The Bridgettine Sisters. Photo by Michael Swan.

Day 10: The Bridgettines Sisters

  • May 21, 2014

I have been living this last week in a convent with habited nuns who describe themselves as semi-contemplative. They are Bridgettine Sisters, a 20th century American revival of a Medieval Swedish order.

When Swedish-American immigrant Maria Hesselblad sought to revive the 14th century order she was meticulous about much of the Medieval history. The habit and the rule were translated into the modern world as unchanged as possible, including the distinctive head dress that features five red points representing the five wounds of Christ. But she saw that a fully cloistered community of contemplatives would not work.

While the Bridgettines' first job must be prayer according to the Rule of St. Augustine, they would have to work to earn a living. In the 14th century kings and princes supported religious communities and even competed among themselves in financing more impressive abbeys and convents — much in the way modern shipping magnates, real estate barons and corporations own baseball and hockey teams to bolster the pride of their cities.

So the modern Bridgettines became hoteliers. They run guest houses. The one here in Bethlehem is a lovely piece of renovated stone architecture in the old city. You can't drive to it. There's just one little sign along one of the market streets that shows which staircase between the buildings will lead down to their front door.

It's a quiet refuge in a busy and crowded town. The sisters have somewhat limited WiFi available only in the common area around the reception desk. The rooms feature two single beds and a desk – no TV.  The sisters lock the doors after 9:00 p.m.

Most of the guests arrive late and leave early. For the ambitious tourist, it's quite possible to see all the notable and historic sites in Bethlehem in a single day. Pilgrims of great devotion might stay two nights.

Those who arrive after dinner will stand in the doorways of their modest, tiny rooms and listen to the sisters chanting the office – their light, crisp voices rising from the chapel below the guest rooms. And then they ring the big church bell that hangs in a steeple above the rooftop garden, booming into the deep, purple dusk.

Of course the sisters are at it again in choir at 6:00 a.m. before they have to prepare the guests' breakfast at 8:00 a.m. Few of the guests stay for breakfast, but the $38 per night charge at Mary's House includes breakfast.

The work day consists of household chores — laundry, dusting, vacuuming — but also a little bit of music practice. One of the sisters is learning to play the recorder and another the violin. Chanting the daily office leads naturally into a musical life.

Christian monasticism was always an attempt to answer a question. Now that we know God is here among us, alive and human, how should we live our lives?

The answer is not that everyone should move to Bethlehem and spend their days singing prayers to one another morning, noon and night. Some should and some do. Nor should we all get married and have children or dedicate ourselves to productive careers.

The fascinating thing about this part of the world is how intensely and constantly people ask this question about God and our way of being. In grey neighbourhoods of apartment blocks in Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox Jews are living lives of Torah study, separate from the economy, parenting eight to 10 children per couple, dressing in black, 18th century formal wear. Over the last 15 or 20 years there has been a complete transformation in the appearance of Muslim Palestinian women. Brightly coloured hijabs and body covering coats with all the buttons and epaulets of a hotel doorman are the new uniform as a population that was once 75 per cent rural moves to the cities and seeks the stability of strict morals.

God knows what the right answers are. Perhaps the ultra-Orthodox should learn to live with the society they are in, rather than standing separate in stern judgement on the world. Perhaps Muslim families should find ways of living a modern, urban life that does not treat women as a danger to be kept in constant check. It may be that the nun chanting on the right side of the choir has responded perfectly to God and the one on the left has made a grievous and miserable error.

What is clear is that the question must be asked. The greatest error may be our reluctance to ask ourselves how we should live this life with God.

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