It is a “job ’o work” getting a few dozen women fed three times each day, even if the meals are simple and the choices non-existent.
They all have laundry to be done as well, and because many larger convents and monasteries are self-sustaining, there are gardens to be planted and tended, eggs to be gathered, cows to be milked, and often as not, a little business on the side to help pay the bills, perhaps bee hives or bread-making.
The difference between us and cloistered monastics is shrinking, isn’t it?
Saint Benedict had a solution, and it is famous in monastic circles. He coined the phrase, “Ora et Labora,” “Prayer and Work,” and that’s what makes cloistered life hum. His instructions were more than practical; he knew that the Scripture highlights a fundamental principle, one that saved the lives of the early Puritans under the governorship of William Bradford, and it is, “who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.” This wasn’t Scriptural or colonial “to bed without supper,” it is a fact of community life and honor in the Abbey as it was in Plymouth Colony, where that little band survived. Those who had come before them were looking for gold washed up on the seashore or under the mushrooms; they were put out on the beach without leadership or vision or much of a work ethic. These earlier adventurers couldn’t take care of themselves and they fled for home or starved.
Cloistered nuns have to take care of themselves, for no one else is allowed inside. Only under the most serious conditions does anyone enter … usually severe plumbing or medical emergencies! In those cases, in traditional houses, the Portress would precede the visitor down the maze of corridors, ringing a bell to let her Sisters know to stay out of sight for the time being.
Also in those days, a large house would have a full complement of extern sisters, but never full enough to keep their enclosed Sister Nuns from having to pick apples at harvest or help with the planting when there was a break in the weather. The gardens and apple trees, were, of course, all accessible within the walls of the Abbey, along with walking paths for daily exercise, that enclosure would be kept.
Extern Sisters wore the same habit and attended Mass and Recreation with the cloistered nuns, but they did not chant the Divine Office with them because of their more rigorous work schedule. They did and do keep the Office together, at least in part, fitted into their busy days, but they must have supper on the table, and on time! Sound familiar?
Theirs was considered just as important a role as their Contemplative counterparts, and given all the more honor because everyone knew that without the Extern Sisters, the Enclosure would fail. Our focus is on the contemplative side of cloistered life, but we could say in truth that if an Extern Sister can take time out for prayer five or six times a day (and seven or more in times past,) so can we! Those intervals may be short, but our love for the Lord and His for us will make them sweet.
Let’s be sure that, when we are honest-hearted about the intervals of time that we do have at our disposal, the fact that we took the time, matters. Time is given to all, and precisely the same twenty-four hours, no matter our station in life. The at-home nun who kneels beside her bed to read one Psalm every day at the fitting interval, when five minutes is truly all she has, makes a difference for herself. Later, or earlier, she might have another five or thirty. Those who can take an hour in the morning or twenty minutes at lunch or ten minutes in the car alone, every day, sanctified to the Lord, will not be unrewarded. No Abbess can make that guarantee of herself, but it has been made by the Lord.
But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:6, ESV)
So, to us. We ask ourselves, as we often will, what might be the result if we will “carpe minutam,” … seize the minute, if the day tends to get away from us?
Here in Cor Unum, each of us is Abbess, Contemplative Nun, Extern Sister, and Portress, all rolled into one. (The Portress is an enclosed nun who has a secretarial position, often in service to the Mother Abbess, and who has the most contact with the Extern Sisters and the outside world, primarily through the media.) Even if we don’t have to feed a family, we do have to feed ourselves, my dear widowed and solitary Sisters, and we will learn as we go that one must “eat well to fast well,” a pithy monastic saying. Someone has to sweep the porch and scrub the sinks and fold clothes, even if only for oneself.
Three hundred sixty-five days each year. That’s a lot of dishes and a lot of sweeping, but it’s a whole lot of devotion, too. We must begin to think much more expansively! Taking the example of Psalm reading, that would cover the entire book of Psalms twice each year. Not all, perhaps, but many of us would have a hard time remembering the last time we read all the way through the Psalms twice in a year!
Sister Brigid always reminds us … “By the mile, it’s a trial, and by the yard, it’s still hard … but by the inch, it’s a cinch!” Saint Benedict didn’t include those words in his rule … too bad!
Keep that thought in mind, Sisters and Brothers. Tomorrow, our first “Office.”