A Day Within the Walls: Carmelites
At the Discalced Carmelite Monastery of the Holy Cross in Iron Mountain, Michigan
The Monastic Stillness Is Broken
No matter how one may want to look at it, five o’clock is truly early in the morning; and it is at this time that the stillness of the monastery is abruptly broken by the alarm. Yet, in all my years in Carmel — and they are not a few! — the first words spoken for all to hear by the Sister who turns off the alarm have never lost their fresh appeal: “Praised be Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, His Mother. Come to prayer, Sisters, come to praise the Lord!” Simple though they be, these few words capture the essence of what a Carmelite’s whole life is all about; namely, prayer and praise of God. Rising then, I offer my heart anew to Jesus through Mary as I clothe myself once again with her holy habit, both a privilege and a joy to wear, and start down to the choir. On my way I meet one of the other Sisters headed for the laundry room to start a load of wash. Normally when we meet one another in the corridor or wherever, the salutation “Praised be Jesus Christ!” is given by one Sister, the other responding, “Now and forever!” However, as it is still the time of the Great Silence, we greet one another simply with a smile and a nod of the head. As I pass by the kitchen and refectory, the lights that are on tell me that another Sister is making her usual preparations for breakfast. Almost immediately I notice, too, that the familiar hum of the altar bread mixer is silent today, until I recall that it is Saturday, and there is no baking of altar breads on this day. Reaching the choir, I see that the Sister Sacristan has just finished putting the linen cloth in the Communion window of our choir grate. She has already prepared the Offertory gifts that will be given to our chaplain at this same window during the Mass. Soon she is lighting the candles that are used in our celebration of the Divine Office throughout the day. It takes but a minute to prepare my books; then I go next door to the chapter room, where gradually all the Sisters are gathering. As the clock strikes five-thirty, the domestic bell is rung and the signal given for the intoning of Psalm 51. This is recited while by twos we are processing to the choir until each is at her place. Immediately after reciting the Angelus together, we begin that part of the Divine Office called Lauds or Morning Prayer, our morning praise of God. And how is it, Lord, that You have brought me here—have granted me the grace of being in Carmel? How awesome to realize that at this moment my voice is joined not only with my Sisters here but with the entire Church in honoring, glorifying, and thanking You, as well as interceding for the needs of all!
Remaining with the Lord in Silent Love
Very easily does this time of liturgical prayer flow into the hour of mental prayer. After speaking to the Lord with my mind, heart, and lips, I now remain with Him in silence—a silence not empty but filled with His living presence. St. Teresa once remarked “prayer consists not in thinking much but in loving much.” There are many ways this love can be expressed; but for me it is enough simply to be aware of and to abide in His presence, listening to Him as He speaks to my heart through the Scriptures or the reflections His grace inspires. From this hour of prayer, one steps naturally into what is certainly the greatest act of praise and worship of God in our entire day: the Mass. Here Our Lord satisfies the very real hunger for holiness by giving Himself, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in Holy Communion. At the same time He accepts the gift of myself which I make to Him in return, uniting me with His Sacrifice, offering me to the Father in the Holy Spirit, allowing me to share in the work of redemption. After Mass we end our period of personal thanksgiving with our daily renewal of vows. The grace of the Holy Spirit is certainly necessary throughout the day, and it is especially to the Holy Spirit that our prayer at the first “Little Hour” is usually directed. (Terce, Sext, and None are the Latin titles given to these “Little Hours” of the Divine Office; they refer to the third, sixth, and ninth hours of the day, mentioned in Scripture as times of prayer. Brief though the “Little Hours” be, they are full of depth and meaning.)
Sharing in the Lord’s Work
After Terce, the community takes a light breakfast before each Sister goes to her assigned duties. For those in the novitiate, part of this morning work period is usually spent in classes given by the Novice Mistress, who is in charge of their formation. However, Saturdays during the summer months are considered “garden days” in which all who can do so spend time working outdoors, in the garden itself or taking care of the yard and the various shrines around the grounds. Working in silence enables one to reflect on many things, to share everything with the One who is always with us. Soon an outdoor bell is ringing to alert one and all that shortly it will be time for the next “Little Hour” — Sext, or Midday Prayer. After finishing my work in the garden, I go once more to the choir. Together with my Sisters, I desire to sanctify the morning’s work by uniting it to the Passion of Christ, which is usually the focus of this part of the Divine Office. After this, a few minutes are spent in an examination of conscience. While breakfast is taken in silence, at both dinner and supper the Sister appointed for the week reads from the Rule and Constitutions, Scripture, and whatever other spiritual book the Prioress has chosen. After our meals, there are always plenty of dishes to be washed. This daily domestic duty shared in by all is also used as an opportunity to offer a few prayers for the many intentions recommended to our prayers each day. For the second time during the day, we pray the Angelus at the beginning of our community recreation. Recreation is an important part of our daily schedule because it is meant not simply to be a diversion from our prayer and work, but a real and necessary time of renewal for all, a “re-creation” enabling us to begin again afterwards with fresh fervor and energy. While we normally bring some work with us to recreation, it is not so much what we do that is important here, but that we spend this time together, talking, laughing, sharing the “adventures” of the day.
