Friday, January 29, 2016

Astonished by Beauty

Of all my cloistered retreats, one was particularly fruitful. This was spent in the same monastery the Lathrops visited for A Story of Courage.

As we've seen in our recent posts, this monastery is not in mountains or meadow, but situated right in the hubub of Georgetown, DC.

'There was a lush cloister garden,' I wrote several years ago, 'and it was separated from the streets by high walls.  My plan was to sit with Bible and journal and gather together scattered threads of thoughts and prayers.  The sounds of traffic around?  No problem.  I looked upon those as bits of minor background noise.  I would spend the day with God, in peace.  An ideal set up for serenity.

That is, until the band.

From a campus nearby, there were sudden sounds of an outdoor concert.  A LOUD outdoor concert.  I sat in the garden surrounded by trees, holy statues, birds, and THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD.  Thud thud thuds out of context, setting my nerves on end.  Suddenly, ordinary street sounds began to unsettle me.  How long had there been planes flying overhead, one after another, and so close-by?  The city seemed filled with sirens.  Voices shouted, just outside the enclosure walls. Oh dear.  However could I pray?

And then it was time for Midday Prayer.  A bell rang, the Sisters gathered.  As a retreatant, I joined them.  We began the chant.  One Sister quietly closed shutters to hush metallic thuds.  That didn’t help, but the nuns sang on undaunted.  “O Lord, open my lips”THUDTHUDTHUD“and my mouth shall proc” THRUMP THUDTHUMPTHUD “…laim your praise…”

I was suddenly struck by the incongruity of it all.  Sirens, traffic, shouting, planes, THUDs, chant.

But more than that: I was astonished by beauty.  By the intense, amazing beauty I was witnessing all around.  One Sister said, just before I left, that she was sorry I’d been there at such a noisy time.  Oh no, I assured her; I had been there at the perfect time.

I had seen the analogy of 'the cloistered heart' in a whole new way, not in spite of the noises, but because of them.  No matter what went on outside, the nuns were there to praise God, and they would do it undaunted.

Probably the Sisters didn’t 'feel' very prayerful as they chanted praises they could barely hear, but they were singing to Another, and He could hear them.

Surely there are days when one of them doesn’t 'feel prayerful,' but she comes at the sound of the bell and she praises God.  Why?  Because He deserves it.  He deserves praise and worship with the whole of one’s being.

No matter the noises, no matter the weather, no matter the situations around any of us, God is present.

God is present and He is worthy of praise. Period.

(this is an edited post from our archives)


Photos of Georgetown Visitation, N. Shuman, 1990s

This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

I Shall Take This As A Challenge

'We were led to the assembly room, where the sisters gather for an hour after dinner, and about two hours in the evening, meeting socially for what they call their 'recreation.' Then they busy themselves with knitting or plain sewing, or with any fancy-work or embroidery they may have to do... much pleasant chat goes on, and a harmless joke pleases every one. 

'Even here, there are many reminders that a higher purpose is always to be kept in view. One of these is a written scroll of paper attached to the wall, near the fireplace, and called the 'Challenge....' to give special attention to some particular virtue - patience, humility, gentleness, cheerfulness - whichever it may be that is specified on the scroll. Briefly, it is a quiet appeal to them, putting them on their mettle or their honor and conscience, to make an additional effort to excel in that virtue. There is a challenge for Advent, for Christmas, for Epiphany, for Lent, for Easter, for Pentecost. ...

'Now it may seem, to those who are wholly unaccustomed to such methods of thought and action, that this ever present watchfulness of self, and this constant endeavor to rise to the higher plane even while engaged in amusement or social converse, must become intolerably monotonous and a frightful strain. But, on the contrary, this conventual system of mingled self-examination and unselfish activity results in the greatest buoyancy of spirits, and in a healthy, happy life....' (A Story of Courage, George Parsons Lathrop and Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, original publication date: 1894)

This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

A City Sort of Vision

'The Convent is a large three-sided structure... Across the street is a row of cosy dwellings, standing somewhat back from the sidewalk... the city and the suburb have been gradually welded into one, by a continuous and expanding web of streets and houses...' (A Story of Courage)

As a retreatant in the cloister of this convent, I was once housed in a cell overlooking the sidewalk. The view, overlooking a street lined with rowhouses in Georgetown DC, was charming. But there was no respite from the noise.

