A nun's tale

Day-to-Day life in a silent, Catholic nunnery

By LAUREN GELFOND FELDINGER
November 2, 2005 15:57

 
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Day-to-Day life in a silent, Catholic nunnery A stretch of sandstone wall marked by a pale yellow gate with a small metal cross atop is the only hint that a monastery is hidden inside. Though there is no sign to welcome or guide visitors, the wall is right off a main highway in plain sight, staring silently at passersby, like a symbol of the delicate struggle for balance between solitude and graciousness facing today's Catholic monasteries in Israel. Inside the Monastery of St. Claire, in Jerusalem's Abu Tor neighborhood, as the entrance clanks shut, the whoosh of traffic disappears; silence and the fragrance of plants abruptly take their place. Sister Claire-Edith of the Cross, one of the only 16 nuns with permission to speak to the public, waits with her head bowed in the shadows of the reception parlor. A painted crucifix peers over her head. In a space reminiscent of a prison visitation area, where public and private citizens never physically meet, she sits on a folding chair in a bare and relatively dark room, behind a gate that is only open when a nun greets a visitor. On the visitors' side, the floor is a deep red tile covered by rugs; chairs are covered with pillows. The contrast and separation is not only a metaphor. The nuns rarely cross the boundaries from private to public space into the material world. But from across the divide, she smiles and extends her hand. Unlike the Franciscan Friars who are seen all over town in their brown robes, as they preach, oversee the Catholic Holy Land places and run charitable programs, their female counterparts, the Poor Claires, are cloistered and silent, their sole focus on prayer. Commemorating their common foundations, the friars and nuns adorn their brown habits with a knotted rope belt, honoring those worn by their 13th-century founders, Saint Francis and Saint Claire of Assisi. The knots recall their vows to poverty, chastity, and obedience. The nuns have a fourth knot for their unique vow: enclosure. There are scores of diverse Catholic orders. But the number of Catholic monastic orders in Israel that are contemplative, silent and enclosed - including the Poor Claires, the Carmelites, the Benedictines, and the Trappists - are few. WHEN ASKED why her superior allows her to break her silence to greet the public, Sister Claire-Edith laughs, explaining they have "nothing to hide." Living among the Jews, she says, she knows there is fear of missionaries. The order wanted to be "transparent," so the public would know they were only praying, not trying to convert anyone. An intense curiosity from outsiders inspired her to create a presentation she calls "everything you ever wanted to know about nuns but were afraid to ask." She jokes frequently and fiercely knits her eyebrows. But inside the enclosure, it's important to swallow impulses like witty comments, she says: "You give up casual conversation and chatter." The nuns are silent except for 40-60 minutes during daily recreation time. The rule of silence has other caveats, if necessitated by work, civic and living duties, and "giving of love" - assisting a person who is ill or upset. "If you are having a horrible day, it happens here too, you need to vent in order to get on. This is one way to experience our love for each other," she says. When not explaining the Poor Claires to the public, the nuns engage in prayer all day, even during gardening, laundry and kitchen duties. "We pray even when we're sweeping the floor," she says. The nuns also study scriptures, Franciscan and Christian history and spirituality, liturgy, Gregorian chants, and church fathers. "We are not in-line successors from the Desert Fathers," says Sister Claire-Edith, "Maybe sociologically. What we have in common is a search for God." The Desert Fathers were the first Christians in the Middle East to flee the materialism and persecution of the third- and fourth-century Roman Empire to live a purely spiritual life with a "monogamous" commitment to God, from within the silence and solitude of the deserts. Western monasticism was greatly inspired by the East, after the philosophies of monks visiting Rome in the fourth century were translated into Latin. While it took hold in Catholic traditions, monasticism was primarily rejected by Protestantism. Some Anglican churches today do have monastic orders, but none here are contemplative or cloistered. The Western monasticism of the Catholic Church grew largely from the Rule of St. Benedict of the sixth century, who expanded on the works of the Desert Fathers and their successors. His Rule permitted more and diversified foods, more sleep, more seclusion within a group format, and a vow of "stability" - staying for life at a chosen monastery. It also allowed for public mediators. The order of Saint Claire, or the Poor Claires, was founded in 1212 by Claire of Assisi, the first female follower of Francis of Assisi. Both rejected society and wealth to live in poverty and prayer. "Giving up will doesn't mean I become an automaton or like a person in a cult," she says. "But in a mature and responsible way we decide to obey the will of God as experienced in community and by superiors. We are choosing someone else's will or good over our own." Explaining how monks and nuns influence society, she likes to quote a Trappist monk who once said that, "Monks choose to be marginalized - but it's the margins that define the page, give it shape, and make it easier to read." "Prayer is real, potent, a force, an energy," she says. "The fruits of life in a monastery are shared by the greater society. We stand in the gap before the throne of God to remind people that the spiritual world is real and that there is more to life than material suffering or joy. The quiet, prayer, doesn't mean they are going to become Christian, but they will get closer to God; there is only one God." These are the philosophies of all Poor Claires, but the nuns in Israel have profoundly different experiences from those in the US. Sister Claire-Edith listens to the news once a day to report back, so that sisters can pray for local suffering to be healed. In the peak of the intifada she would turn on the radio several times. To better know the local society, many of the nuns have opted to study Hebrew, Midrash, and Jewish history and spirituality. The Poor Claires in Nazareth, in contrast, learn Arabic language and culture. Inside the monastery church, this influence can be seen - homemade icons have Jewish references. Highly unusual in the history of iconography, one has Hebrew writing, and another shows baby Jesus in a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl. But between the general public and the nuns, there is always a barrier. Sister Claire-Edith excuses herself for evening prayers through a back door and disappears. Like everywhere in the monastery, its silent church has a dramatic division between public and private space. When a shade is drawn, the nuns are revealed behind a metal grate. Without glimpsing in, they begin to pray, lifting their soprano voices in unison. The force of their melodic prayers fills the public and private sides of the church, like a soundtrack to a medieval drama. They worship for 25 minutes, kneel before the altar, and the grate is shut. The window allowing the public a glimpse in is closed.

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