Voices Online Edition
Vol. XVIII: No. 2 - Pentecost 2003
The Poor Clares Colettine: An Explanation
A father describes his daughter's vocation
by Burman Skrable
On February 11, 2001, our daughter Carolyn entered the Bethlehem Monastery of Poor Clares in Newport News, Virginia. On February 2, 2002, she received her Poor Clare habit and her new name, Sister Miriam of the Child Jesus. Her entrance into this community has made them a part of our family, and us of theirs. We are now "Mom and Dad Skrable" to 14 additional daughters.
Carolyn did not take this decision lightly. She had decided a few years before that she was called to religious life. In early 1999, she had a brief stint with the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. This experience confirmed her call to religious life -- and convinced her she wasn't to be a Dominican. During her last year at the College of William and Mary she was introduced to the Poor Clares in Newport News. She liked what she saw and decided to spend a six-week "aspirancy" period with them in the spring of 2000. Convinced they were the order for her, she entered shortly after her W&M graduation in December of 2000. From our contact with her in person and through her letters, we can see that she is extremely happy and at peace with her choice to enter. Nevertheless, many friends and family members have questioned her decision or at least reacted with total puzzlement to it. This short piece attempts to address some of the main questions put to us about the Poor Clares and why Carolyn should have decided to join them.
The Poor Clares
The Poor Clares are a cloistered contemplative order that traces their existence to the early 1200s and to the great Saint Francis of Assisi, who asked Saint Clare of Assisi to set up a monastery for herself and her sisters. Like most Franciscan orders, the Sisters of Saint Clare have gone through various evolutions, divisions, and reforms. Sister Miriam's monastery is part of the Colettine federation, which traces its existence to a reform by Saint Colette in the 15th century. There are presently more than 15,000 Poor Clares worldwide.
One of the questions asked of a woman when she takes her first simple (temporary) vows nicely summarizes the Poor Clare life and mission:
Do you wish to dedicate yourself to God alone in the solitude and silence of the enclosure, in persevering prayer and generous penance, in good works and humble daily toil, united in love with all your sisters, for the sake of the kingdom of God and all His holy people?
As a cloistered order, the Poor Clares' lives are contained within their monastery; they travel only with permission. Unlike the more famous monastic orders established by Saint Benedict, they are not self-supporting. They are a "mendicant" or begging order; they depend on the generosity of the community. Although their day contains a generous measure of work, it is not work intended to provide a sustaining income. Their real work is their prayer. For Poor Clares, a day at the office -- and every day for a cloistered nun is a day at the office -- is a day at the Divine Office. Their daily effort is to pray, primarily on behalf of the world and especially for those who will not pray for themselves. To this end, the Poor Clare works constantly to deepen her spiritual life. She is trying always to purge herself of self-will and self-indulgence so that she can become as perfect a Bride of Christ as she can. In attempting to attune her will completely to that of God the Father, she tries to follow the model of perfect obedience, His Son Jesus Christ.
As a community of prayer, the Poor Clares have a highly structured daily schedule that conforms to the Church's traditional cycle of public prayer:
Midnight: Rise for Night Office
1:20 AM: Return to bed
4:30 AM: Rise for Morning Praise
5:30 AM: Breakfast - bread & coffee
6:00 AM: Lectio Divina (prayerful reading of the Scriptures)
7:00 AM: Mass
8:00 AM: Midmorning prayer
8:30 AM: Study
9:00 AM: Community work
10:40 AM: Mid-day prayer
11:20 AM: Dinner (main meal)
12:50 PM: Rosary and Mid-afternoon prayer
1:40 PM: Work
4:05 PM: Evening Prayer (Vespers)
5:15 PM: Evening Meal (Collation)
6:10 PM: Recreation
7:10 PM: Night Prayer
8:15 PM: Lights out
Penance and self-denial permeate every aspect of their lives. Their meatless meals are always simple and as nutritious as their benefactors' generosity allows. If the community is not generous, their meals will be even simpler; they make do with what they have been given, although they do use cash donations to make sure their diet contains essentials such as milk and cheese. They go barefoot and wear a simple brown habit. They go about their work silently, speaking to one another only as needed to accomplish their work. The only exception to silence is the Recreation period, when free conversation is permitted. Life is lived out in obedience to the Mother Abbess, or in the case of postulants and novices, to the Novice Mistress.