One of the nuns later apologized for my not being placed on the other side of the building, where I would have overlooked the (quieter) cloister garden. No need for regrets, said I.  I was exactly where I needed to be.

On one of my mornings there, I wrote the following in my journal:   'Chant, as we prayed this morning, curled around me. I was nestled, as a baby in its mother's gentle arms. Lilting voices lifted like the softest of lullabies, and I was stilled.  Now I sit in my cell, looking out the window...

'The houses across the street 'look at this one,' and this one 'looks at them.' They share a narrow street, yet they are divided by a world, by an entire culture. How like a cloistered heart looking at the face of someone across a room, a street, a yard, out a car window, in a store, in the midst of a family gathering.

'I watch the sky turn light outside my window. The city is waking as I write this. Cars, buses, planes, all move along their way for one more day. Birds chatter, unmindful of the ways of man, of the city of man that is this bustling metropolis, this powerful and mighty place of power among the nations of earth.

'Perhaps I see contrast as much as anything as I sit here. Black branches stand in silhouette against a lightening sky. Cars rush by below me; silver, gray, maroon. Birds call out above me; brown, gray, maroon. 

'Such an important city. Such human power in these houses and streets. And all the while, the sky stretches above all and is over all; unnoticed, for the most part.

'The cloistered heart is a 'city' sort of vision. We must learn to sing the songs of God in a land removed from Him. To sing the Magnificat even as we live the Pieta. Ours are gentle melodies in a land that has forgotten the song. Like birds calling from the treetops, like warblers who sing in the city of man, I must join the chorus.

'I must sing, and I must allow God to do what He wishes with the song.'

Most of the above is reposted from our archives. It is linked to Reconciled to You and Theology is a Verb for 'It's Worth Revisiting Wednesday.'


This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Caught, the Bright Courage

Looking around my house, I see a number of things placed 'just for decoration.' Mirrors, pictures, vases of dried flowers, bowls filled with shells.

The decor in monasteries is not like that.

'There are interesting pictures on the walls.... There is a large painting over the mantelpiece of the Blessed Virgin meeting St. Elizabeth (and).. sturdy portraits of the saints, and the beaming representations of angels.' (A Story of Courage)

In a monastery, every item has a practical purpose. Each thing in every room is meant to help the nuns or monks live on this earth (to eat, sleep, bathe), or to lift their hearts to the heavenly realm. Paintings hung on walls do not usually focus attention on this world, which to some extent can be seen by looking out a window, but they're meant to direct minds toward God - and to His saints surrounding us. 

'Within the clear monochrome of these pictures is caught the bright courage of religious zeal and sublime law. Their firm glances, their steady poise of head, express the only genuine satisfaction and happiness; namely, those which last through eternity. They remind us of the sort of people we trust. They remind us of those faces which, throughout our own lives, have given us the most solid comfort and the deepest refreshment....'

Do I ever think about my companions the saints? Do I read their writings and seek their intercession?

Are there particular saints who have inspired me with their wisdom and courage? 

If I were furnishing my home as one furnishes a monastery, whose pictures would I hang on my walls?

'We must always have before our eyes the virtues and examples of the saints, in order to pattern and form all our actions on them.'  (St. Francis de Sales)

This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Treasure in the Refectory

One of the most memorable meals of my life was in a Monastery. As a retreatant, I was privileged to be seated with the nuns, in a setup exactly like the one described by the Lathrops (below). I'd had a prayerful, fruitful day of quiet, and I came to supper with my spirit dancing.

