Sunday, October 30, 2011

one specific step

The person entering physically cloistered life does not stick her head in today and leave her arms and legs dangling outside to be cloistered at a later date.  She is either in or she’s not.  And yet we can give ourselves mostly to God and leave parts of our lives dangling outside that surrender.  At least, that’s how it is for me.

Making the decision to embrace the will of God is not a once-for-all-time-thing, of course.  We re-decide, circumstance by circumstance.  But there is something about at least making a decision.  One specific step.  I have found that grace comes with making this decision.  I tell God I want to live according to His will… and then in circumstance after circumstance, I find that His grace abounds.

Sometimes I imagine myself standing before an enclosure door.  I consider.  I vacillate.  I feel afraid.  I want a print-out of all that will be asked of me before I give my “yes.”  I’m trembling, second-guessing, halting, looking back, shuffling, straining.  Then, timidly, I stick one toe forward…

…and it’s as if He suddenly, tenderly, picks me up and carries the rest of me inside.  Even those flailing arms and legs. 

“Jesus, I give You my whole heart and my whole will.  They once rebelled against You, but now I dedicate them completely to you…Receive me, and make me faithful until death.”  (St. Alphonsus Liguori). 

I am the Gate. Whoever enters through Me WILL BE SAFE.” (Jesus, quoted in John 10:9) 


Saturday, October 29, 2011


The step from world into cloister has long intrigued me.  One leaves “here” and goes “there.”  But one doesn’t just tiptoe over a threshold into nothingness.  Anyone taking such a step has carefully considered the “there” to which they are going. 

At this point I need to do one paragraph of defining, in case anyone reading this is not familiar with the set up of monastic life.  In every monastery, of nuns or of monks, there is an area normally reserved for residents of the monastic community.  This is called “the cloister” or “enclosure.”  Some communities observe what is called full (or papal) enclosure.  This means that those residing therein live within their specified enclosure for life.  That’s right:  they go in, and under normal circumstances they do not come out (there are exceptions, of course, like for medical care).  This doesn’t mean they never see the sun again; often enclosures are rather vast places, always including some outdoor areas and occasionally even encompassing meadows or streams.  The cloistered person also still sees family and friends, meeting with them in parlors and meeting rooms.

It can be awfully strange, for those of us not called to it, to consider a life of full enclosure.  But in the analogy of the cloistered heart that we will be using here, the idea of enclosure is extremely important.  There IS an enclosure into which we are invited.  It is a genuine enclosure, one that goes beyond all of our loftiest mental images.

The fact is:  if we’re human beings, we are called to live within the will of God.   

In the analogy of "the cloistered heart," I am invited to live within the boundaries of God's will as a nun would live inside her enclosure.  A potential cloistered nun does not set the boundaries of enclosure for herself, saying that she really prefers other areas, thank you very much.  No, she accepts them as they have already been set up... or she goes elsewhere.

I look around, today, at the boundaries of my enclosure.  I don't have to map them out for myself; they are clearly defined for me in Scripture and in 2,000 years of authentic Church discernment. 

Sometimes we can fear the boundaries of God's will, worrying that they'll sap all joy and pleasure from our lives.  The saints tell us otherwise. 

“Our happiness consists in knowing and doing His holy will.” (St. Jane de Chantal)

“Freed from the heavy burden of my own will, I may breathe freely under the light load of love…”  (St. Bernard of Clairvaux)

“The height of loving ecstasy is when our will rests not in its own contentment, but in God’s will.” (St. Francis de Sales)

“Do you want to be free?  Then free yourself by your own act; have no will but God’s will.”  (La Trappe in England by a Religious of Holy Cross Abbey, 1937)


Friday, October 28, 2011

everything else is not enough

The life of a cloistered nun or a monk represents Totality.  Risking everything.  All one’s eggs in one basket.  No ifs, ands or buts.  Or, as Mother Mary Francis PCC so perfectly put it, “God is enough!  God is enough!  And everything else is not enough..”

It is the Totality that so draws me.  How I have wished I could just step over a threshold, dividing world from cloister, and be done with complacency and compromise forever.  I am not so na├»ve as to think it’s that simple, certainly.  But “out here,” where there are no bells to remind me to pray, where Mass is not offered daily in my own home, where the entire structure of life doesn’t revolve around God, I forget and slip and get distracted and grow very, very lazy. 

