An inside look at cloistered life

By  Sara Loftson, The Catholic Register
  • November 30, 2006
ST. AGATHA, Ont. - The York University chaplaincy took six young women on a vocation vacation mid-November where they spent a weekend getting a glimpse of what religious life entails.

The first stop was Cambridge, Ont. to visit the Sisters of Our Lady Immaculate, a contemplative-active order founded 29 years ago in Guelph, Ont. Their outreach is to educate the youth and minister to the elderly.

Their second stop was a Carmelite monastery in St. Agatha, near Kitchener, Ont. It was a special occasion for the women, as visitors are rarely allowed inside to visit the cloistered Carmelites of St. Joseph.

Carolina Wilczynska, 21, a history and French studies major at York University, went on the vocation vacation last year, making this her second trip to the monastery. During this trip she applied to join the cloistered order.

"Just knowing how peaceful it is and how filled with joy and filled with Christ everyone is who lives there, I just have that longing as well."

Wilczynska will wait to start her two months of observance, a testing period, until she's graduated after the summer. She thinks the hardest adjustment will be making the transition from busy student life to minimal contact with the outside world.

In the visiting room, from floor to ceiling, a wooden divider separates the nuns from their visitors.

"This gate is to keep the world out, not to keep us in," said prioress Sr. Celeste of the Immaculate Conception, explaining that the 15-sister order is cloistered to protect their life of prayer.

The sisters take a vow of silence, only speaking for two hours during recreation time in the afternoon. They wake at 5:30 a.m. for morning prayer followed by Mass at 7:30. Intermittent prayer continues until bedtime around 9:30 p.m. The sisters make cards, jams and other handicrafts to support themselves.

"I think a lot of us do talk because we feel we need to, otherwise I'll look standoffish or shy," said Wilczynska. "But if I was put in an environment where everyone isn't talking, then I don't think I would mind that too much."

Sr. Celeste admits religious life is a struggle. Daily prayer is difficult, but also where the Sisters find their strength.

"When times are difficult you just keep going," she said.

The Carmels of St. Joseph is the first of two fully English-speaking Carmel monasteries in Canada, the other located in the diocese of Kamloops, B.C. Several French-speaking Carmel monasteries exist in Quebec. In the 1980s, there were 12 novices preparing for religious life.

"We've never had that many since. Not all of them stayed, but the beauty is they've lived this life," said Sr. Celeste.

The women visitors posed all sorts of questions, to the Sisters from what kind of relationship they have to the outside world to whether they drink coffee in the morning.

The Sisters receive Catholic periodicals, the National Geographic and the local Kitchener-Waterloo Record newspaper, but will only view preselected articles. They don't e-mail or call out, but can receive messages. Family is allowed to visit on occasion, but the Sisters rarely leave.

Sr. Celeste said when her father passed away her family was happy she stayed in the monastery to pray for his soul.

The Sisters have two vacation weeks per year, which amounts to a change in their daily routine: two hours more recreation time.

And yes, some do drink coffee to stay alert during morning prayer.

Fr. Roger Vandenakker, CC, and Sam Fernandez, 26, York University pastoral assistant, accompanied the women.

We chose to visit these two orders because they are very magisterial, they're right on with the teachings of the church, said Fernandez.

"It's not that God's stopped calling us to religious life, it's that we can't hear Him because we get so busy," said Fernandez. "If more people could experience the beauty of religious life, we'd have a lot more religious vocations.

Wilczynska agrees. "I don't think I'd have found the time or got up the courage if there wasn't an organized trip last year."

A similar retreat for young men will take place Jan. 19 to 21.

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