Recently, as part of a research project for Mater Redemptoris House of Formation, I travelled to St. Louis and visited with a wide variety of cloistered contemplative nuns. They graciously told me about their lives, explaining this ancient form of the consecrated life so that I can pass it on to the girls and women of the Diocese of La Crosse.
So what do they do? And why do they do it?
Mainly, they pray. They chant and sing the Liturgy of the Hours, a prayer that has been around since the earliest days of the Church, and has developed into an intricate, lovely and powerful prayer of the Christian faithful to the God who loves and saves us. It consists of seven “hours,” spread over the day and night…and the nuns pray day and night. Some rise during the night to pray as a community, others follow one another in hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, all night long. They meditate on the truths of the faith, and God’s incomparable grace. They recite the rosary and pray the Stations of the Cross. They spend time in private intercessory prayer. They adore the Lord ever-present in the Blessed Sacrament.
The nuns live their lives in silence. There are times to talk, to laugh together, to speak with their Sisters and develop community ties, but most of their days pass in silence, for in silence they focus all of their spiritual, emotional and intellectual powers on God.
All of them engage in some form of work, mostly housework, artwork, the baking of hosts, and liturgical needlework. They offer their work to God as a form of prayer.
All the nuns told me that their orders were founded to pray for the Church – the Poor Clares, to render continual praise to God through the Liturgy of the Hours and the Holy Mass; the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, to adore the Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament; the Redemptoristines, to provide prayer support for the mission and publication work of the Redemptorist Fathers; the Passionists, to adore Our Lord Jesus Christ and thank him continually for the gift of salvation won through his Passion; the Carmelites, to pray for priests and the missions.
And all of them pray for thousands of prayer intentions passed on to them by the faithful each day. For the sick, and the poor and the people with troubles of all kinds – but it is specific, in the many written, faxed, telephoned and e-mailed prayer requests they receive.
They know that people do not understand. It’s called selfish, or out of date, or irrelevant. Sometimes girls and women, looking at their lives, say, “It’s beautiful, but I want to do something.” As one Sister told me, “The reason several of our Sisters came was because they felt that the work they were doing as teachers or missionaries was inadequate: ‘I could only reach one classroom at a time,’ said one, ‘now I can reach them all.’”