Is there help for me?  (yes, there is)  Am I the only person who has ever longed to live totally for God in the midst of the world  (no, I’m not)  Can I, in my busyness, find a way to look at life as God wishes me to – not as the world is constantly pushing me toward? (absolutely I can).  He Who calls also graces.  He does not ask of us what we cannot give. 

“Go and bless the Lord for the favorable inspiration He has given you to withdraw yourself from this great and wide road that those of your age and profession are accustomed to follow…”(St. Francis de Sales)

“You have, as it were, a poustinia (poustinia is a Russian word for hermitage) within you.  It is as if within you there was this little log cabin in which you and Christ were very close…within yourself you have made a room, a log cabin, a secluded place.  You have built it by prayer…. You live in the marketplace and carry the poustinia within you.  That is your vocation… The Lord is calling us to stand still before him while walking with men.” (Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Poustinia, Ave Maria Press, 1975)

In days just ahead, I hope to look more thoroughly into this cloister of the heart.  I hope to live more fully in each “room” of it than I ever have before.  “God is enough!  God is enough!  And everything else is not enough.” The words ring through me this night like a bell.  I know them to be true. 

Text not in quotes

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

...nothing else than...

“Monastic life is nothing else..than a Christian life whose Christianity has penetrated every part of it...  The monk is precisely the Christian who has recognized in Christ ‘the way, the truth, the life,’ and who intends to act logically over this discovery, a discovery of such a nature that it should not leave any of those who have made it tepid or indifferent.”  (Louis Bouyer of the Oratory, The Meaning of the Monastic Life, P.J. Kenedy and Sons, 1950) 

“Christ is literally to be the monk’s ‘all,’ his life and his food, the yearning of his soul, the joy of his heart....The monk sees all things in the light of God.”  (Wilfrid Tunink OSB, Vision of Peace, Farrar, Straus & Co., 1963) 

“The earliest monasticism was directed against the tendency in the church to compromise with the world, to water down the strong wine of the Gospels to suit the vulgar taste….”  (Walter Nigg, Warriors of God, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1959)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

monastic life is...

For over twenty years I’ve delved into the subject of monasticism.  I have looked at some of the key aspects of monastic life, considering if and how these may apply to a “cloistered heart.”  What I’ve found is a wealth of truth… a virtual treasure chest of inspiration!

I would like to share just a few of these gems with you now, (saving more for later).  I suspect you will agree that these “goals” are not for monks and nuns alone….

“Monastic life is a concrete living out of one’s baptismal commitment.” (Daniel Rees, Consider Your Call,  Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, 1980, 149-150)

“A contemplative will often be able to work peacefully in a kind of general absorption in God which is not expressed by any special idea and demands no particular acts.  It is a kind of ‘atmosphere’ of love that follows him wherever he goes.” (Monks of the Strict Observance, Cistercian Contemplatives, published by Monks of the Strict Observance, 1947, p. 50)
“Our religious life is not someTHING; it is SOMEONE.  It is Jesus.” (A Religious of Holy Cross Abbey, La Trappe in England, Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd., London, 1937, p. 36)
“The contemplative life does not mean the contemplation of self, but contemplation of God.” (La Trappe in England, p. 188)
“While working at a desk or in a field, while on a journey or in a hospital, a man can make a choir and sanctuary within the cell of his own soul.” (Dom Hubert Van Zeller, The Yoke of Divine Love, Templegate, Springfield IL, 1957, p. 135)

Monday, October 17, 2011

a refuge for Him

I was seven years old when I learned I had a soul.  This was where Jesus would come when I received Holy Communion, and I was to prepare the place carefully.  Sweep it clean and tidy, Sister instructed; no sin allowed.  I pictured this “item” of my personhood quite vividly.  I saw it as oval shaped, pearly white, and resting in the center of my chest.  A venial sin would spot it, a mortal sin (heaven forbid) would turn it black as a lump of coal.  It was like a little house inside me, where Jesus could come and rest.

