A Day Within the Walls: Poor Clares
At the Corpus Christi Monastery of the Poor Clares in Rockford, IL
All Time Is at the Service of God
In a world where “time is money,” the Monastic culture grasps a deeper reality. For the contemplative, it is not a matter of material gain; rather, all time is at the service of God. Each moment is a means to a far greater end and, therefore, every moment counts. If time is used well, there will be everlasting happiness and bliss untold!
Summoned to A New Day
The day of the Poor Clare nun begins at 12:30 a.m. when the Sister designated as “Caller” knocks on each cell door to summon her sisters to prayer. The nuns, clothed in the religious habit adapted for the night, rise in silence like the wise Virgins always ready and waiting for the call: “The Bridegroom is here, come out to meet Him!” At 12:45 a.m. the Sisters assemble in Office Choir (the Sister’s chapel) for the Hour of Matins (Office of Readings). It is an unbroken tradition for the Poor Clare Nuns to rise in the middle of the night after a few hours of sleep in order to pray for a needy world at a time when, under cover of darkness, so many sins are committed. At 1:45 a.m. the Divine Office and a period of meditation come to a close and the Sisters retire to their cells for about three more hours of sleep.
Five O’Clock Duty
At 5:00 a.m. the silence of the early hours of the morning is broken when the bell sounds for rising. The nuns rise promptly, wash in a simple basin in their cells and make their way to their five o’clock duty. These duties vary from dust-mopping the corridors or sweeping the refectory and stairs, to opening windows to air the house, dusting Choir or making preparations for breakfast. Then at 5:30 a.m. the Sisters gather promptly in Choir for the morning Angelus follows by Lauds (Morning Prayer). “With praise I will awake the dawn,” sings the Psalmist and the nuns likewise, by their wholehearted praise of the Creator, anticipate all of creation, which is just awakening from sleep. An hour of meditation in preparation for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass follows and, at 7:00 a.m., the Rosary is recited communally during which the Sisters ponder the mysteries of Redemption and the role of the most Blessed Mother, making them a part of their own lives. “Nuns relive and perpetuate in the Church the presence and the work of Mary. Welcoming the Word in faith and adoring in silence, they put themselves at the service of the Mystery of the Incarnation, and united to Christ Jesus in His offering of Himself to the Father they become co-workers in the Mystery of Redemption” (Verbi Sponsa, no. 4).
The Mass — the Day’s Climax
The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at 7:30 a.m. is the center and summit of the Poor Clare day around which everything else revolves. It is precisely from the Mass that the nuns draw their strength and the grace for the new day of prayer, sacrifice, and work for the love of God. The Sisters participate in this august mystery from their Mass Choir, belize resortswhich is separated from the main Chapel by an enclosure grille because of their hidden life of seclusion. “What return shall I make to the Lord for His goodness to me?” sings the Poor Clare in her heart as she spends the next quarter of an hour in thanksgiving for the greatest gift on earth: the Holy Eucharist to which she is united in a most intimate way. By now it is 8:30 a.m. and the Sisters go to the refectory to partake of a simple breakfast while standing, in keeping with the traditional fast. Although Great Silence has ended, a peaceful stillness continues to pervade the monastery as the nuns begin some work until 9:30 a.m. Answering benefactors’ letters and filling orders for spiritual bouquet cards to go out in the morning’s mail or beginning the day’s work in the kitchen are just a few examples. When Reverend Mother Abbess rings the bell, the Sisters assemble in the refectory for the Office announcements and a spiritual thought for the day, which are read aloud. Mother Abbess gives her blessing and the nuns process to the Choir for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and the first of the Daytime Hours: Terce(Midmorning Prayer). The Poor Clare nun’s entire day is punctuated by the different hours of the Divine Office in order constantly to return praise to the Blessed Trinity and to sanctify each passing moment. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is thus perpetuated throughout the whole of her day by the Liturgy of the Hours. It is in this way that the nun’s whole life becomes one great “Thanksgiving.” Pope John Paul II write of our Holy Mother Saint Clare: “her whole life was a Eucharist because … from her cloister she raised up a continual ‘thanksgiving’ to God in her prayer, praise, supplication, intercession, weeping, offering and sacrifice. She accepted everything from the Father in union with the infinite ‘thanks’ of the only begotten Son.”
