A Day Within the Walls: Visitandines
At the Monastery of the Visitation of Toledo, Ohio
“Walking His Daughters” through the Day
St. Francis de Sales, our Holy Founder, providentially provided his spiritual daughters with a compact little book, called The Spiritual Directory, in which he “walks” his daughters through the day from “Rising” and ending with “Going to Bed.” The Directory is Jesus seen, heard and received by us, Jesus dilating and filling our hearts always. It is through the Directory that we truly fill our lives with Jesus. Thus, “Live + Jesus!” is transformed into “living Jesus.” The Directory teaches us to do everything well, supernaturally. Through it we are lead to be “daughters of prayer,” St. Francis de Sales’ desire for us. In speaking to his spiritual daughters of the Sacred Heart, St. Francis de Sales said: “In this divine Heart you will find an easy way of acquitting yourselves perfectly of what is enjoined you in the First Article of your Directory. This contains in substance the whole perfection of your Institute, and reads: ‘Let their whole life and all their actions tend to unite them with God.‘ We are to seek Jesus day and night, endeavoring to make all things unite us to God. Everything we say or think, every act, whether it be an act of piety such as prayer, the Office, mental prayer, or the humblest labor, sleeping, eating or recreation, all should unite us with Jesus.
Rising, Prayer, and the Sun of our Day — the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
Unlike most cloistered Orders, the Visitation was founded by St. Francis de Sales with a Rule that would be “livable” not only by the strong and healthy, but also by those who may be weak or infirm. Hence, we do not get up in the middle of the night to pray. Our monastic day begins with the rising bell at 5:30 a.m. Our Directory tells us that as soon as we awake we should cast our souls wholly upon God by some good and holy thoughts. This is the first act of our day. Our first act in the morning is to declare that we are the spouses of Jesus Christ, that we belong wholly to God. It is a renewal of our consecration to Him. Then we make our morning offering, thanking our heavenly Father for His protection during the night and for this new day of grace, asking His help and protection in the new day and offering Him all we do and suffer. By 6:00 a.m. we are in the choir (the sisters’ chapel which is separated by a grille from the sanctuary) to say the Angelus and then enter upon an hour of mental prayer. Now we see the importance of that moment of waking, when we cast ourselves wholly into God. It helps to prepare us for mental prayer. Our Directory reminds us that the serious practice of this exercise is one of the most important of all in religion and the spiritual life. It is a precious time when the soul holds familiar converse with Our Lord and it prepares us for the sun and summit of our day, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. At 7:00 a.m. the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated in our chapel, with the Nuns in our choir behind the grille, and the laity who wish to come in the public chapel. St. Francis de Sales says in the Introduction to the Devout Life that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the center of the Christian religion, heart of devotion, and soul of piety, the ineffable mystery that comprises within itself the deepest depths of divine charity, the mystery in which God really gives Himself and gloriously communicates His graces and favors to us. Our holy Founder would have us humble ourselves before assisting at this highest, holiest and most sanctifying act of our religion. Holy Mass is followed by a period of Thanksgiving. Then we have a simple breakfast — a little more festive on feastdays — and a short period of time before we pray Morning Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. During the time after breakfast, sisters may help with the dishes, do housecleaning, or little “charges” (duties) that have been given them.