I’m now many years past seven.  I no longer envision a white oval, shining like a pearl.  I do, however, marvel at the truth embedded in this simple childhood picture. “Here I stand, knocking at the door.  If anyone hears Me calling and opens the door, I will enter his house and have supper with Him, and he with Me.”  (Revelation 3:20)

“Anyone who loves Me will be true to My word, and My Father will love him; We will come to him and make our dwelling place with him.”  (John 14:22)

What an astonishing reality.  There really IS a dwelling place inside me, set aside for God Himself.  A cloister of the heart, a sanctuary.  And it’s not a refuge for me alone. 

In the days when He walked the earth, Jesus found places of refuge.  Certainly He was in need of them, as He was hunted down, mocked, misunderstood, beaten, spat upon, and finally killed.  He found refuge in a womb, a manger, the arms of Mary and Joseph, with friends, and in a little house in Bethany.  In such places Jesus was cared about and loved.

As we know, misunderstanding of Jesus did not cease with His crucifixion.  The world has never, as a whole, reached out to embrace Christ and His teachings.  He is still “spat upon.” He’s discounted, laughed at, shunned in various ways – often before our eyes.  I may hear Him mocked this very day..  or dismissed as unimportant.  I might hear His Name used as a swear word. 

If that happens, can I remember to take a moment to offer a prayer of praise and love to Him in the solitude of my heart? 

“A cloistered heart accepts God’s grace to love Jesus Christ in the midst of a world that does not love Him; to embrace His will in a world which does not embrace it.  Thus the cloistered heart becomes a place of refuge not only for us, but for Christ Himself.  To create such a refuge is a primary part of the cloistered heart’s apostolate.” (from The Cloistered Heart (book), NS)

“Jesus, here is my heart; let it be a little cozy resting place for yourself.”  (St. Faustina)

“Make my soul…Your cherished dwelling place, Your home of rest.  Let me never leave You there alone, but keep me there all absorbed in You, in living faith, adoring You.”  (Elizabeth of the Trinity)

May we take every opportunity to embrace Christ in the refuge of our hearts – today.


Thursday, October 13, 2011


“Thank God, there still remains one sanctuary, the sacredness of which no earthly power may violate… it is the sanctuary of the human heart.  It needs no fixed place for its confines, no stated time for the opening of its gates, no particular hour of silence for its prayer.  A thought, a word, a moment of reflection, and by faith and by love, the soul is within the blessed refuge, and the gates are closed on the confusion of life with all its noise and tumult.  It is secure against the bitterness and the pain of persecution, or hardship or trial, or hurt of body, or wound of earthly pride, or failure of worldly ambition, for there she is inviolable, sacred, impregnable in the fortress of her own spirit.  ‘Entering into solitude,’ we sometimes call the seeking of this sanctuary.  But it is not entering into a lonely solitude.  It is hearkening to the alluring accents and appeal of a Voice that will never, in time, be stilled, but will ever sound gently in the hearing of them that love: ‘come apart with Me and rest awhile!” (from The Living Pyx of Jesus, compiled by a Religious, Pelligrini and Co, Australia, 1941, p.101)


I knew, when the idea of the cloistered heart first came to me in the 1980s, that monasteries of nuns or monks have special places not open to outsiders.  I realized that these areas were called cloisters.  It was enough information to get me started.  “The whole idea of a cloistered heart,” I wrote in 1988, “is that the part of me referred to as the ‘heart’ – meaning my spirit, who I really AM – should be detached from the world in its attachment to the Creator of the world."

A place of refuge, no matter where I happened to be.  A place inviolate, where I could remain with Jesus in a doctor's office, a traffic jam, a restaurant, a mall.  It was an appealing idea.  It was also (this being most important), theologically sound. "The heart is the dwelling place where I am, where I live... the heart is the place 'to which I withdraw.'  The heart is our hidden center,  beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2563)

The cloistered heart is the heart of David dancing before the ark; of Mesach, Shadrach and Abednego in the fiery furnace; of Paul in prison, Daniel in the lions’ den, John on Patmos, Peter in chains.  The world is not safe from evil – even the body isn’t safe from harm – but within the cloistered heart there is refuge.  The Lord is with me, He is within my cloister.  My heart, as long as He is in it, is safe.

“Remember… to retire occasionally into the solitude of your heart while you are outwardly engaged in business with others.  This mental solitude cannot be prevented by the multitude of those who surround you.  As they are not about your heart, but only about your body, your heart remains alone in the presence of God.”  (St. Francis de Sales).

