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).

Posted on October 20, 2011, in Prayer and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Dear Fr Chris, Just love Jamberoo abbey after having a weeks retreat there last January and plan to go again in 2012.

  2. Thanks for this heartening reflection Fr Chris. I wrote to a friend just two days ago about how deeply the same scripture – the woman who anointed Jesus expensive perfume (Mark 14:1-10) has spoken to me over my life time of the hidden life of women and men who “waste” their time, daily, ministering to the human and spiritual needs of their very small children. In a culture where time is money and you can often pay someone else to “look after” your children for much less than you can earn yourself, the choice to be so ‘wasteful’ with one’s time and talents as to lavish them almost exclusively on one’s own children can also be scandalous to others. But as you say, in a world where God is real and love is everything it makes perfect sense to pour out your most precious ointment on the least of Jesus’ brethren in your care. The Jamberoo sisters are a radical encouragement for us all to be radical in loving.

  3. Bernadette Toohey

    Thanks for another great blog, Fr Chris. Something I have been reflecting on lately while I have been explaining to family and friends what my brother will ‘do’ in his new life as a Benedictine at New Norcia is the irony (?) of the ability of the Benedictines to witness through their gentle hospitality despite their living a cloistered life. While they do not live in the wider community, I have witnessed that their presence, faith and the holiness of their surroundings has such massive pulling power that the wider community actually comes to them. So rather than being shut away from the world, I think the world actually looks to them as a witness of peace, quiet, prayer, community and solitude that we desperately need in our busy and noisy lives. This is an amazing, tangible gift to the world, and this is in addition to all the prayers and graces that we receive as a fruit of their lives of prayer.

  4. This youtube clip is about a young woman who joined an enclosed, contemplative order.

    Your post reminded me of her.

    Thanks Fr Chris!

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