The Poor Clare life may be nearly as severe and difficult for the girl's family. The Poor Clare actively embraces her calling and enters the cloistered life. This involves giving up life in the regular world, and her biological or adoptive family is part of that "regular world". Her family is usually in a reactive position, having to live the loss of regular contact that is the consequence of her decision. Contact is infrequent at the beginning and becomes less frequent as time goes on. During the postulant year, there are four two-day family visits. During the year after the Poor Clare receives her habit -- her second full year, called the canonical year -- there is supposed to be only one visit. After the nun takes her vows, there are two visits per year.
Each visiting day has two two-hour visiting segments to it. Visiting is in the "parlor", a simple room with a large window opening onto an adjacent room. The window connecting the two rooms has a screen (some monasteries have a grille, we understand). The family sits on the public side of the screen and the Poor Clare on the cloistered side. The screen eliminates hugs and kisses, although we all use the "Poor Clare hug", a high-five meeting on the screen.
Families can write their Poor Clare any time, but she receives mail only on Sundays. She gets no mail during Advent or Lent. (And the Poor Clare Advent is very long, All Saints Day through Christmas). Poor Clare postulants and novices can write once a month, generally the first Sunday of the month -- again, excluding Advent and Lent. Once she takes vows, her letter writing is restricted to twice a year. Generally, she may write only to mother and father, although she may usually send two letters a year to siblings, at Christmas and Easter. It will come as no surprise to hear that parents cannot just pick up the phone and call their Poor Clare daughter, although the Mother Abbess may make an exception to contact rules if she determines it would be for the good of the nun and her family. We have already benefited from a couple such exceptions, and appreciated them all the more because they were out of the ordinary.
Why? Addressing Some Questions
In a nutshell, the above describes the Poor Clare life, mission, and "experience". Throughout history, I'm sure most people have found the Poor Clare life daunting, although understandable. Our modern Western perspective on life has led many of our family and friends to say they find it incomprehensible and to question why anyone, and especially Carolyn, should even consider this life as a legitimate calling. Let me summarize the questions and then attempt to respond to them.
1. I just don't understand the whole idea of the Poor Clares' life: cloistered, simply praying all the time, no external apostolate to help the poor, needy and suffering who could benefit from their kindly words and kindly touch.
2. Isn't their life very self-centered? Isn't the Poor Clare thinking only of herself and being very selfish in withdrawing herself from family and friends?
3. The Poor Clare life sounds rather neurotic. Isn't it just a flight from the world, and isn't all the penance and self-denial another form of neurotic behavior - or worse?
4. Carolyn is a very empathetic people person with particularly great skills in dealing with the very young and the very elderly. Her students (during her student teaching days at William & Mary) and the residents of Commonwealth Nursing Home in Fairfax loved her. Shouldn't she be out in the world, exercising those gifts? Isn't it a waste for her to be in the cloister where she ministers to no one?
5. As crazy as their life seems, once you get to know them you realize each Poor Clare community is filled with exceptionally loving people. To know them is to love them. But, hardly anyone knows about them; they may be the best-kept secret in the Church. Shouldn't they be doing something to acquaint the world with who and what they are?
1. Does the Poor Clare life make any sense? The Poor Clares' see their life as a life of prayer and penance, lived for the worship of God. They model themselves on the "silent Christ" of His first 30 years on earth, working in silence and without notice in humble obedience to the Father's will. They are a living, although largely hidden, example of what our lives will be in Heaven where we will be in timeless adoration of the Trinity. While most of us bustle about doing the world's work like Martha of the Gospel, being unwilling or unable to attend to God's praises, the Poor Clares are set aside to sit like Mary at the foot of Christ, having been chosen for "the better part". They are God's tithe. (Their relatively small numbers demonstrate that God will settle for less than a tenth!) They praise God for themselves and on behalf of the whole Church. For this service they have a right to our support through alms.
The Poor Clares not only offer praise on our behalf, but they also make intercessory requests on our behalf. This apostolate of prayer on behalf of other people is as close as they come to a public, hands-on ministry, and is the dimension of their service to the Church that is most understandable to the modern, "activity-oriented" mind. Those who question the value of their life are largely asking whether this phenomenon is real. If it's real, if it "works", the Poor Clare existence probably makes at least some sense to the modern mind. If not, the skeptics consider the Poor Clares to have been living lives of serious futility for nearly 800 years and to have conned millions of Catholic faithful into supporting them all this time.