Text not in quotes

Monday, October 10, 2011

the call

It was as insistent, sometimes, as a telephone ringing.   A persistent “come…come…come..”  that I couldn’t quite ignore.  Walking by the stairs leading up to my school’s chapel, I would often feel that pull.  

I was a student in a Catholic girls’ academy taught by semi-cloistered nuns.  I found, there, just enough quiet to allow the Lord’s gentle “voice” to make its way through.  …Come to the chapel…. Come make a visit to Me…. give Me a few minutes of your time…   These were not words, but a gentle sense of invitation.  I never heard a “voice,” only the secret nudging that seemed (always) to be there.

Sometimes I wondered where this call could be leading.  Everyone I’d known who’d mentioned having “a call” was either in a convent or serving as a priest.  That didn’t seem to fit with what I envisioned for my life.  Marriage, children, perhaps a career in the arts … these were my dreams.  Were they God’s dreams for me?  I don't remember stopping to ask.  One day I WAS stopped, however, and told about another kind of dream …

My Speech teacher pulled me aside after class.  Smiling (knowingly?), she said:  “I had a little dream about you last night.  I dreamed you joined our order here.”   

Many years later, Sister and I talked about that day.   She remarked:  “Nancy, I find it interesting that I didn’t say I dreamed you became a nun.  I said I dreamed you joined our order.”    I had never entered a convent.  I’d married and had children.  Yet, as Sister said these words, I knew she was recognizing my specific answer to God’s call.  Mine was a vocation to marriage and motherhood.  Intertwined with that was (and is) my life as a cloistered heart.

Mine is the call of every Christian.  To give my life to Christ, minute by minute. To keep making the choice, circumstance by circumstance, to live as He wants.  To find ways to be with Him, even in the midst of a busy life. 

 …Come… visit Me…. Come… give your life to Me…. Come…spend a few minutes with Me…. 

May He give us the grace to answer His call.  

Text not in quotes

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Before the First Bell

The first cloistered heart monastery I envisioned was nestled in a forest of green.  Nearly twenty years before, however, there had been a foreshadowing.  In itself this was a startling occurrence, for my level of interest in monasteries at the time was zero.  I was an active, single, compulsively busy young woman, and religious life was possibly the farthest thing from my mind.  

I was taking a semester off college and working for an insurance company.  Our office was located on an upper floor of a building in the center of town.  One day, as I bustled about filing papers, I happened to look out through a large wall of windows.  My view went over the tops of shorter buildings across Main Street, to a large old church a block away.  The church, with its weathered gray stones and one large round window, made me think of a monastery. Without warning, I suddenly envisioned rows of black-habited figures walking through a kind of “enclosed garden” in the middle of that building.   There was no such garden in this church, and at that time I didn’t even know about cloister gardens.  Yet I had a sudden mental picture – like a daydream that was not actively imagined but was rather “dropped into my head” intact - of black-habited figures walking along silently.  My sense was that this was a place of prayer right in the middle of the bustling, busy, noisy city.  It was as if the garden inside high walls was not known to anyone scurrying by outside, and although those inside could hear noise all around, they were largely unaffected by it.

Never mind that buses rumbled, tires screeched, horns blared.  Inside the walls, hidden from the view of people rushing by, there was a secret place of prayer.  Even now I can picture the silent figures slowly moving, a soft autumn wind teasing the edges of their veils.

This mental picture was suddenly there and suddenly gone, leaving in its wake a thought most unexpected.  This was:  “I’ll probably belong to God someday.”  The belonging would be, I felt, as total as the belonging of a nun.  I remember going on with my work in the office as though this unusual vignette had not crossed my mind… but I never, ever forgot it.  

I now look back and realize that the sense of people in an enclosed garden, right in the middle of a busy city, captures exactly the essence of “the cloistered heart.”  Mine is not the call to withdrawal into a silent hermitage.  Mine is a call to interact with the world and live in the midst of it.  To be in the world while not being of it.  To be a “place” where Christ can be adored, met with, and honored no matter where I happen to be.  

The photo I share here, of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, was taken by my friend Linda.  It's not unlike the scene, all those years ago, that triggered my foreshadowing.  And today it captures my sense of wanting my very life to be a "monastery".... right in the middle of the world.