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[caption id="attachment_171086" align="aligncenter" width="1180"]"Closest thing to the cloister" by Claire Dwyer (CatholicMom.com) Image by Sharon McCutcheon (2020), Unsplash.com, CC0/PD[/caption]

This is the closest thing I’ll ever get to living the cloistered life, I thought, as I tossed out the school calendar and basketball season schedules. I put backpacks and lunchboxes in storage. I erased my oldest’s commencement exercises off the square in April. I canceled my hair appointment and dental check-ups and turned to face a new (albeit temporary) kind of life: life in a sort-of impromptu monastery — an unusual one, for sure, with a tent made of sheets in the front room and a large stash of legos spread across the floor in the "cell" of two inhabitants.

There is a certain truth to this reality of the COVID-19 induced quarantined life: we now have an opportunity to taste a bit of life as it is lived behind the walls of a convent.

So I asked two cloistered communities of sisters, the Carmelite Nuns in Alhambra, California and the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration in Tonopah, Arizona, to share — from their unique experiences — two things with me:

  • What is God inviting us to in this time of forced isolation and separation?
  • How can we best dispose ourselves to not just surviving but actually growing during these hidden weeks in our homes?

Both communities had the same answer to the first question: This time is an invitation to deeper encounter with the Lord and a renewal of relationships.

By slowing down the swirling dizziness of running from one thing to the next, God is asking us to pause and live more “intentionally and attentively,” say the Poor Clares. “Within the confines of the monastery walls (or in the case of many now — within the home), we learn the beautiful significance of very small things. Through intentional living we allow the Lord to use these very small things to do mighty works in our soul, in our community (family), and in the whole world. Being attentive to His love throughout the day becomes possible in silence. Without the ‘normal’ distractions and noise the voice of the Lord is more readily heard.”

Sister Fidelis, spokeswoman for her community, added, “I laugh as I write … am sitting outside and with all the construction equipment (building a new monastery) loudly humming I can barely string one thought to the next!” Well, that is certainly something any parent can understand! 

And speaking of which we encounter the Lord within each other. For those of us with young families, we have the opportunity to draw closer together through increased family time and really make present the Domestic Church. We may not have been able to attend Mass together Easter Morning, but hearing my son read the Gospel aloud in our living room was something sacred in itself.

I personally realized early on that I could either be closer to my husband and kids at the end of this season, or see our relationships fraying at the edges from the constant rubbing. I have to make a choice every day to embrace each opportunity to serve and love them and invest in their emotional and spiritual lives. The way I frame things in my self-talk is key: is this really exhausting and irritating — or challenging and stretching? There is suffering, for sure — but thanks to our Catholic faith, we know that even the most difficult moments are redemptive and are working for us on the salvific side of things.

We are also called, the Poor Clares point out, into relationship through intercessory prayer. Whether we are alone or have a bunch of kids cloistering with us, the Lord is inviting us to unite with the world in common prayers: for health, safety, a return to the sacraments and for a restoration of reverence, in gratitude for health care workers and others who carry on despite the risks to their safety, for those sick and dying and their families, for those plunged into fear due to the financial fallout. Our shared prayers strengthen our unity. The nuns know this very well—after all, their hidden life is not so that they can forget the world, but so that they can better pray for the rest of us.

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So, practically speaking, how do we best make quarantine-time a fruitful season? “To move from “go, go, go, and do, do, do to more of a be, be, be is indeed challenging,” admits Sister Fidelis. But there are some things that can help.

There are three things that stood out in their responses.

  1. Create a new “rule of life” or schedule or what the Poor Clares call an “horarium.” Both convents had this at the top of their list. In other words, set aside a time for everything and stick to it. “We all do better with some sort of schedule in order to get things done,” observed the Carmelites. This is all up to us now without the outside structure of school and worship schedules, practice times, and office hours.

    Rather than being restrictive, say the Poor Clares, this is actually liberating: “How freeing it is! How it offers stable support so as not to squander time and turn in on ourselves. It provides structure to our day that naturally lends itself to prayer, healthy habits, creative outlets, and authentically human (life-giving) experience/encounters (like consistently sharing meals and meaningful conversation, enjoying both communal (familial) and personal (quiet) times of recreation.”

  2. The Carmelites wisely note that isolation may not mean silence for parents. Yet quiet is a basic human need. So carving out space for yourself — or your kids — to just be with God within that rule is important, they say, just as each nun has her own private cell within the community space. It may take creativity — the sheet strung across chairs in our living room is an example — but it is worth the effort, especially because the constant ‘togetherness’ will inevitably create more frequent friction.

    Sister Therese Marie of Jesus, who wrote on behalf of the Carmelites, shared a quote from her namesake, St. Therese: “I told her I went behind my bed in an empty space which was there, and that it was easy to close myself in with my bed curtain and that, ‘I thought … I think about God, about life, about ETERNITY … I think!’ and God was already instructing me in secret.”

    Besides prayer, what to do in our little space? I loved their advice: “take a nap!” — sans guilt — and also reading … work through the stack on your bedside table. But the point is to find something quiet to refresh and strengthen you away from the stresses of your ‘community’, even if it is just for a few minutes.

  1. Finally, take advantage of the best of modern media to stay connected to the Church. The Carmelites suggest EWTN and other solid sources to watch Mass, homilies, and talks and teachings from Rome all the way down our neighborhood parish. Moderate use of technology’s virtual events and broadcasts can help us to feel like we are part of something universal. Because we are.

In case we are feeling alone, the nuns remind us that when we can’t receive Jesus in the Eucharist, to remember that He dwells within us. And they assure us of their daily prayers, which is the best reminder that in Christ, we are connected in so powerful a way that no quarantine or restrictions can separate us.

Above all, the Carmelites urge us: “Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer” (Romans 12:12). Who can argue with that?

Be safe, cloistered friends, wherever you are.

[caption id="attachment_171085" align="aligncenter" width="1180"]"Closest thing to the cloister" by Claire Dwyer (CatholicMom.com) Image: Pixabay.com (2019), CC0/PD[/caption]

Copyright 2020 Claire Dwyer