• Jamie Leatherby

What’s it like in a cloister?

Originally Posted Mar 16, 2018 | An Extroverted Millennial Enters the Cloister

As a cloistered nun, what do you do all day? Actually, life here in a monastery is very busy. Busy as in our hours are full, not as the worldly kind of busy. When you step away from the world, it allows a refreshment and a breather. Yesterday I was able to have a “hermit day.” This is a day once a month when I get to take a personal retreat. You may be thinking, “Aren’t you on retreat every day if you’re a nun?” Well yes, but this allows you to study and pray throughout the entire day instead of being bound by your normal work duties. I am able to pray the Liturgy of the Hours on my own instead of in chapel with the sisters. It’s nice though, to sneak into the back and just listen to the beauty of the Hours.

LITURGY OF THE HOURS: Explaining my day would not be complete without explaining the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours. These are the prayers of the universal Catholic Church. They are the prayers that are required by all priests and religious every single day, multiple times throughout the day. As cloistered nuns, we pray all of the Hours, whereas your parish priest for example is required to pray only some. It is composed of the Psalms, the same exact prayers that Jesus prayed. Whoa! At the same time during the day that I am praying them the nuns in France or Nigeria are praying the exact same words from Scripture! How’s that for universal!

A Different World

Crossing the threshold of the cloister is walking into a different world. For example, The stained glass windows and walls are 1960s colors from when the monastery was relocated from Detroit. On the surface, it is different to me because it is as if I’m walking into my grandmother’s house. She is 90 and the dishware here is the same sort of thing she uses. I also come from a world where you grab a frozen chicken potpie and throw it in the microwave for dinner or look up a five minute Tasty video with 5 ingredients for dinner. Every meal here, every item, is made from scratch with plenty of cookbooks to spare.

Most of the sisters are in their 60s to 90s and so we are a community of women living with many generational gaps. This is not the usual generational gap, however, since these women have not lived in the world for over 20 years. Yes, the sisters are up to date on what’s happening in the world but to experience it is a different story. One of our sisters, Sr. Mary Magdalen, who is 96, has been a nun for about 75 years. Behind the walls of a cloister and not being in the world for almost 100 years has a beautiful impact on one’s purity. This means her experience of the world is from a very different time.

On “free days” such as a major solemnity (important days in the church), national holiday, or the prioress’ feast day, the sisters are able to eat meals while talking (since usually a book is being read during meals in the refectory) and watch a movie. It may be a saints’ story, a movie with a religious theme, etc. A fellow sister told me they have to be careful what movies they show Sr. Mary Magdalen since she is so innocent and pure. I am learning that to be in an enclosed world where time passes in the world as you left it is a weird time warp; however, as my sisters are showing me, they would not change it for the world. They have left the world because they have found something greater – rather, someone greater – Christ.

An Old Soul

I had always thought I would have been better suited for an older generation and it seems God has granted me that request. Instead of a world where everyone is on their cell phone when they’re out to dinner, it’s a world of actual communication. I have a fondness for the elderly. Throughout college, I chose to visit elderly homes to soak up knowledge they gained through their life experiences. God could have called me to a religious community that has all of the young vocations with women my age, but he did not. Instead He called me to a place where I can soak up the wisdom of these living saints, my sisters, untainted by the worldly influences that can bog down the world with more problems.

Their life of silence to pray and study leads to a knowledge of self and of God. I had the privilege of visiting Sr. Mary of Mercy in our infirmary (our wing in the monastery where the older sisters sleep and have 24 hour nurses). She has held four terms as prioress, has a college education, and is a very bright Thomist (lover of St. Thomas Aquinas). When I got to speak with her I was near tears but trying to hold it in. There is a beauty to this woman. A radiance. A holiness. As the Bride of Christ. She has given her entire life to her good God.

Beauty in the Monastery

At night, when we process in for Compline (Night Prayer) we line up two by two and enter our chapel in the dark singing the Salve Regina. We line up facing each other on either side of our center aisle. I am blown away by the reverence and beauty of these women of God. Completely surrendered to Him, to never leave these four walls; To sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament, not seeing the results of their prayers, praying for the needs of the entire world. To sit in quiet surrender. All your meals in silence, in contemplation, in prayer. These women are regular people that God has called and they responded and have given years to Him.

Imagine walking down the halls to see a white habit and long black veil swish as a nun goes off to her adoration hour. Beautiful. Sr. Pauline, our young Vietnamese sister, waters the flowers on the altar. It is an act that doesn’t seem too big in itself but there is a true beauty and reverence in watching her work, in her doing it all for God.

When we get to recreation, we have an hour to just enjoy ourselves each night. You may wonder, “Are they weighed down by the silence and find recreation the time to relieve the burden of not being able to talk all day?” No, they are free just like any other human being. They laugh and have a good time, play pinochle, have a book reading, or work on a puzzle. They tease each other and give each other a hard time when they don’t get the right cards. They are your normal everyday people who live a life of love and they are also very helpful, always quick to see what needs done, especially for me being the new sister.

They are special women. Beautiful and radiant women of God. I am blessed to be among them.

© Jamie Leatherby 2018

Photo: Sr. Jamie with Sister Mary Magdalen, the oldest sister in the community at age 96.

Editor’s Note: Sister Jamie will not have internet access during Lent. This is the third of four posts she has provided me. I will publish them every other Friday. The next will be on Good Friday.

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