‘One of the first places we visited was the refectory.  The board-like tables upon which the few dishes of the nuns are placed are the same that were set up for the nuns here a hundred years ago. A raised desk called a pulpit, in the middle of one side of the room, is where the sister sits who reads aloud during the meals; at which, by the way, no conversation is allowed. The spiritual food she dispenses is usually the Life of a Saint, or passages from saintly writings.' (A Story of Courage, p. 14)

My memorable meal could not have happened without silence. As it was, nothing interrupted my prayerful train of thought and, in fact, everything about this supper added to it. The Sisters didn't have 'refectory reading' that night, but instead played a CD of classical music. My thoughts were free, therefore, to go along a track which I will find impossible (I know) to describe. But I'll try.

It was a Saturday night, and I thought of people 'out in the world' in fine, fancy restaurants. I imagined a lady dressed in silk, wearing diamonds, delicately dabbing her mouth on a white damask napkin. She was dining on filet mignon, lemon capellini with caviar, prosciutto wrapped asparagus, tiramisu. A piano would be playing lightly in the background; mellow standards with a touch of jazz. The lady might be chatting with her companions, against a background of muffled conversations and silverware clattering against china. Perhaps this was an establishment noted for its view, maybe a revolving restaurant high above a city glittering with night life. The chairs were comfortable, cushy, soft. 

‘Here in the refectory the only seats are benches ranged along the walls. There are no chairs. The nuns do not gather around a table, in the ordinary social way, but sit in order on the long, hard benches, at one side of the continuous tables, against the wall, and face the middle of the room. None of them sit on the opposite side of the table, which is left empty and clear, so that the servers, who constitute in turn all the sisters, from the Superioress to the novices, can conveniently place the dishes for them, from that side.' (p. 16)

I sat straight up on a hard bench, looking at my little bowl of buttered carrots. Plain glass windows across the room let me know night was falling, but I could still make out the concrete angel statue standing outside on a little hill. Lights along the ceiling reflected in the window, and glinted off the edge of my water glass, and let me see my companions seated along the walls of the long room. These were silent Sisters, their expressions pleasant, in black habits and long veils, wearing profession crosses of silver and habit-rosaries of dark wood. They did not look at one another; only at their plain white plates and bowls. I, meanwhile, watched the windows darken and the concrete angel dim.  

And I realized. Of all the people dining that evening, in all of the restaurants and houses and country clubs and townhomes and ballrooms across all the lands in all the earth, I was surely one of the happiest. It is no exaggeration to say that, during this simplest of meals, my soul was soaring.  Can I really describe this? Just as I expected - no.  I cannot. I can only say that I remember the refectory as shining with light and splendor and richness that evening.

I can only say that the overhead lights were chandeliers. Drinking glasses morphed into crystal. Fish sticks were lobster. Sturdy white plates were delicate china. A hard bench was made of cushioned velvet. And water became the finest wine.

'He brings me into the banquet hall, and His banner over me is love.' (Song of Songs 1:4)


Painting of Refectory: Pietro Lorenzetti
Painting of Party: Ralph Curtis, James McNeill Whistler at a Party

This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

My Cell

Painting of Candlemas Day by Marianne Stokes, in US public domain due to age

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

A Cell Apart

'The bedroom of a person in the world is supposed to contain dear mementos and luxuries and ornaments; sundry easy-chairs and soft pillows and cosy nooks, which are considered adequate to console the bruised spirit after its daily tussle in the arena of men… but in the nun’s life the coziest, quietest nook is an altar before which to pray. Are we strong enough to keep in reserve no lair, no robber’s cave, where we can steal away from God, nursing our pet fancies, or handling the fairy gold of self-indulgence? Are we generous enough to merge ourselves wholly in the unselfishness of divinity? If not, we recoil from the frank simplicity, the austere plainness, of a nun’s cell. Here there is no place for withdrawal into a self which is mere selfishness. Over each door stands the name of a saint, and the mention of some virtue to be remembered and cultivated. The little beds are prim and hard; the pictures are few, and in their intention point heavenward. Cold, literally, the tiny rooms are... with one big window apiece giving plenty of light and air; no carpet, one chair; and the only richness to be detected in all this region of simplicity is that richest blessing – the consolation of faith.' (A Story of Courage, pp. 32-33)

Struggling to describe my first-ever stay in a monastic cell, I've realized that, some years ago, I already wrote about it. My reaction to being in such a setup surprised me, because I had approached this little room with some apprehension. It was a narrow fourth-floor cell, bare of all but the most basic necessities, with one window overlooking the cloister garden below. Here, I would maintain silence. Here, I would be removed from the busy world outside.