I admit I don't know how intercessory prayer "works". Imagine: we insignificant human beings pray for one another, lift our wishes and thoughts to God on behalf of others, and in some way God is moved by our influence to do something for the people we pray for that He wouldn't do otherwise. How can this be? Christ told us God knows everything, including what we need, even before we ask; He said the Father who looks after the very sparrows considers us worth more than an entire flock of them (Mt 10:31). Yet he told us to pray constantly.
Intercessory prayer may seem paradoxical to a non-theologian like me, but there is no doubt that the Bible is full of references to it. First of all, we are urged to pray for ourselves constantly; that is, we are urged to intercede for ourselves. In the Lord's Prayer, Christ instructed us to ask God to "Give us this day our daily bread". Then there are the innumerable instances that we are urged to intercede for one another in prayer. We can start with the Old Testament. In the Book of Maccabees we are told that it is a goodly thought to pray for the dead, that they might be relieved of their sins (II Macc 12:45-6). In the New Testament, we are told that Christ prayed for His disciples. For example, He said Satan wanted to sift them all like wheat, but He prayed for Peter so that Peter's faith would not fail and that he should then strengthen his brethren (Lk 22:31). Saint Paul's epistles are loaded with references to him praying for his converts (e.g., Ephesians 1:15-16), urging them to pray for one another (e.g., Ephesians 6:18-20) and asking his converts to pray for him (e.g., Romans 15:30ff).
Also, and perhaps more, pertinent to the Poor Clares' vocation, however, are the numerous instances of Christ responding to petitions. He responded to the petitions of one person on behalf of another -- e.g., the centurion asking Him to heal his servant: "Lord I am not worthy that you come under my roof; just say the word and my servant will be healed" (Mt 8:8-10). He responded to the petitions of those asking healing for themselves, such as recovery of sight or healing from leprosy. So, on earth Christ was able to do what He wanted, fulfilling requests from people whether for themselves or on behalf of others. And I believe the essential point for the Poor Clare life is: Christ lives; He can do whatever He wants; and He still responds to our requests. He responds to things we request for ourselves, and things we request for others. And that's what the Poor Clares do for a living: they ask the living Christ on behalf of others.
Ultimately one's uneasiness about the Poor Clares' lack of a hands-on apostolate must be taken up with Saint Francis of Assisi and of course the Church that accepted his design for the Poor Clares. Saint Francis placed Saint Clare of Assisi in the first Poor Clare monastery early in the 13th century, and ordered her to stay there and pray for him and his fellows, not to join them in their active apostolate. Her and her sisters' mission as the Franciscans' Second Order was to provide the spiritual logistical support for the external evangelization efforts of his First Order Franciscan brothers and priests. Apparently Francis believed that his "troops" were no different from an army, whose front-line troops engage the enemy directly, but depend on their logistical components to the rear to provide them with the food and other supplies that allow them to fight. The Church gave Francis's structure her stamp of approval and it's been in continuous existence for nearly 800 years.
2. The self-centeredness of the Poor Clares. There is no question that at first blush the Poor Clares lead a "self-centered" life. They have left family and friends for the isolation of the cloister. During formation they severely examined their consciences for sins present and past to know themselves and their sinfulness to renounce their sins, and they live a life of meditation, public prayer, and penances. But this life is less self-centered than it appears. It is oriented toward knowing better and drawing closer to their Lord and Savior through emptying themselves of self and adhering to the Father's will. The life must be seen in the context of their overall mission of offering praise to God and interceding for the world. In the normal human order, we instinctively know that a word of praise from someone known to have no self-seeking motives means the most. Likewise, we are likely to be able to secure a favor from the person with whom we are in a close, intimate and loving relationship, not from someone we hardly know or with whom we are "on the outs". Poor Clares know that their prayers will be most powerful when their wills are most perfectly aligned with that of their Spouse, Jesus Christ. That's why the Blessed Mother's intercession is most powerful, and why the saints have such great influence. The Poor Clares are merely seeking to model themselves after Mary and the saints. Their penances and self-examinations are the equivalent of athletes' training or craftsmen's job training.
Their withdrawal from family and friends should also be seen in this light. Christ told His apostles that whoever was unwilling to leave family and friends behind for His sake was unworthy of Him. Most of us do not take this literally. As good Christians, we carry out our vow or plan to put God before family in small ways, such as ensuring kids get to church, attend religious instruction and say prayers despite their grumbling and other forms of rebellion. All the while we hope the ordering is never put to a more severe test! Poor Clares take this injunction literally, leaving all behind to cling most directly and openly to their Spouse, a visible sign of what we will all become in Heaven.
