Remember those who pray
On 21st November 2007, the Church celebrates ‘Pro Orantibus’. The aim of this day is to support spiritually and materially the contemplative congregations, especially those who struggle with various problems and difficulties.
The cell of a Visitation nun is very tiny. There are only necessary things inside. A bed, a small table, a chair, a bookcase. There is a picture of the Mother of God with the Child on the wall. And a wooden cross is on the little table. And over the bed there is a tablet with an inscription, ‘I am telling you not to worry about your life. Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap or gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them’. Every day, early in the morning, at 5:20, the woman who lives in the cell wakes up when the cloister bell rings. A busy day, filled with prayer and work, begins for her and for thirty other nuns.
A window in the grille
At first, a nun goes down for morning prayers to the choir. This is a large room, which is adjacent to the church. Sisters sit in special stalls. The honorary place, especially isolated, belongs to the superior. They recite the Liturgy of the Hours without hurry, and then they participate in the Eucharist. A priest celebrates it at the main altar in the church whereas sisters remain in the choir, separated from the presbytery by a grating. Just before the Communion rites a little window opens in the grating. Sisters come in turn and receive Lord Jesus. Afterwards they return to their places and the window is closed. They eat breakfast in the refectory with a characteristic element, namely a pulpit with a microphone. A sister-lector sits there and reads some spiritual book during meals. Nuns do not talk during their meals, except for special celebrations. The Warsaw convent of the Visitation Nuns is large so there is a lot of work to do. The nuns must maintain the whole house and a beautiful historic church. So they wash, cook, clean and sow. But they do not forget that prayer is the most important task since after all they have enclosed themselves for God, to pray for the whole world. And the world knows about that. Nuns receive various prayer intentions. Therefore, they know what is going on in the world although they do not use the mass media and do not leave their convent. Days in all Polish contemplative orders look very much the same although, naturally, details regulate the religious rules. And these vary slightly in different congregations. And the charisma is different, too. For example, the life of the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration focus on the cult of the Eucharist in the spirit of reparation. The nuns adore the Most Blessed Sacrament day and night, each praying for one hour. In turn, the Carmelite Discalced Sisters pray and do penance for priests. And the specific apostleship of the Dominican Nuns is realised through their testimony of hidden and secluded lives, centred on their participation in solemn liturgy.
They bake, embroider, translate
Sisters must earn their living. So they do various jobs but the jobs should not disturb their contemplative lives. They bake hosts; they sow, embroider, make rosaries; make wax and clay figures, paint icons, and even translate books. You can buy many things made by them at the convent gates. But most often what they earn is not enough to run their order. Therefore, sisters limit their needs as much as they can. Sometimes they are cold because they cannot afford heating the place. Sometimes they do not have enough food since they give food to the poor. But they never complain; they do not grumble. It is worth remembering that and as far as it is possible you should help nuns through prayer but also financially because they will rather not ask for help themselves.
Nuns can give many examples of unexpected help that has been offered at the right time. ‘Once we celebrated the anniversary of our sisters entering the congregation. We lacked fruit for our solemn lunch. No currants, gooseberries and cherries were left in the garden and the apple trees did not yield fruit yet. And on the celebration day somebody brought a crate of apricots’, the Visitation Nuns in Warsaw recollect.
Women’s congregations show a certain decrease in vocations but this does not concern the contemplative communities. Although in some contemplative convents the number of vocations is very small. Those who enter religious orders have most frequently higher education; vocations among high school graduates are rare. ‘This is good since we fear to accept very young women to such hard way of life’, the nuns say. In order to endure you must have a vocation to a strictly contemplative life. And you must be emotionally mature. Because contemplative life will not solve your emotional problems but can even deepen them. However, if you discern that this is your way of life you can always have a closer look at a concrete community. Many convents let women observe their lives or take retreats and reflection with them. And it often happens that the convent welcomes all those who want to spend a few days in silence and prayer. Then you live in guest rooms, naturally outside the enclosure. You can participate in the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Hours and meditations in the chapel and the sisters pray on the other side of the grating. You have access to the library and the priests can hear your confession or give spiritual council. You can walk in your free time. Contemplative convents are often situated in attractive places, near woods, rivers, in the mountains and even on the coast. There are 83 women’s contemplative convents in Poland. The Carmelite Nuns Discalced have the biggest number – 28.
Naturally, contemplative life is not reserved for women. There are many contemplative men’s communities in the world, for example the Carthusian order is known from the film ‘Into the Great Silence’. There are no Carthusians in Poland but there are two Camaldoleses communities: Krakow-Bielany and in Bieniszewo near Konin. The charisma of the Camaldoleses is prayer and work. They live in separate cottages, small erems. They only meet to pray and they very rarely spend free time together. It is a pity that they have no vocations in Poland and the monks are slowly dying out.
John Paul II, exhortation ‘Vita Consecrata’
Even in the simplicity of their life, cloistered communities, set like cities on a hilltop or lights on a lampstand (cf. Mt 5:14-15), visibly represent the goal towards which the entire community of the Church travels. "Eager to act and yet devoted to contemplation", the Church advances down the paths of time with her eyes fixed on the future restoration of all things in Christ...
Glossary of selected terms concerning contemplative life
CELL – nun’s room in a convent
CHOIR – place used for daily community prayer
GATE – entrance to the convent; there is usually a small room for a nun who receives guests
HABIT – religious garment
ENCLOUSURE – section only for nuns
PRIORESS – woman who is head of some orders of nuns, e.g. the Benedictines
RECEPTION – solemn getting dressed in the habit and veil
REFECTORY – room used for communal meals