Enclosure in the Instruction Cor Orans

Sr. Mary Catharine of Jesus Perry, OP
Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary
Summit, New Jersey

Carmelite Nuns of St. Louis, MO

Carmelite Nuns of St. Louis, MO

The Instruction Cor Orans, promulgated by the Holy See following the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere, presents many changes to the norms for observance of cloister in monasteries of purely contemplative life. If one looks at the changes beginning with the Apostolic Constitution Sponsa Christi of Pope Pius XII, one can see a development and progression consonant with the lived experience of contemplative nuns in a rapidly changing world. Nuns and Monks may, as much as possible, leave the “world,” but we are still very much a part of it. We are not yet in Heaven! 

In contrast with the previous Instruction Verbi Sponsa (notice this is not an Apostolic Constitution), Cor Orans reflects on the observance of “Cloister” within the broader framework of the whole monastic life of nuns, restoring a proper balance in understanding the observance of cloister in its necessity and lived experience. In fact, in the questionnaire that we received from the Holy See prior to Vultum Dei Quaerere cloister was not even specifically mentioned; rather, there were questions on “Evangelical Witness.” In a talk Archbishop Carballo recently gave to the contemplative nuns in Spain, he emphasized the importance of identity as contemplative nuns rather than cloistered. In many parts of the world, cloister has such a negative connotation that the witness of cloister for the greater good of the contemplative life is hindered. In some parts of the world, the rules of cloister have in fact, created emotionally and sometimes physically unhealthy living conditions for the nuns living in certain monasteries. This has not contributed to the growth of contemplative life in such places.

Cistercian Nuns of Prairie du Sac, WI

Cistercian Nuns of Prairie du Sac, WI

Contemplative nuns observe cloister, not as an end in itself, but to create that sacred space, a desert, a wilderness, where one can “fix on the possession and contemplation of God.” (CO 158) Living in the enclosure is a paradox of freedom. “It is a gift and free choice of love”. (CO 162) The depths of this freedom can only really be understood by those to whom the grace of this vocation is given. 

Some, in commenting on the updated norms on enclosure of Cor Orans, have remonstrated that it is now easier than ever for nuns to leave the enclosure and be out and about. Such a criticism totally misses the vocation to live the contemplative life as though this life is imposed on those who live it. This criticism makes it seem as though nuns only stay in the enclosure because the rules force us to do so. But this is far from the truth! Contemplative nuns stay in the enclosure because this is the vocation we have chosen out of love. We aren’t looking for excuses to leave the enclosure and be out and about! We see enclosure as a great gift that allows us to live our contemplative vocation not an imposition. 

The observance of cloister must be lived authentically and foster the “continuous remembrance of God” (Constitutions of the Nuns of the Order of Preachers) and not become an end in itself so that the enclosure itself becomes a distraction and cause of tension. Nor should a cloistered monastery become a sort of “reenactment” living history museum, freezing the observances of the contemplative life into a particular time or place. 

With Cor Orans, the Church now grants to the Superior of sui juris monasteries, who is in fact a Major Superior, the authority and responsibility accorded to Major Superiors in the apostolic life. As such, most dispensations from enclosure or from living in the monastery now come from her. The Bishop no longer has authority in this area. The norms also greatly reduce the circumstances under which one must petition the Holy See. 

Dispensation from in the cloister may now be granted by the Prioress for up to 15 days. For up to a year it is granted only with the consent of her council. This request must also be presented to the competent authority (the Bishop or Religious Ordinary) to hear his opinion but the final decision still resides within her authority as a Major Superior.  

Why would a nun need to be out of the cloister for such a period of time? There are many examples but I will share the first ones that come to mind. First, today, many nuns live in monasteries far from their family home. In the past this was more of an exception. One entered the monastery in town or maybe in the local area. Today, a monastery may have nuns from all parts of the country and even the world. Remember, we are a mobile society! Today, it is not unusual for people to live into their 80’s and 90’s. It is not unusual for nuns to go home to visit their parents who can no longer travel. Or perhaps they need to help in their care or see to their needs. This is especially so with nuns who do not have brothers or sisters. Not all monasteries allow for this but many do. Visiting our parents in their old age is part of honoring the 4th commandment! 

Nuns may also ask to go to another monastery for a period of retreat or rest, especially after serving the community in a service that is especially demanding such as infirmarian, novice mistress or prioress. 

A request to be out of the monastery for more than 15 days is not usual but it does happen. A nun may be going through a particularly difficult time and need some time away from the monastery but is not quite ready to ask for formal exclaustration. Or perhaps a nun needs to be away to care for her parents. For example, we have a sister who needed to be home in Ohio for about 4 months to get her mother into assisted living and dispose of the contents of her mother’s home and sell it. Sister kept in regular contact with us and we all counted the days when she could be back home in the monastery. 

Another major change is that of the process of exclaustration which is a formal period of time when a religious is absent from her community usually for the purpose of discerning to petition to be dispensed from her vows (but not always). During this time, usually she doesn’t wear the habit and she begins a process of independence: finding work and the means to support herself. She is still bound by her vows, however. The superior with the consent of her council and with the consent of the Ordinary in the diocese where the exclaustrated Sister may reside, grants this indult for not more than a year. The President of the Federation/Association with the consent of her council may extend this indult for another 2 years. Formally, all requests for exclaustration had to be sent to the Congregation for religious in Rome.  