'I once spent several days in the cloister of a monastery,' I wrote of this experience. 'I stayed in a simple little cell furnished with twin bed, small chair, dresser, and one tiny table. There was no closet, only a hook behind the door. As the hook strained beneath the weight of all the clothing I had brought with me, I thought of how cluttered was my life compared to the lives of the nuns.

'I spent my first night in this cell sleepless, at times burying my face in the pillow hoping to muffle my sobs. I was not crying from sadness, nor from homesickness. I was crying from something else, something indescribable, something resulting from the strong presence of God that I knew was in that cell. There in that tiny room, I knew I was with God.

'Someone reminded me, several months later, that St. Catherine of Siena had been called to create a cell in her heart where she and God might meet together. Immediately I thought back to my little cell at the monastery. Certainly I, a cloistered heart, had a cell in my heart as well...' (from The Cloistered Heart)

'When the father and mother of St. Catherine of Siena deprived her of all opportunity for time and place to pray and meditate, our Lord inspired her to build a little oratory within her soul, where she could retire mentally and enjoy this holy heartfelt solitude while going about her outward duties.... Because of this, she afterwards counseled her spiritual children to make a cell within their own heart and dwell in it. Therefore, withdraw your spirit from time to time into your heart and there, apart from the world of men, you can converse heart to heart with God.' (St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life)


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tiptoeing Toward the Cell

’There is arithmetic in all this; and one is at a disadvantage until one learns to figure it out. A religious life is very nice in its calculations. If you follow the deductions of the cloister, you find out what seems good and remunerative in worldly life, and what is good and remunerative in a cloistered life, by a perfectly clear process of division and subtraction. The delusive speciousness of elegance in what we can buy is challenged by the genuine values of what the virtues can give us, even out of the seeming barrenness of a convent cell.’ (A Story of Courage, p. 33)

I've had intermittent trouble with our Internet connection. Plans for sharing all I would like about 'the cell' therefore, must be put on hold. In the meantime, I am spending a bit of time with the above paragraph, and particularly with its last sentence. I will admit that writing about my first experience 'in the seeming barrenness of a convent cell' is proving challenging. Primarily because there, I found the exact opposite of barrenness. But some things are hard to speak of, really.

Within a day or so (if the Internet cooperates, and by the grace of God), I shall try....

'The metaphor of the cell brings to mind the idea of a retreat in which the soul can renew its strength after the fatigue of the active life, where it can leave aside visible things to think about those that are invisible, and where it finally finds peace, far from external distractions…'(J.M. Perrin OP., from Catherine of Siena, Newman Press, 1965)

This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line.

Monday, January 18, 2016

There Still Remains One Sanctuary

'The 'little gallery' for the infirm or invalid sisters is just above the grated opening of the choir, and from this the sisters can look down into the sanctuary. This little gallery is reached from the second floor by passing down a long corridor, on each side of which is a row of cells. Here, in the small room, we found wooden chairs, glistening with the polish of a hundred years or more... ' (A Story of Courage p. 35)

Wouldn't it be wonderful if, when we were unable to get out to Mass and/or Adoration, we could simply go to the end of our hallway and look straight into a chapel? 

Thankfully, Our Lord has provided help for those of us who do not live in monasteries. We can adore Him wherever we are, even from sickbeds and hospital rooms, in the cloisters of our hearts. 

'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.' (From The Living Pyx of Jesus, Pelligrini and Co, 1941, p.101) 

'We cannot go to Jesus in the Tabernacle at every moment of the day, but we can turn inward to the Triune God at any moment, even in the midst of our day's worst difficulties.' (The Living Pyx of Jesus, Pelligrini, 1941, p. 27)

'To be with God it is not necessary to be always in church. We may make a chapel of our heart, whereto to escape from time to time to talk with Him quietly, humbly and lovingly.... Begin then; perhaps He is waiting for a single generous resolution.' (Brother Lawrence)  

This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Where Can I Pray?