A Virtuous Life and the Common Good
The remaining hours of the morning until 11:40 a.m. are spent in some manual work. “Let the Sisters to whom the Lord has given the grace of working work faithfully and devotedly after the hour of Terce at work that pertains to a virtuous life and the common good” (Holy Rule). It may vary greatly according to the day or the season. In the monastic tradition of the Poor Clares there has never been a distinction between Choir Nuns and Lay Sisters; rather, all help with the humble tasks and give themselves with generosity wherever help is needed. Our Extern Sisters, however, are the special guardians of the enclosure. They care for the external services of the monastery but observe the same form of life as the cloistered nuns in all things except the vow of enclosure. Whether hanging the laundry on wash day, answering the phone or the door bells, cooking, sweeping, sewing, gardening or painting, the Poor Clare Nun is motivated by love and therefore no task is too burdensome nor any sacrifice too great. “All for Love,” “All for Jesus” are the frequent aspirations that fill her mind while at work. Although she cannot spend the entire day with Our Lord in Choir, she finds He is present and at her side at every moment and in all the designs of Divine Providence as the day unfolds. Our Holy Mother Saint Clare urges her daughters to always work “in such a way that, while banishing all idleness, the enemy of the soul, they do not extinguish the spirit of holy prayer and devotion to which all other earthly things must contribute.”
Bell Calls to Midday Prayer
At 11:40 the bell calls the Sisters to the hour of Sext (Midday Prayer). “Let the Sisters, immediately ceasing their labors, come without delay” (Saint Colette). The monastic bell summoning the Sisters to work and prayer is understood as the voice of the Beloved calling to them and each Sister makes haste in order not to keep Him waiting. Midday Prayer is followed by the particular examen and the Angelus is said at noon. The community then processes to the refectory while reciting the Veni Creator. A full meal referred to as “dinner” is served at noon. The Poor Clare Colettine nuns observe a perpetual abstinence from meat, but fish is served twice a week and on special feast days. The meal typically consists of a carbohydrate (rice, noodles, or potatoes), a vegetable, salad and a simple dessert. As the Sisters take nourishment for their bodies to renew their physical strength, they are constantly reminded that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” The meals at Corpus Christi Monastery are taken in silence as the Sisters listen to some spiritual reading to nourish their souls. One of the nuns is appointed as “reader” and reads aloud from the biography of some saint, a reflection on the day’s Gospel or perhaps some other text of a religious or edifying nature.
Fruit and Potatoes
After dinner there is a half-hour period of general work. The Sisters help with dishes or prepare the vegetables, fruit or potatoes, which need peeling and slicing for the next day’s meal. At 1:30 p.m. “quiet time” begins. This is a special time of silence during which the Sisters may rest, do some quiet hobby or spend time in private devotions. Daily meditation on the Stations of the Cross is a Franciscan tradition and some may choose to take their quiet time in Choir for this purpose. As Pope John Paul II reminds us: “It is in the contemplation of the Crucified Christ that all vocations find their inspiration” (Vita Consecrata, no. 23). Other nuns may choose to spend time alone with God in their cells. “The solitary cell, the closed cloister, are the place where the nun, bride of the Incarnate Word, lives wholly concentrated with Christ in God” (Verbi Sponsa, no. 3). At 2:00 p.m. the nuns again repair to the Choir where they make ready to chant the hour of None (Midafternoon Prayer). The Blessed Sacrament is again exposed and “the Divine Service is carried out with the greatest possible devotion and the very greatest reverence… they should maintain there a humble and respectful attitude, and observe a profound silence…. Their bearing should be modest and such that it fulfills what is required in the presence of the God of Majesty,” counsels our Holy Mother Saint Colette. The cloistered nun stands before the Throne of Mercy representing the entire Body of Christ. She is entrusted with the divine service and carries it out in the name of the whole Church. This is the Poor Clare’s “greatest privilege and joy” and she remains fully aware of her awesome responsibility.
Weeding and Harvesting
The rest of the afternoon, until 4:30 p.m., is occupied with work. Again the Sisters spend themselves for the common good, each one seeing to her assigned duties or participating in some community task, such as loading a truck with brush to be hauled away, cleaning the monastery from top to bottom, printing holy cards, weeding the shrine, or harvesting rhubarb, apples, or squash and preparing them for freezing. “There is no time to get bored” as one postulant told her family when asked if she ever found the monastic life monotonous. Even if on some days the round of chores are similar to the preceding day, the Divine Bridegroom speaks to each soul in a new way with every passing day. Therefore the Sisters work in silence, communing with God alone, listening to Him and responding to His voice by the love with which they carry out their work, prayers and sacrifices. “In the monastery everything is directed to the search of the face of God, everything is reduced to the essential, because the only thing that matters is what leads to Him” (Pope John Paul II). The enclosure of Corpus Christi Monastery “is intended to create a space of separation, solitude and silence where God can be sought more freely in a life not only for Him and with Him but also in Him alone” (Verbi Sponsa, no. 5).