The Bell for the Office — the Voice of the Spouse; and Work, a Living Prayer
At 8:30, the tower bell calls us to the Choir to pray Morning Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours. The Liturgy of the Hours, also called the Divine Office, is the official prayer of the Church. “Contemplative Nuns have the special vocation in the Church of celebrating the Liturgy of the Hours. This prayer expresses the adoration, praise, thanksgiving and supplication of all humankind” (our Holy Constitutions). Five times a day the bell summons us to the Choir to pray on behalf of the Church and the world. In the bell we hear the voice of the Spouse calling us. It is now about 9:00 and we begin a work period. Silence still reigns — a silence of communion with the Beloved. Sisters go to their various offices (the work assigned to them). Caring for the Sacristy, preparing the day’s meals, making our habits and veils, packing altar breads for shipping, taking care of the infirm sisters, housecleaning and gardening are some of the work assigned us — work that allows us to stay close to our Spouse. Our Constitutions tell us, “Their work done through love becomes a sincere response to the call of God. Each sister can offer her work as a living prayer, as did the Virgin Mary in her home at Nazareth.” To help us in this, our Directory provides us with our Direction of Intention. Through it we intend all our actions for God, we ask His grace, offer them to Him and accept in advance all the good and pain that will come, “My God, grant me the grace to perform this action with you and through love of you. I offer you in advance all the good that I may do and accept all the pain and trouble that I may meet therein as coming from your fatherly hand.” We begin our action by embracing Jesus. “Through you, Jesus, in you, for you, with you.” “By your love, with your love, for you love.” And we remain united to Him by continually renewing our intention through the use of aspirations and ejaculations — those little arrows of love that we send into His Heart. St. Francis de Sales counsels that we are not to omit “this in even small things or those that are agreeable such as eating, resting, recreating, etc. Thus, according to the counsel of St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor 10,31; Col 3, 17), whatever we may do be done in the name of God and for his sole pleasure.” Each article of our Directory is a more specific way of directing our intention for the glory of God. Again we hear the voice of our Spouse calling us to come. It is now 10:30 and we are in the Choir to pray Office of Readings. The various hours of the Office (Liturgy of the Hours) spread throughout the day sanctifies our whole day. It is a special time when, as Dom Columba Marmion says, we go before the throne of God as the Church’s ambassadors, presenting her praise and her needs to the Divine Majesty.
Meals and Recreation
At 11:15 we gather in the refectory for dinner. The Directory tells us: The sisters are not to go to the Refectory only to eat, but also to obey God and the Rule, and to hear some holy reading. We take our meals in silence while listening to reading from a spiritual book or tapes. Thus we feed not only our bodies but also our souls. In Mother Ponnet’s commentary on the Directory we read: The reading at table is a grace. It is Jesus who passes. Perhaps the special word intended to make you a saint may be said then, and you were not listening, or only half attentive; what an irreparable loss! Our sister Saint Margaret Mary was want to make of each morsel of food a spiritual communion. She resolved: “When I take my refection, I will unite it to that divine nourishment with which Jesus feeds our souls in the holy Eucharist, begging Him to cause each portion to become a Spiritual Communion, to unite and transform me entirely into Him.” Thus we fulfill the reminder given us by our Directory that we do not go to the refectory just to eat — that all we do should be done for the glory of God and for his good pleasure. At noon, we pray the Angelus. Silence during meals is only one part of our silent monastic life. Except for the two daily recreation periods, silence is observed as much as possible. It is not an empty silence, but a silence of communion with the Beloved. During this time the sisters speak only when charity or necessity require it. We have recreation for about 45 minutes after dinner, and about an hour after supper. These two recreations are, as our Constitutions tell us, indispensable not only to ensure wholesome relaxation but also to foster a true family spirit. Recreation is a communal exercise in which the human gifts and virtues of each one are shared. We “re-create” ourselves and are thus ready for that sacred silence that keeps us united to our Spouse. At this time the sisters sew or work on crafts while recreating together, play games or work puzzles (on specified days), go out for a walk or just enjoy each others’ company. A recreation well spent means that silence will be well kept, and silence well kept requires a healthy, happy recreation.