'Stepping from the corridor, a little farther on, we went into the long choir, whose clear windows look out over the garden; a spacious room fitted with numerous dark stalls on either side, where the sisters sit, or kneel, chanting their offices; matins and lauds, the last devotion at night, then prime, terce, sext, and none; at different early hours of the morning; vespers in the afternoon; and, in the evening, compline. It is in this place — which is not a part of the chapel, but is a room in the convent, simply looking into the chapel — that they hear mass and perform their other religious exercises; their voices
heard, themselves unseen by (those) who come to the chapel.' (A Story of Courage, p. 35-36)

In the cloister of my heart, I can have a 'choir stall.'  Mine is a portable place of prayer, traveling with me to supermarket, airplane, mall.  I can 'sit down' in this prayer-chair regardless of surroundings, seeking God's touch upon my life and on the lives of those around me.

In a very real way, my 'choir stall' can be defined as the place where I am now. 

Upon awakening in the morning, I can enter my choir stall by beginning my day with a prayer.  This is the framework upon which the rest of the day will be woven. 

At some point during the day, I try to set aside a block of time to spend with God. I spend time in prayer with Scripture. It may also be possible for me to go to Mass or Adoration. 'Even if your daily life in the service of mankind is overburdened with work, it has to include time devoted to silence and to prayer…. Learn to pray!'  (Pope St. John Paul II) 

Throughout the morning, afternoon, and evening, I use brief prayers to return me to my choir stall.  I turn my heart to God with inward phrases of prayer, no matter what I am doing or where I happen to be.  'Jesus, I trust in You…' 'Holy Spirit, be my guide….'

As I begin various activities, I can enter the choir stall by offering my actions to God and imploring His aid.  'O you who fear the Lord, praise Him in the places where you are now. Change of place does not affect any drawing nearer to God, but wherever you may be, God will come to you.' (Gregory of Nyssa).

As I retire, I close the day in my choir stall. 'Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in His peace.'  (From Liturgy of the Hours, Night Prayer).
(Above text reposted from our archives)


This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Absolute Center

'The chapel looked narrow, high, sacred, mellow with mingled colors, and lovely in its vague richness and calm. An ancient picture, browned by time, represents Martha and Mary in a composition of much dignity, and hangs directly over the altar... (A Story of Courage, p. 36) 

The first place a person is likely to visit in a monastery is the chapel, for in the chapel is found the center of monasticism.

This is because Jesus is the Absolute Center of cloistered life. To miss this truth is to miss the point of monasticism, and it's to miss the whole point of having a 'cloistered heart.' 

How can a man or woman leave home, possessions, career, entertainment - and so many things the world considers important - in order to take up residence behind enclosure walls?  For what reason would a person even consider such a thing?  

The Reason is a Person.  Without this Person, cloistered life would be pointless and empty and fruitless and vague.  
If we know and remember nothing else about monasteries or various aspects of consecrated life, we must remember this:   

Jesus is the Reason for it all.  

"The fundamental question: ' does he really seek God.'  Let us state the fact without beating about the bush:  a monastic institute which ceased to put this question to its postulants, or which inserted some different question in its place, would cease ipso facto to have any right to the name monastic.  The search, the true search, in which the whole of one's being is engaged, not for some thing but for some One:  is the search for God.  That is the beginning and end of monasticism.  If it is to be truly God which we seek, we have to seek him as a Person."  (The Meaning of the Monastic Life, Lois Bouyer of the Oratory, PJ Kenedy and Sons, NY, 1950,p. 8)
'The Christian life is nothing else but Christ; the monastic life is nothing else but Christ. The requirements for the Christian and for the monk are in substance the same… whether it is union with Him in the world or in the cloister, it is union that is the soul’s purpose. Nothing else matters but this.” (Dom Hubert Van Zeller, THE YOKE OF DIVINE LOVE, Templegate, Springfield IL, 1957, p. 182) 
"We are, each of us, a Living Cathedral.  Each is his own chapel. And provided we are in a state of grace, God lives and dwells within us… (so) we must live and act as if we were dwelling in a church in the presence of the Tabernacle.” (The Living Pyx of Jesus, Pellegrini & Co., Australia,  1941)

(This post is primarily a combination of wrtings from our archives)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Line Drawn

When a potential postulant enters a monastery, she is shown the boundaries within which she's to live. These have already been defined. She does not have to bring her own bricks and mortar and build them herself. All she must do is decide: shall I live within these walls... or not?  