Interceding for a Troubled World
Vespers (Evening Prayer) is chanted at 4:30 p.m. The Poor Clare Nun leaves the concerns of her daily duties and stands before God interceding for a troubled world. Men, women and children of every land and nation are the subjects of her most sincere prayers. To this end she has renounced the world, only to be more united to it in a supernatural way. She has come apart, making of her life a continual sacrifice of praise for the needs of all. And she understands clearly that “those who become the property of God become God’s gift to all” (Verbi Sponsa, no. 7). This canonical hour is followed by fifteen minutes of Scripture meditation during which the Poor Clare ponders the Word of God in the presence of the Most Blessed Sacrament. In addition to this, at some point during the day, depending on her work, each Sister takes one hour of time reserved for private prayer and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. This is an essential part of the Poor Clare’s day, for she knows well that “the call to holiness is accepted and can be cultivated only in the silence of adoration before the infinite transcendence of God” (Vita Consecrata, no. 38). At 5:30 p.m. the Sisters gather in Choir for the evening recitation of the Angelus and process to the refectory for collation. “The Sisters shall fast at all times.” This fast which our Holy Rule prescribes consists of refraining from taking any food between meals and “Lenten fare” which traditionally means that breakfast and the evening refection together do not equal the main meal at noon. Two slices of bread, cheese, a fruit and a cup of barley tea constitute a typical collation. Sometimes an egg or cereal, for example, is served in place of the cheese. The Sisters keep their eyes modestly cast down at all times, but especially in Choir and in the refectory. Our Holy Mother Saint Colette exhorts her daughters “that they may have a soul uplifted to God and attentive to what is said there, let them have their eyes cast downward.”
Recreation and a Family Spirit
At 6:30 p.m. the bell summons the nuns to an hour of recreation. This is a special time of joyful fellowship and relaxation for the Sisters. As silence is observed outside of this one hour per day, the recreation period is all the more enjoyable. The nuns speak on a variety of different topics ranging from the work of the day to the edifying examples of the lives of the saints. The Sisters occupy their hands with some needlepoint, artwork, cutting out stamps for the missions, making rosaries, or sewing copes for the Infant of Prague statues while good humor and a family spirit reign. According to the season this time of recreation may be spent outdoors pruning the trees, picking Job’s tears to be used as rosary beads, or planting flowers in the Lourdes grotto to honor the Blessed Mother. The Hour of Compline (Night Prayer) is said at 7:30 p.m. followed by the General Examen during a few moments of silent reflection and then Great Silence descends upon Corpus Christi Monastery. “Let the Sisters keep silence from the hour of Compline until Terce, let them also continually keep silence in the Church, the dormitory and the refectory while they are eating,” says our Holy Rule. The nuns then retire to their cells and are to be in bed by 9:00 p.m. They may read or do some quiet work before they lie down on their straw mattresses or thin rug mats for a few hours of peaceful slumber only to rise again at 12:30 p.m. for a new day of Poor Clare life in Corpus Christi Monastery.
12:30 a.m. Rise
12:45 a.m. Matins (Office of Readings)
1:45 a.m. Retire
5:00 a.m. Rise Dusting charge
5:30 a.m. Lauds (Morning Prayer)
6:00 a.m. Meditation
7:00 a.m. Rosary
7:30 a.m. Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
9:30 a.m. The Abbess’ blessing Terce (Midmorning Prayer)
11:45 a.m. Sext (Midday Prayer)
12:00 p.m. Angelus & Examen
1:00 p.m. General work
1:30 p.m. Quiet time
2:00 p.m. None (Midafternoon Prayer)
4:30 p.m. Vespers (Evening Prayer)
5:30 p.m. Angelus
6:30 p.m. Recreation
7:30 p.m. Compline (Night Prayer)
9:00 p.m. Retire
With thanks to the Poor Clares of Rockford, IL.