pulse when I crossed the threshold on my first day and entered the enclosure from the front hallway. I could immediately sense this was a different space, a consecrated and holy place, and in some way it seemed to me, more alive, more "real" in some way. It seemed to welcome me, as if my arrival was a long-awaited homecoming.
It took me about five days to let go of the world I'd just left. The intensity of my last week at work with final exams and last-minute free lance work had me burning the candle at both ends for several days before coming to do my live-in. It was like going from 90 to zero in a heartbeat, and I had the feeling of mental and emotional vertigo for a few days. But then, God be praised, the whirlwind feeling abated, and I was able to sink into a little bit of the depth of life that is present here in Carmel. Just enough to breathe and feel the true presence of Jesus Christ in my heart like never before - magnified and more intimate.
Daily Mass and saying the Divine Office is a privilege. I am aware that some people, even some religious, don't believe in the value of praying the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours. I think that they are missing out on a precious experience of daily formation, expressing the heart of the people of God, and the heart of God. This, combined with daily personal prayer, is for me the best way to live life for God and for the world that is starving for grace and Divine Love. Others are called differently, of course; nonetheless, the Liturgy of the Hours hasn't been around for a few hundred years (in various forms) for nothing.
|Himself, in all his glory|
A few surprises and interesting details:
- Sport, the monastery cat, is one very spoiled, loving kitteh
- the toilets/bathrooms are called "humble offices"
- Carmelites apparently watch NCIS and Cold Case Files, as well as Doc Martin
- not all the nuns wear their habits all the time; when doing gardening or heavy cleaning, some of them wear jeans and t-shirts, or keep on their Habits and leave off their veils. When busy cooking or cleaning, they will often "turn up" their Habit skirts with buttons
- some nuns wear bright blue sneakers all the day long under their Habit
- coffee perked at 5:30 every morning = I can live here
Post Script: three weeks after returning "out here"...
Leaving Carmel was one of the most heart-breaking experiences of my life. I did not want to leave. Nevertheless, it was unavoidable. My first week back was atrociously difficult. Explosions of input and information. Noise. A blow out on the way to work (scary no matter where you've been). Even Mass didn't feel right. Nothing felt right. Everything was too fast, even praying a novena with other parishioners. The "reverse culture shock" even after only 3 weeks was intense. But God gave me the grace to eventually ease back into life "outside." It still feels like I'm a "round peg in a square hole" out here, and I am praying that Carmel will accept me. Of course there are challenges and obstacles still to be overcome, but in God's will, all will unfold like a perfect rose.
In the meantime, as always, God calls me to stay with Him in my heart, my Love, and just be with Him here. He calls me to see Him in the faces of all those I meet, to surrender to His powerful Love no matter what my circumstances. That will be true for the rest of my life, whether I enter Carmel or not.