'You recognize that you have arrived at a limit, a barrier-line. Turn, then, and direct your steps, if you choose, to some other quarter. You cannot penetrate the sacred enclosure of the convent. It is a line drawn, a barrier set up, between the loose, miscellaneous world and the things of God.' (A Story of Courage, p. 8) 

In the analogy of the Cloistered Heart, we view our enclosure as the will of God. We do not have to map the boundaries of such 'enclosure' for ourselves; they are clearly marked out for us in Scripture and 2,000 years of authentic Church discernment. We may welcome such boundaries, or we may choose to turn and direct our steps to some other quarter. But these are the boundaries God has given us; they reveal His will, in which He wants us to live. If we decide to tear down a wall here and move a fence there, then ours will not be the enclosure God has built for us. 'If you believe what you like in the Gospel,' wrote St. Augustine, 'and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.'

Have we seen what happens when we try to make boundaries apart from God? We grasp for moral guidelines that, if we find them at all, are contrived and artificial. Using mere human efforts, we try to make peace happen - and it doesn't. The world outside of God's will is a loose mix of miscellany, and we can be hard pressed to make sense of it all.    

Because God loves us, He has set boundaries in place for our security. 'Live in My will,' God tells me. 'Live in My will when you understand it and when you do not. Trust ME.'  In the face of such an invitation, I have a choice to make. Yet God does not force me. I have been given free will, and I can choose whether to live as God asks, or to direct my steps to some other quarter. 

Will I dwell in the security of God’s will? 

Or must I insist on stumbling about in the hazards of my own.   

"Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God's will, what is good, pleasing and perfect."  (Romans 12:2)

Text not in quotes © 2016 N Shuman

Photo: N Shuman, Wall at Georgetown Visitation Monastery, DC, 1990s 

This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Spirit of the Convent Bade us Pause

Having found the monastery where we'd be retreating for a few days, my friend and I were led into a small parlor. The room was separated from the street by the thickness of one wall, a narrow patch of greenery, a short wrought iron fence, and a brick sidewalk. I was surprised at the sudden silence. These walls must be thick, I decided, which only made sense given the age of the building. I'd been told that this was the oldest community of Visitation nuns in the United States (this monastery having been founded in 1799).

Some communities of the Visitation are able to offer laywomen a place of silent retreat for a few days inside the actual cloister, so the ladies can go back to their families spiritually refreshed and recharged. My friend and I were embracing this opportunity. Our time apart from the world would not be 'directed,' but would simply be a chance to pray and live alongside the nuns, in their own environment, and to experience a little sampling of monastic life.  We had found our way along an Interstate (taking a wrong turn in the process), we'd snaked through DC traffic, gulped down a few rushed meals, driven round and round this one area of Georgetown before finding our destination, and now, at the edge of the cloister - we found that our rushing came to a sudden halt. 

‘The spirit of the convent bade us pause. All our worldly wisdom and ordinary knowledge seemed to take flight, and to be of no account whatever. We felt like children who have strayed into some privacy which does not belong to them, which they are hardly qualified to share.’ (A Story of Courage, p.12)

We were straying, indeed, into a privacy which did not belong to us, for we were laywoman and we'd be taking no vows. Yet I, for one, was not crossing the threshold unaware. The cloistered heart analogies I had been pondering were now, in physical form, standing right before me.  I had written that the 'enclosure' of a cloistered heart was within the will of God. We can make a choice to embrace His will, I'd said; we can make a decision to - by His grace - live within it. 'I like to use the analogy of a person entering the cloister because it is such a total move. 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 is not. And yet we can give ourselves mostly to God and leave parts of our lives dangling outside that surrender.' (N Shuman)

I had a feeling I'd learn more about the analogies I'd been living with as I saw what life was actually like on the other side of the enclosure walls. 'We were to cross the threshold of the large entrance door, usually inaccessible to the world.....'

