Contemplative Nuns: We Need Them!
Fr Chris Townsend – One of the functional jokes in the priesthood goes something along the lines that listening to the confessions of religious Sisters, particularly contemplative nuns, is akin to being stoned to death with cotton wool.
It’s a truism maybe, but as I grow older and the sacrament of reconciliation takes on a deeper meaning for me, I wonder if the opposite is not true.
Often people will say to me that the reason they don’t make use of the sacrament of reconciliation is because the sins they confess are the same.
Well, that’s the problem with habitual sin. It’s habitual. We do the same things again and again, unless we deliberately set out to sample all the deadly sins (of which there are way more than seven, in my opinion).
It is the contemplative vocation within the Church that reminds each of us that without the distractions of our busy lives — distractions from our sins and sometimes distractions for our sins — we can build a focus on the habitual attitudes that become destructive to our spiritual lives and the community of those we live with.
I grew up with the Carmelite Sisters in Rivonia, Johannesburg. From the age of about 13 I served Mass in their L-shaped chapel with the great Fr Michael Tuohy.
When I first met the Sisters, I was too scared to look through their grille and see their faces. Not that it mattered, as I could only see one Sister who has since become a lifelong friend and mentor.
The Sisters were mysterious and certainly strange. We couldn’t meet them without a grille between us, and there were many dramatic moments when the curtain was pulled back to reveal the faces behind the voices.
In the sacristy, Sister Sacristan was a voice that spoke through a “drum”, a very clever, almost medieval invention, like a 44 gallon drum on a spindle with an opening on one side. One would put goods into the opening and then the drum was turned. The good Sister on the other side would get these goods out. Minimum of fuss.
Contemplative life for the Carmelites in South Africa has changed much since then. No longer is it a vocation of splendid isolation but a considered withdrawal into the “desert space” that their monasteries seek to create. Things have changed.
Yet, somehow the timeless vocation of the contemplative remains. There is a need for the human community to be reminded of both a spiritual and material simplicity, a regular rhythm of prayer and community. A return to something that we can all desire and hanker after.
It is in this space that the community interactions and the work of the Holy Spirit on the self take on a transformative effect — and the little things that seem so trivial in the outer worlds, such as selfishness and the way we interact — become that much more pronounced.
Cabin fever becomes desert fever. Interactions become limited to proximity, and it is on this confined space that the contemplative, enclosed community member is able to see the work on the Self, the huge and overarching self as a continuous action of the Holy Spirit.
The contemplative, enclosed community is not for every Christian. In fact, very few are called and even fewer are chosen with the temperament to become selfless in such a simple way.
In fact, one of the deep crises of the religious life is the loss of the contemplative dimension in the recent era. And yet — as much as it breaks my heart to see so few contemplatives in South Africa, maybe reflecting our national temperament — I see in the contemplative vocation a call to an awareness that the mystery of being is the greatest exploration, for my being and the Only Being Necessary.
When we all find excuses for the triviality of our habitual sinfulness, it is the contemplative vocation that reminds us that ultimately it isn’t the new sins that kill our spiritual lives, but how the habitual sinfulness slowly strangles our Being-in-Being.
The small things matter.