Three Forms of Enclosure?

Poor Clare Nuns of Belleville, IL - A “Grill” of Vines in the Chapel

Poor Clare Nuns of Belleville, IL - A “Grill” of Vines in the Chapel

Before the implementation of Cor Orans much was made Article 10 of Vultum Dei Quarere: “Each monastery, following serious discernment and respecting its proper tradition and the demands of its constitutions, is to ask the Holy See what form of cloister it wishes to embrace, whenever a different form of cloister from the present one is called for.” Cor Orans defines two forms of enclosure—Papal and Constitutional, both of which are not new. Constitutional enclosure also includes what Verbi Sponsa called “Monastic Enclosure”.  In reality, a monastery observes the form of enclosure proper to its charism and few monasteries will probably request to change their form of enclosure. 

Papal Enclosure applies to those monasteries who are ordered to the fully contemplative life with no external and direct tasks of the apostolate. (CO 188b) Some monasteries with Papal Enclosure, especially in France, also have guest houses. While a few sisters may have more direct and regular contact with guests, frequently needing to be out of the enclosure, this is not seen as an external apostolate and the monastery need not change its status. 

Constitutional Enclosure applies to those monasteries which also associate with the contemplative life some activity for the benefit of others. (CO 204) For example, there are monasteries in Europe that have schools attached to them because of the anticlerical laws of the 19th century. There are a few that have retirement homes or nursing homes attached to them as well. 

Some charisms, such as the Passionists, have always had Constitutional Enclosure, instead of Papal Enclosure for various reasons. 

Monastic Cloister was created by St. John Paul II in Vita Consecrata. Monasteries in this category, mostly those in the Benedictine/Cistercian charism, “make it possible to associate the primary function of divine worship with wider forms of reception and hospitality.”  (CO 210)

No matter which form of enclosure a contemplative community observes, Cor Orans stipulates that the “modality of separation from the outside of the space exclusively reserved for the nuns must be material and effective, not just symbolic or spiritual. It is the responsibility of the Conventual Chapter of the monastery to determine the modality of separation from the outside.” (CO 166) 

Passionist Nuns of Whitesville, KY - Family Visit in the Parlor

Passionist Nuns of Whitesville, KY - Family Visit in the Parlor

However, under the heading of Papal Enclosure Cor Orans 188c states, “It [the particular Institute] implements separation from the world, according to concrete modalities established by the Conventual Chapter, in a radical, concrete and effective way and not simply symbolic, in accordance with the universal and proper law, in line with the Institute’s charism. 

In the next number, Cor Orans 189 it is further stipulated that the Institute can also establish stricter rules concerning cloister but they must be approved by the Holy See.

One can’t help ask the question what is the distinction between the separations of enclosure in general and the separation of Papal Enclosure. At a recent meeting of the Dominican Contemplative Nuns in Rome, the procurator general of the Order was asked this question. He, too, confessed he wasn’t sure. However, it was pointed out that at present if the constitutions of a particular Institute establish specific forms of material separation (grille, counter, etc.) these do not contradict Cor Orans and therefore are still in effect. 

Given the vast differences world wide of culture and circumstances and also differences of charisms, it seems that the Holy See was trying to provide as wide a norm as possible. For example, in many monasteries in France, there is no material separation in the parlor. Rather, the nun comes from the enclosure to visit her guests in a specific parlor and then returns to the enclosure. In reality, this isn’t so different from those monasteries who have some sort of grille or counter. It seems that with Cor Orans such a modality (to use the language of Cor Orans) is now permitted within the parameters of the norms. 

Dominican Nuns of Summit, NJ - Sr. Mary Catharine’s Silver Jubilee

Dominican Nuns of Summit, NJ - Sr. Mary Catharine’s Silver Jubilee

Given the broad application of the various types of enclosure as compared to the past, what the Church seems more concerned about is the quality of life within the walls of the monastery which the observance of cloister fosters and protects. Cor Orans stresses the theological and ecclesial meaning of cloister and the quality of the observance of enclosure as a means for providing that sacred space where the nuns seek the Face of God and grow in intimate union with their Spouse as one of the points to be reviewed during the regular visitation of the monastery. 

The priority and ecclesial mission of the life of the contemplative nun is be a spiritual mother who is apostolically fruitful. Sr. Ancilla, OP, a Dominican Nun of the monastery of Lourdes, France wrote of St. Dominic, “Dominic’s heart was so filled with love for the Lord that he participated in the deepest plans of His heart. To him, it meant offering himself as Christ did, giving himself with such intensity that the gift won souls.” This is the vocation of every contemplative nun and the reason why the Church cherishes the contemplative vocation with such care and love. It is the reason for the observances, not just enclosure, but community, prayer, silence, work, penance, etc. The contemplative life, like all other forms of consecrated life, needs to be renewed so that monasteries can even more strongly radiate the joy of belonging to Christ. As Vultum Dei Quarere  states, “The world and the Church need you to be beacons of light for the journey of men and women of our time.”