If I hoped to spend these next few days in reasonable comfort, I'd better bring every last bit of me inside.

Photo at top via Pixabay
Photo at bottom (cloister door), N Shuman - probably from Georgetown Visitation in the 1990s, but unfortunately I'm not certain of the location

Text not in quotes © 2016 N Shuman

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Right Address

Arriving for my first-ever retreat inside an actual monastery, I could not find the building. Nor could the friend who'd come with me, and who was doing the driving. We were at the right address, looking at the spot where the monastery should be, yet for the life of us we could not spot it. All of the buildings in the neighborhood looked, to us, the same. Most were rowhouses, standing shoulder to shoulder along the narrow city street.

There was no sign reading 'monastery' or 'convent.' Brick sidewalks stretched almost to the doorways. There were no front yards. The only monasteries I'd been to before this were miles away from towns, separated from the 'outer word' by fields or forests. Could we have been given the wrong address? I wondered.

Eventually we found an entrance to our destination and yes, here was the monastery - just a few feet from the street. It sat surrounded by cars, pedestrians, and lots and lots of noise. Its outside blended in perfectly with every other building.

'Their thoughts are fixed on God, not on the world; still less on the casual street that runs by their door.' wrote the Lathrops of this spot. 'A narrow strip of grass, railed in by a light iron fence, separates their dwelling from the sidewalk, and gives them an added safeguard in their retirement. All this is in accord with the aims of a community like that of the Visitation. Their object is … to prevent the intrusion of careless, worldly, noisy people, who may be inclined to invade the seclusion and sanctity of a life wholly ordered and consecrated to spiritual purposes. (A Story of Courage, p. 7)

'The countenance, then, if one may so describe it, of this building is calm, neutral, neither repelling nor inviting... it is in no way demonstrative. From a distance you cannot even distinguish it from other buildings. It does not dominate them. It does not tower up, or threaten, or warn you away...  It simply stands there, and waits..' 

As one striving to live 'cloistered in heart,' I look upon my life, even my body, as a 'monastery.' I can be a place where God is loved, served, lived for in the midst of the world. I do not stand out from people around me. I look like members of my family, dress like other women my age, talk like everyone else. No one passing me on the sidewalk would cry out 'why, look at that - there goes a walking monastery!' Yet my prayers and babysteps toward holiness happen, in large part, right in the midst of everyday life.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with others, in the middle of the world all around me, I'm situated precisely where I need to be.

I am at the exact right address for a cloistered heart.

Photo at top: Georgetown Visitation DC, 2002, N Shuman 

Photo of crowd from Pixabay

Text not in quotes © 2016 N Shuman

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Sometimes the Same Changes

'The Convent of the Visitation in Georgetown is a large three-sided structure of brick, enclosing a great garden. Across the street is a row of cosy dwellings, standing somewhat back from the sidewalk... The city and the suburb have been gradually welded into one by a continuous and expanding web of streets and houses, so that now they stretch up to the very border of the convent demesne.' (A Story of Courage, p. 6)

This is precisely what I've met with on my visits to this convent. The looming structure, those cosy Georgetown rowhouses in gentle colors of yellow and grey, all surround a garden that I find great indeed. The city has stretched a great deal more since the above was written, so that city and suburb now wrap entirely around the monastic dwelling. Yet reading this century old book, I am sometimes astonished by what remains the same.

At other times, I'm charmed to see what has changed.

'At the southern corner of the convent, the patient horse-car from the heart of Washington plods its equine way.'  It is something I cannot imagine, this horse car patiently plodding. Sitting outside in the walled garden, I've been struck as much as anything by noise. But I'm getting ahead...

'The convent proper - or, as it is often called, the 'monastery' - is a long, plain four-story brick house...'