A Refreshing Break from Activity
The hour of free time or “siesta” is preceded by a community visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Here we spend a few minutes honoring Our Lord, with prayers also to the Holy Angels and, lastly, our daily novena prayer to the Infant of Prague for all the intentions recommended to our prayers by so many people. Refreshed by this little break in our daily activity, we go to the choir for None, the last of the three “Little Hours,” in which our minds are directed once again to the consummation of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Immediately following is the beautiful Litany of Our Lady, prayed alternately by two psalmisters and the other Sisters. Just as food nourishes the body, good spiritual reading is necessary to nourish the heart, mind, and soul. Scripture, the writings of Sts. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, and other spiritual books are meant to fill this need; and so it is important not only to use this time well, but to choose what is most helpful for one’s needs at the present moment. St. Teresa’s special insight and wisdom in creating a healthy balance among prayer, work, recreation and rest is evident throughout the daily schedule she decided on for her nuns. So now, once more, it is time to take up the tasks I have been assigned as my particular contribution to the smooth running of the house. Nothing that is done through love is small or insignificant, be it mopping the corridors, cleaning the community room, answering community mail, working in our little library, or helping with mending in the sewing room.
The Day Begins to Wind Down
That Carmel is “all Mary’s” rings true in every Carmelite’s heart. She is not only our loving Mother, but also our guide and model in our life of prayer and sacrifice for the Church, for priests, for all souls. A much-loved tradition in Carmel follows; namely, the chanting of the solemn “Salve” in honor of Our Lady. Wearing mantles and holding lighted candles, we process from the chapter room to the choir while the organist plays an interlude. As the hebdomadary for this new week, it is my joy and privilege to intone the hymn while the whole choir then joins in! As the day begins to wind down, so to speak, this next hour of quiet prayer is a blessing. Then for the third and last time, we pray the Angelus as the evening hours advance. Gratitude is an important virtue for everyone to cultivate; but for us who rely very much on the Providence of God which is often realized in the generosity and kindness shown us by so many good people, it is even more so. How, then, do we pay this debt? At the end of supper or collation, a Sister reads a list of alms received that day along with the names of the benefactors. The Prioress then invites all the Sisters to pray an Our Father and a Hail Mary for them and their intentions. Following supper, the same lighthearted happiness pervades our evening recreation as it did at noon. A variety of projects can be seen tonight, from sewing and mending clothes to embroidery or artwork, and often, too, the never-ending job of peeling potatoes and other vegetables for the next day’s meal. But above all the activity going on is the mutual sharing that continues to bond us as a family. At the close of recreation both at noon and in the evening, we have the beautiful custom of saying a short prayer for the dying. Also, in the evening we conclude with a hymn chosen by one of the Sisters.
The Great Silence Begins
Compline or Night Prayer is really the last part of the Divine Office for the day. Beginning with a brief examination of conscience and concluding with the chanting of the simple Salve Regina, it ushers in the few remaining hours of our day. Now the time of Great Silence begins once again; in the peaceful quiet of this free time before Matins, I like to pray the Stations of the Cross in the choir before going to my cell. As solitude and silence are important aids to interior recollection and prayer, this opportunity to spend time alone with the Lord in one’s cell is so precious to everyone here. While Matins, or the Office of Readings, may normally be said at any time of the day, for monastic orders it has been long been the tradition to keep Matins‘ nocturnal character, anticipating the Office of the next day. For us, then, Matinsis said later in the evening and actually is the first part of the Divine Office for the following day. The clock now strikes ten and the community leaves the choir in silence; we kneel in the corridor just outside the choir as one of the Sisters sounds the clappers and gives a short spiritual thought for us to reflect on while preparing to retire. The Prioress then gives each Sister the traditional night blessing with the words “May the all-powerful Lord grant you a peaceful night and a perfect end.” In response I make the Sign of the Cross and, as a token of obedience, kiss the Scapular she extends to me. Now, after a long but blessed day, I return to our cell, tired, yes, but peaceful and happy, too. By eleven o’clock the last lights from various Sisters’ cells go out. As I drift off to sleep, hopefully these words from the Song of Songs, “I sleep but my heart keeps watch,” will be true for me also, until it is time to rise once again, refreshed and ready when the Lord’s gift of another day in Carmel dawns.
With thanks to one of the Carmelite Nuns in Iron Mountain, Michigan, for sharing her personal reflections.