Ordinary Women

Feb. 23-March 1,2006
VOL 125 NO. 7
Ordinary Women
By Catholic News Service
SUN photo(s) CNS
`Poor Clares Live Out Reality of Contemplative Life

ST. LOUIS (CNS) — It’s hard to imagine young women of today choosing a life of enclosure, silence and prayer.
But three happy, healthy young women — all in their 20s — are now in formation at the Monastery of St. Clare in St. Louis. Each heard God’s call and chose to be a Poor Clare.
Sister Mary Therese of the Sacred Heart Lavery, 26, entered the Poor Clares in 2001. The former Texas A&M University engineering student learned about the monastic community on a “nun run,” in which young women discerning a vocation visit several religious orders in a set period of time. Sister Mary Christiana of Our Eucharistic King Schwent, 20, entered the monastery in September 2004. She learned of the Poor Clares through her youth group; her mother and a young priest also encouraged her vocation.

Sister Mary Joseph of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary Rieger, 27, arrived in October 2004. The University of Missouri-Columbia political science graduate, who once worked as an intern on George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, hadn’t even known there were Poor Clares in the St. Louis Archdiocese until a close friend led her to them.

The three differ in personalities, looks and backgrounds. But what is impossible to miss is the one thing they share in abundance: a joyfulness of spirit. These young women have given up everything that the secular world claims is needed to be happy, and yet they couldn’t be happier. Are they somehow different from other people? Not at all, said Poor Clare Mother Mary Leo Hoffmann, abbess of the 12-member cloistered community.

“We are ordinary women, but we’ve just been called to an extraordinary vocation,” she told the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper. The Poor Clares carry on traditions handed down to them more than eight centuries ago by St. Clare of Assisi. They take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure, promising to remain within the confines of the monastery.

The nuns meet and speak with visitors from behind a grille, or partition, which physically separates them from the outside world. Even when their families come to see them, which is permitted four times a year, they remain in enclosure.

Their main ministry is prayer. They constantly pray for others and gladly accept prayer requests. Their prayer lives include frequent adoration of the Eucharist, praying the rosary and private meditation.

The nuns follow a simple rule of silence. They are allowed to speak when it is necessary; otherwise, they keep silent throughout the day. During one recreational period daily, and on special occasions, they are free to talk.

Immersed in prayer, their days also are filled with caring for each other, chores, sewing — including making their own habits — music, cooking, studying the Catholic faith and helping to support themselves through the making of altar bread.

They don’t eat meat. They don’t use the Internet. They don’t watch television, listen to the radio or read secular newspapers. One member scans the daily news to keep her fellow nuns informed of major events. People who learn about their cloistered lives often ask how they can give up everything. Those who ask that question are looking at the situation from a worldly point of view, Mother Mary Leo said, and consequently would not be able to live in this way. But these young women, she said, “have been touched by God’s grace. They enjoy those things just as much as anyone else, but they see something deeper and of greater value than what the world is offering to them.”

Sisters Mary Therese, Mary Christiana and Mary Joseph laughed and teased each other as they talked about their monastic lives. They leave no doubt they love what they do. Sisters Mary Joseph and Mary Christiana, both novices, wear white veils with the Poor Clare brown habit. Their habit includes a cord without the knots, which signify the vows. Sister Mary Therese, in her fifth year of formation, sports the community’s standard black veil and chord with knots.

Some people think you have to be a saint to be a cloistered nun, but that is also not true, they said. Explained Sister Mary Christiana: “He doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called.” But it is no life of leisure. “There’s a lot of work,” Sister Mary Therese said, as Sisters Mary Christiana and Mary Joseph nodded in agreement. Still, they keep a positive attitude about it, laughing, for example, at just the mention of scrubbing floors, a typical duty.

Sister Mary Joseph wanted to clear up a misconception that they never speak, pointing out they are allowed to talk at certain times. Otherwise, “I wouldn’t make it,” she said. Sister Mary Therese pointed out that though they are cloistered they are not locked inside the building. “We can go outside” in the monastery yard, she said.

The enclosure’s purpose, they said, has more to do with keeping the world out than keeping in its occupants. It helps them to concentrate on what God intended and be totally devoted to him. “It’s so much harder to stay in a cloister than to leave,” Sister Mary Joseph said. “You can always leave.”

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