The Voice of the Spouse Calls to Midday Prayer
At 1:00 the bell calls us to Midday Prayer. This is followed by a short examen of how the morning has gone or the sisters may make a particular examen of the fault they are trying to overcome and the virtue they are striving to acquire. We are then free to take a rest until 2:00 when we have another work period. Those in formation have classes at this time. Though we cannot spend the whole day in the Choir with our Beloved, He is always with us and like our Blessed Mother in her mystery of the Visitation, we strive to be the constant adorers of our God who dwells within us. Our whole life can thus be an act of adoration and we are a “living” ciborium carrying Him to each other. At 3:00 we have a half hour of spiritual reading which we begin by reading our Holy Constitutions. Spiritual reading helps to stimulate love in our hearts and brings us closer to the Lord. After spiritual reading a light snack is offered in the Refectory as we do not eat in between meals. There is then time for choir practice, study or work. Thus our day is a flow of prayer and work helping us to keep our gaze fixed on the transfigured and crucified face of our Spouse. Evening Prayer is chanted at 4:45 p.m. The voice of the Spouse summons us through the bell and we leave behind our work to praise God and to bring before Him the needs of all mankind — “their joys and their sorrows; the cries of the poor, the lowly, and oppressed; the pain of the sinful and suffering” (our Holy Constitutions). “The monastery represents what is most intimate to a local Church — its heart, where the Spirit always groans in supplication for the entire community and where thanksgiving rises unceasingly for the Life which he sends forth each day (cf. Col 3:17)” (Verbi Sponsa #8). We live again the sentiments of the Heart of Jesus and his love for all mankind. In Scripture, especially in the Psalms, we seek God — we seek to adore the Pierced One. In seeking Him we find Him and in finding Him , we seek Him all the more. “Like a deer longing for running streams, so my soul longs for you, my God” (Psalm 42). Evening Prayer is followed by a half hour of mental prayer. “Just as in the Upper Room, Mary in her heart, with her prayerful presence, watched over the origins of the Church, so too now the Church’s journey is entrusted to the loving heart and praying hands of cloistered nuns.” (Verbi Sponsa #4) It is a time when we hold familiar converse with our Spouse, humbly attentive to Him and gazing upon the loveliness of his face.
Evening Meal and Recreation
At 6:00 p.m. we again pray the Angelus and then proceed to the Refectory for supper. Silence is observed as we listen to a short reading from our Constitutions and tapes on the spiritual life, the saints, the liturgy, etc. The meal finished we process out and after our “God be praised, dear Sisters” we go to the scullery to take care of the dishes and other clean up. Recreation has begun and we share with one another as we complete our duties. The evening recreation lasts about an hour and like the noon recreation, we do mending, embroidery, knitting, crocheting, hem-stitching for purificators and finger towels, etc. On some days we play games and depending on the weather we may go outside. Raspberry and rhubarb picking may also take place during recreation.
Night Prayer and the Great Silence
We are now at the close of our day. After working, praying in an atmosphere of silence and recollection, and praising our Lord in our meals and two recreations we go for a last time to the choir to pray Night Prayer together. It is now 8:15 p.m. After this the Great Silence begins. From after Night Prayer until after Mass the following morning, a strict silence is kept unless it is absolutely necessary to speak. This last action of our day possesses something very solemn. By it we begin our eternity. The soul, at the close of life, leaves the things of earth, detaches herself from creatures in order to go and take her repose in God alone. So the Visitandine, at the evening of her day, separates herself from conversation with creatures, and leaves work, cares, annoyances, etc. A profound silence reigns about her, she finds herself with God in order to go and take her repose in Him. That is why our Holy Founder wishes that we perform this action as if we saw Our Lord with our own eyes, and that we fall asleep with some good thoughts in order that sleep itself may not interrupt our union with God. We see that the Directory does not leave us during the day. It takes us by the hand from the morning to lead us to God, to unite us to Him, to nourish us with Him and it will lead us to a blessed eternity.
5:30 a.m. Rise
6:00 a.m. Meditation
7:00 a.m. Holy Mass
8:30 a.m. Morning Prayer
9:00 a.m. Work period
10:30 a.m. Office of Readings
11:15 a.m. Dinner Recreation
1:00 p.m. Midday Prayer/ Examen
2:00 p.m. Work period/ Noviate classes
3:00 p.m. Spiritual Reading
3:30 p.m. Snack followed by work period, study or choir practice
4:45 p.m. Evening Prayer followed by Meditation
6:00 p.m. Supper
8:15 p.m. Night Prayer/ Examen
Great Silence Begins
10:00 p.m. Retire
With thanks to the Visitation Nuns of Toledo, Ohio, for this article.