“We’re all like you now;” observed my self-isolating mother, “enclosed.” She isn’t the first person to make the connection between my life as an enclosed Carmelite nun and the present lockdown. Some have asked for tips: “How do you do it?” “What advice can you give?” The more I think about it, the less comfortable I feel with the comparison. Carmelite monasteries are generally large buildings with spacious gardens. We have the luxury of space and particularly of personal space. It is a far cry from a family living in quarantine in a high rise flat.
Yet the Carmelite tradition does seem to have something worthwhile to say during this crisis. As Carmelite nuns we observe enclosure, which essentially means we may only leave the grounds of the monastery for medical reasons or other real necessities. We live in a limited space with the same group of people all of the time – a situation many families now find themselves in by necessity. Our contact with family, friends and other visitors is limited and they may only enter a certain part of the monastery reserved for visitors, not the area where we live and work.
Carmelites are often described as ‘hermits in community.’ Our foundress St Teresa of Avila structured our days so that they are balanced between solitude and community, prayer and work, recreation and rest. On paper our timetable can look monotonous, as though every day must be the same. In reality, our daily routine provides a necessary balance, essential for our well-being. It ensures that we eat regularly, get enough rest and don’t become consumed by a work ethic – or even a prayer ethic! For people staying at home these days, such a structure could be vital, especially if this lockdown extends into months.
When founding our way of life, St Teresa wanted to recapture the original spirit of the Carmelite Rule, written by St Albert of Jerusalem for 13th century male hermits but still observed today by Carmelite friars, nuns, sisters and laity. A central point of the Rule states: “Each one of you is to stay in his own cell or nearby, pondering the Lord's law day and night and keeping watch at his prayers unless attending to some other duty.” This focus on the cell, on solitary work and prayer, is particular to Carmelites. It’s a striking departure from general religious observance: the cell - not the chapel - is for a Carmelite the first place of encounter with God. Now that churches are closed, all believers are being invited to deepen their own prayer life; perhaps even to imagine their own living space as a ‘cell’.
For Carmelites, solitude is, paradoxically, an invitation into relationship. St Teresa encouraged her Sisters to make Jesus their companion in solitude: “Since you are alone, strive to find a companion. Well, what better companion than the Master Himself…..Believe me, you should remain with so good a friend for as long as you can. If you grow accustomed to having him present at your side, and He sees that you do so with love and that you go about striving to please Him, you will not be able – as they say – to get away from Him; He will never fail you; He will help you in all your trials; you will find Him everywhere. Do you think it’s some small matter to have a friend like this at your side?”
Friendship with Christ is at the heart of Carmelite life and also leads us into friendship with one another. Enclosed Carmelite communities are groups of very different women who would never normally choose to live together but who are united by their love for Jesus and their response to His call.
What about the times when solitude is a struggle - when this encounter with Jesus is experienced not as presence but as absence? In a Carmelite cell, that void cannot be filled with TV, radio or scrolling social media. It’s where we come face to face with ourselves; with our humanity, our fragility, our mortality. In the language of the desert fathers as well as in present usage, it’s where we meet our demons. If we are faithful to the practice, sitting still with the sometimes frightening mystery of our own selves eventually leads us towards recognition of our utter dependence on God and acceptance of our weakness. This, in turn, should increase our compassion for others and it calls us to stronger solidarity with those who suffer. It draws us back to that companionship with Jesus, through the realisation that we are sharing his Cross along with all our suffering brothers and sisters. St Edith Stein, who served as a WWI Red Cross nurse and whose own via crucis led to Auschwitz, wrote to her Carmelite community: “You cannot help here or there like the physician the nurse, the priest. You can be at all fronts, wherever there is grief, in the power of the cross. Your compassionate love takes you everywhere, this love from the divine heart.”
We are often asked how we deal with conflict in an enclosed community. In any group of people living together, there are inevitable tensions and annoyances. These can be amplified when there is nowhere else to go. The balance between solitude and community can be important here, just to allow each other space. The cell can be a refuge; it is a sacred space reserved for one person. Only the Prioress may enter another Sister’s cell and does not use this privilege lightly. We also observe the ancient Christian custom of “Do not allow the sun to go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26). During the examen at Compline each night, we resolve and forgive all the tensions which may have built up over the past day.
When I’m alone in my cell I know that each of my Sisters is also alone in hers. This fosters solidarity without a word being spoken. We’ve seen a similar dynamic play out around the world in recent days as neighbours who have never met greet each other through windows and across balconies, acknowledging “We’re all in this together.” The applause for health workers has brought people together in an act of thanksgiving. There’s something eucharistic about it.
Increasingly, people are turning to monasteries as a spiritual anchor in their lives, a place to recharge, to find peace, to feel ‘at home’. Visitors to our monastery have spoken of feeling ‘enfolded’ by their experience of welcome and prayer. One of the most painful aspects of the lockdown is that we can no longer physically share our space and silence with others at a time when it is most needed. Modern technology allows us still to reach out to people and let them know we are praying with and for them.
In the face of this global crisis, what can we offer? Like our sister St Thérèse of Lisieux, we come before the Lord and before our world “with empty hands.” We cannot provide quick-fix ‘coping strategies’ but we have in our tradition wisdom emerging over centuries from a freely chosen way of life, intending to bring those who follow it into a deeper relationship with God and with others. We aim to be a praying presence, daily entrusting our world into God’s hands. We bear witness to God’s presence in the midst of so much suffering and seeming abandonment. Ultimately the most fitting response from a Carmelite nun in the face of this pandemic is silent presence. This is not a passive attitude but, borrowing a phrase from one of my Sisters, being the ‘shock-absorbers’ for the world.
As our Rule puts it, quoting Isaiah 30:15, “Your strength shall lie in silence and hope.”
© Thérèse Wilkinson OCD
Sister Thérèse Wilkinson is a Carmelite nun at Thicket Priory, near York, UK. She is 42 years old and has been a cloistered nun for 18 years. You can follow her Priory @ https://www.facebook.com/thicketpriorycarmel; https://www.instagram.com/thicketpriorycarmel/;
Image Monastery of our Lady of Mt. Carmel and St. Joseph’s, Brooklyn, New York.
This article was first published in The Tablet, 3rd April 2020.