Early in my discernment journey, I spent quite a bit of time getting to know the community of Carmelite nuns at Ware, Hertfordshire. This consisted of lots of long chats with the novice mistress, visits to the monastery (the guest house had a VHS player and a copy of ‘Sister Act’, so I’d happily go back any time) and even a bit of time inside the enclosure, eating, working and praying with the sisters (they’re delightful!). At the time I wasn’t yet completely sold on the appeal or, indeed, the merits of the enclosed religious life. Having grown up in an era which carried unprecedented freedoms for women, the thought of not being able to go and get a coffee with friends on a whim or head off gallivanting around Europe whenever I fancied made me a bit gun shy of the whole thing.
It was during one of the aforementioned chats that I found myself saying to the novice mistress that I couldn’t imagine what living in an enclosed order would be like.
“Well,” she replied calmly and probably with a smile, “If you imagine what it was like when you lived at home with your Dad? It’s just like that, except you never go out.”
The thought was mildly panic-inducing to say the least (which is not a criticism of my father, I hasten to add). Who in their right mind would voluntarily do that to themselves?
Fast forward one year, and here we are. Key workers being the exception, most of us are now being given a free introduction to the enclosed life – some in community, some not. What’s to be done?
One of my early objections to monasticism as a potential vocation was that there seems to be such great need in the world, and shutting yourself up in a house with twenty other ladies to spend your days in prayer didn’t seem like the best way of responding to that. After all, didn’t Christ Himself command us to: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28: 19-20)?
Maybe these nuns just hadn’t got the memo.
If I’d expected to teach the novice mistress a thing or two with my objections, I was to be disappointed – she didn’t seem remotely ruffled by them, instead gently pointing me in the direction of the theology of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Born in 1873 to a devout French Catholic family, Thérèse had a longing for the religious life from a young age, even making a pilgrimage to Rome to seek an audience with the Pope, who she hoped would give her permission to enter earlier than the convent’s rules allowed. However, she also had a restless soul and found herself filled with the desire to be a missionary or a martyr. Her ultimate insights into the value of a life devoted to prayer are still cherished by enclosed women religious around the world. However, I believe they also hold something for the rest of us as we struggle to come to terms with the government’s new rules:
Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of Saint Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the twelfth and thirteenth chapters of the first epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an Apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.
I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will show you the way which surpasses all others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.
When I had looked upon the mystical body of the Church, I recognised myself in none of the members which Saint Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favourably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the Apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realized that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.
Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my place in the Church, and You gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.
If you’re the type of person who likes to be out and about, ministering to souls and responding to the needs of the poor and vulnerable, you might well be feeling frustrated and impotent in the current situation. Thérèse would urge you not to underestimate the power of your prayers at this time. I truly believe that the prayers of the saints, made to the Father in love, by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the Name of Jesus, will be ultimately what decides the fate of our world during this battle with an invisible killer.
A prayer said by you, in love, might be what gives an exhausted A&E nurse the strength she needs to carry on one more day, or what brings a spark of inspiration to a research team as they race to find a vaccine. It might be what brings healing to someone who is sick, or the grace of conversion to someone who is dying. Right now we all have the chance, like Thérèse, to be a powerhouse of prayer and love in the flaming heart of the Church. Let’s not waste it.
by Lucy Stothard