One thing I used to find puzzling was the use of the word 'monastery' for what I was calling a 'convent.' Weren't monasteries for men, and convents for women? When I began trying to learn which was what, I would have been happy to find an 'Internet' (I was still 'patiently plodding' through stacks of library books in my study of cloistered life). Today information is literally at one's fingertips, of course, and I found the following basic definitions (here) at Catholic Online Encyclopedia:

'Monastery: An autonomous community house of a religious order, which may or may not be a monastic order. The term is used more specifically to refer to a community house of men or women religious in which they lead a contemplative life separate from the world.'

'Convent: In common usage, the term refers to a house of women religious.'

'Cloister: Part of a convent or monastery reserved for use by members of the institute.'

As we continue this little adventure, I will most likely use 'monastery' and 'convent' interchangeably - simply because 'convent' is the word most often used in the Lathrop's book.

And I interrupt this post for a bit of news... Thanks to a new scanner, plus a lot of late night digging through old scrapbooks, I can now share 20-ish year old pictures I've snapped at the very monastery we're 'visiting,' as well as in a few other monasteries (convents) over the years.

Along the way, we'll of course be looking into how what we see and read can be applied to our lives in the world, for that is what we do here, isn't it? By the grace of God, that's what we try to do.

Photo: Cloister garden, Georgetown Visitation Monastery, 1990s, N Shuman photo

This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Brush With Simplicity

'The time of year at which we first saw the convent was perhaps not unfitting for our first impressions; since the December leaflessness, the unornamented aspect of the ground and the stone walls, whose vines were mere shadows, typified the stern simplicity of the life which the Sisters have adopted; while the bursts of delicate but cheery sunshine resembled their good spirits, which are so entirely spiritual.' (A Story of Courage, George Parsons Lathrop and Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, 1894, p. 1)

This selfsame convent, when I first saw it, was not unlike what the Lathrops had found a century before. Leafless, yes. Unornamented, yes. High walls splattered, on the day I arrived, with frigid autumn rain.

I sensed something of the 'stern simplicity,' and it took me by surprise. I was entering the cloister as a retreatant only; I would soon return home to husband and family. By this time I'd spent several years writing about, analogizing, daydreaming of life in a cloister, and I had long been anticipating my first tiny taste of the life inside. I would never have expected to arrive at the gates in a funny little grip of fear. 

I had been well prepared by the retreat directress, who happened to be a personal friend. I would be housed in a cell, on a floor with the nuns. I was expected to wear modest skirts, quiet shoes, and to maintain silence. I'd be eating with the Sisters in refectory, and I could join them in the choir stalls for Masses and times of prayer. I had looked forward eagerly to doing these exact things, yet now that I was actually stepping toward my temporary enclosure, I was not so sure....

'Why should an amateur in the study of convents expect at once to comprehend their value, any more than a tyro in art the virtue of a Millet or a Michelangelo? Many people see no beauty in the highest art, who never confess their blindness. Is it not almost as mortifying to confess that we dislike holiness of life?' (Lathrop, p. 2) 

I had been 'studying convents,' by this time, for at least two years - having been advised by Father Michael Scanlan T.O.R. to undertake such a study.  I had made, per Father's recommendation, a 'yes and no list' of where 'cloistered heart' analogies and goals fit or did not fit with charisms of particular Orders. It was absorbing work and I loved it. As a laywoman, I would always be something of  'an amateur in the study of convents.' Yet I found my heart soaring when I read descriptions of monastic life in all its stark beauty and its example of life lived totally, not just mostly, for God.

Now I was not merely reading about cloisters; I was walking into one. I'd imagined the silence of a monastery, and now I would have no choice but to briefly live inside the hush. Could I survive in 'stern simplicity,' even for a few days? It surely sounds dramatic to say I wondered. But: I wondered.

I've been blessed to be on retreat a number of times since that initial visit, but nothing has affected me like that first little sampling of life inside the walls. Now, thanks to the friend who presented me with this book (click here to read about it), I would like to share not only something of those first days, but fruits of several cloistered retreats. Which I will be doing for the next ... little while...?

I hope you'll be coming along.

Painting: Henri Martin, in US public domain due to age 

This post is part of our series 'A Story of Courage.' To continue in chronological order, click this line.

Sunday, January 3, 2016