The Invisible Nun

I want to return to the subject of my last post. Before I do, I ought to mention that St Scholastica, whose feast we celebrate today, is not the founder of Benedictine nuns and sisters (that honour goes to her twin), but she is is great role model for us all. She shows what love and prayer can achieve in the face of what we might call misplaced concern for legal niceties. If you want to know more about her, I suggest you read what St Gregory the Great has to say in his Dialogues.

Scholastica is also a type of the invisible nun, and invisible nuns have been very much on my mind of late. Not long ago we heard of another community in another diocese which had fallen on hard times. Their story fired my anger but I think I can now tell you a little more without the page bursting into digital flame. No names, no pack drill, because my intention is not to apportion blame but rather explain why I asked the questions I did about contemplative communities and what we really believe.

The community of nuns to which I refer did what it could to help itself and then appealed for help, a very modest amount of financial help, and was rewarded with lots of kind words but very little cash. Many of those who knew the community made generous sacrifices, but the diocese had other priorities and often those to whom the nuns wrote didn’t even acknowledge their letters. I suppose it saved the embarrassment of saying they couldn’t or wouldn’t help.

Eventually, the nuns were told that they had better join themselves to another community. It would save money. Now just think about that for a moment. On the whole, we don’t tell married couples who get into financial difficulties that the solution to their problem is to go and live with another married couple, nor do we recommend splitting families up unless there is some grave reason for doing so. Nuns, apparently, are different. I have seen something of what it means, on both sides, for people to leave the community in which they had expected to spend their lives and join another with customs and traditions not their own. The intensity of community life for cloistered nuns makes this harder than anyone looking at things from the outside might realize. It is particularly difficult for Benedictines because we prize our autonomy so highly and each community is so very individual; perhaps it is slightly easier for Carmelites or Poor Clares, I don’t know.

Be that as it may, the nuns of whom I speak were dispersed to other communities, one here, another there, two somewhere else. I understand that the diocese took possession of the nuns’ property and is now applying the proceeds of sale to various worthy projects, though whether any include the remaining contemplative nuns in the diocese I’ve no idea. It seems a bit hard that the diocese should profit from the nuns’ loss, but it isn’t unusual. Nor is it unusual for outsiders to criticize the communities themselves for failure to act as they think they should have. People tend to take ‘ownership’, forgetting that the nuns themselves usually work hard and live frugally to fulfil their vocation.

Anyway, more than a century of contemplative life got snuffed out for want of a few thousand pounds (or it might be euros, I’m not saying), and the nuns themselves were parted after a lifetime of living together in the same house. Not all were old but all had to accept the loss of their familiar circle and surroundings. It wasn’t the first time we’d heard such a story, nor will it be the last. Often what precipitates such a state of affairs is a lack of vocations, though in this case it seems not to have been.

The point I want to make is this. Living with risk isn’t the problem, but if we really believe what we say about the value of prayer, would that community have been forced to disperse? If it had been a community of monks, would it have been so invisible? Would it have attracted more help? We say that prayer is fundamental, but we do not always act in accordance with what we say.

I am quite sure that every single commentator on my original post was absolutely sincere in his/her expressions of appreciation of the contemplative life, and I know that many of those who wrote have been extremely generous to us and to other communities. But, and it is a big but, how many contemplative communities are quietly going under for want of practical help?

Yesterday someone telephoned in some distress to ask our prayers. She had not been in contact for over two years but assumed, correctly, that we would lay aside what we had in hand to listen. She spoke for nearly an hour. We have no problem with that, but we had to work an hour later into the night because if we don’t earn our living, we aren’t going to be around to answer any telephone. Some people understand that; others don’t. I think it does illustrate, however, one facet of the invisibility of nuns: people expect us to be there when they want us to be and forget about us at others.

The invisibility of nuns is fine if it enables us to lead lives of prayer and charity. If it gets in the way of our doing so, if it means that we end up being ‘vicariously holy’ for others or prevents our very survival, I’m not so sure. Sometimes, when reading requests we get via our prayerline, especially those that ask us to ‘pray and fast for financial blessings for x’ I have the uneasy feeling that we have tapped into a commodification of God.

We became nuns because we were captivated by a sense of his holiness and beauty. We remain nuns because our sense of that holiness and beauty grows ever greater. To convey that matters; but I’m still puzzling how to do so. May St Scholastica help us with her prayers.

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