3. Is the Poor Clare life neurotic? It is easy to see how women with a neurotic but idealistic bent would be drawn to the austere Poor Clare life. It is also difficult to imagine them staying long. The Poor Clare admission policy of requiring a six-week "aspirancy" period is designed to help such women decide whether the life is for them, and for the members of the community to help them make that same judgment. We have read and have heard it said that a close, intimate and enclosed community such as theirs could only survive with normal members. We not only agree with this statement, but must say that from what we observe Poor Clares are less neurotic and more stable than average. They are also more peaceful and happier. In general, if you assessed a 15-person community of Poor Clares such as the one at Newport News, you would find 15 well-adjusted, happy women. What do you think you'd find if you picked 15 women at random from the outside world?
The reason for this is not hard to appreciate. Our modern life cultivates neuroses. Our lives are incredibly busy and stressful; our culture embodies selfishness, self-centeredness and artificial notions of beauty and happiness. Instead of being led naturally to identify and confront spiritual and emotional problems directly, we are urged to suppress or mask them through any one of a zillion phony solutions to our problems, from drugs and potions to erroneous philosophies of life while we strive for unattainable, advertising-driven visions of the ideal us. The Poor Clare life replaces this with a structure of daily rhythms of prayer and praise in isolation from the world's busy-ness and artificial norms. Earning a living and raising a family are not their concerns. Poor Clares learn to know themselves and accept themselves within the Church's true vision of the human person. They are forced to deal with their deficiencies honestly and humbly. With this humble attitude, they look outward to God in praise and petition on behalf of the whole Church and particularly those who request their assistance, no longer dragged down by unresolved interior "issues". Cloister life is explicitly structured to enable them all to support one another in this effort. Lived properly, it is the model of the emotionally healthy life.
4. Carolyn in the Poor Clares: Another Sister What-A-Waste?
By her life and actions before she entered the Poor Clares, especially her last year or two, Carolyn demonstrated both her charitable impulses and her gifts for working with the elderly and with small children. We wondered ourselves, therefore, about whether she is truly called to the cloistered contemplative life. We are also aware, however, that the women called to the Poor Clares come with many skills and gifts; God does not call women to the Poor Clare life because He did not give them the skills and abilities to succeed elsewhere. We know Carolyn's gifts are needed and valued within her community, and perhaps her calling is to use them right where she is, and not out in the world. However, Carolyn's overriding desire is to do the will of God fully and completely. If she discerns that the Poor Clare life is not her calling, we are confident she will follow that call.
There is no doubt that the cloistered contemplatives are one of the Church's best-kept secrets. Yet our experience is telling us it is one of its greatest riches. Our lives have been immeasurably enriched by our two years of association with Sister Miriam's community and our new role as Mom and Dad Skrable. We inherited an unbelievably wonderful set of new daughters. We approach all the trials of life with greater peace and confidence, knowing that we are held securely in God's hand. That awareness comes in large part from our realization that day in and day out, 15 nuns are keeping us in prayer as they do much of the rest of the world. Our family and friends call us quickly when trials come to them, asking that we put their needs before the Poor Clares. They are relieved and appreciative when we tell them we have asked the Poor Clares to include their intentions.
Of course we miss the freedom to pick up t he phone and call Sister Miriam, to visit frequently, and to give her a hug when we do visit, but we accept that as part of our new vocation. And, to be realistic, we also have to acknowledge that Carolyn could have made a number of other vocational or career choices that would have left us with little contact. But we can't imagine a more glorious vocation than the one to which she has been called and is embracing.
The Poor Clares are not in much of a position to advertise their existence and trumpet their vocations. I think that responsibility falls on us. Just as we are the hands of the risen Christ in the world, we must do our part to be the heralds of the Poor Clares, making the world aware of what God has done for us through them, so that others might be drawn deeper into the heart of the Church.
Burman Skrable lives in Fairfax, Virginia. He and his wife Paula have four children and two grandchildren. Besides Carolyn (Sister Miriam of the Child Jesus), their son Chris is a first-year novice with the Maryland province of the Society of Jesus.
Contact information for the Poor Clares:
Mother Colette Rist, PCC
Bethlehem Monastery of Poor Clares
28 Harpersville Rd. Newport News, VA 23601-2322
Ph: (757) 596-5942
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