The Witness of Contemplatives
I’ve recently returned from my annual retreat at the Benedictine Abbey at Jamberoo, NSW. The nuns and the Abbey were briefly famous some years ago when several women came to live with them as part of an ABC documentary/reality TV show. For many of my friends and indeed for many Catholics around Australia, the Abbey is far more ‘famous’ for being one of the ‘thin places’ on the earth: a place that has been sanctified by the prayers of people throughout the years and where God seems very near.
For my final few days at the Abbey a group of schoolgirls (Year 10s, I think) came with several teachers for a retreat experience. The inimitable Sr Hilda took them in hand, and was clearly seeking to give them as authentic an experience as possible of the life of the nuns (including an introduction to lectio divina prayer at 6:30am). I couldn’t help think about the ‘distance’ between the life of the Benedictines and the life-experience of the girls.
While I was observing the interaction between the these two groups of women a quote from Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard, one-time archbishop of Paris, came to my mind. Cardinal Suhard said that
to be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.
And so I found myself hoping that the girls’ experience of life at the Abbey was messing a little with their heads… in a good way. I was hoping that the witness of the nuns’ lives was throwing the girls into a holy confusion, as they tried to process why these gifted and capable women would make the decision to enter an enclosed order and dedicate their lives to prayer and simple work. Because those nuns really do epitomize the Cardinal’s words. Their life of stability which involves a commitment to more or less remain at the Abbey for the entirety of their lives; their fidelity to the monastic office which punctuates the day with the chanting of the psalms in the beautiful Abbey Church; their support of themselves by their own manual labour and their extraordinary charism of hospitality: none of it makes sense unless God is real, and unless God is love.
I’m not idealising these women. Over the years I have come to know some of the nuns quite well, and I have lived communal life as a religious brother for nearly eighteen years myself. In many respects they are a very ordinary, diverse and earthy lot. But to acknowledge that is precisely to provoke the question: they could have done anything with their lives and yet they chose the hidden life of prayer and self-renunciation as monastic women. For me the real power but also the litmus test of the truth of their lives consists in the very undramatic but genuine love with which the nuns welcome all who come to the Abbey, for whatever reason.
When a good friend of mine joined the Carmelites some 15 or so years ago many of our mutual friends and fellow students at the theological college where we studied described it as a ‘waste’. Julie was a great student, the SRC president, well-liked and respected. She could have done whatever she wanted with her life. But she chose to ‘waste’ it by joining an enclosed, contemplative order. When I heard these comments I was reminded of the story of another woman accused of being wasteful: the woman who anointed Jesus before his death with the expensive perfume (Mark 14:1-10). To be a contemplative is to be an extravagant lover, ‘spending oneself’ as it were in a life given to God. From a certain perspective that is certainly a ‘waste’, but it is that seeming wastefulness that actually constitutes their lives as living mysteries. The proclamation that God exists and that God is love is inscribed into their very bones, written into the laugh-lines on their faces as they live their simple lives, hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3).