Sunday, September 29, 2013

Barefoot in Cleveland

As I mentioned in my last blog, I recently interviewed members  of six religious orders, and each order deserves some space here. The next order—another contemplative one—is the Poor Clare Sisters in Cleveland, Ohio, the first permanent foundation of Poor Clares in the U.S.
        All religious seek to give themselves totally to God and to serving His Church. Like the Carmelite Monks I described last week, the Poor Clares do this by completely giving up the world and dedicating their lives to prayer. They take a vow of enclosure, meaning that they remain within the confines of the convent for the duration of their lives. They don’t see this (as many of us might) as a terrible deprivation. Rather, their website describes it as a terrific advantage:

Although we are physically separated from those in the world, we are more profoundly united with them in the Heart of Christ.... The external structures of our enclosure provide the atmosphere for our free and happy-hearted dedication in our vocation. Our vow of enclosure expresses our desire to consecrate ourselves wholly to a life of intimate union with God.”

        The Poor Clare Sisters are strictly contemplative: rather than undertaking an active apostolate such as tending the sick, they support the Church with their prayers. In other words, their apostolic work is prayer, especially the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours.
        Their schedule reflects this:

12:00 AM
 Silent Prayer.  Retire

5:00 AM

5:25 AM
 Silent Prayer

6:25 AM

6:45 AM

8:00 AM
Tea (Breakfast of Tea and Bread)
followed by Silent Prayer

8:45 AM
Work Blessing
Novitiate Blessing
Work time

11:00 AM
Rosary, particular examen

1:30 PM

2:30 PM
 Work Time (sometimes a class, singing practice, etc.)

5:00 PM
 Spiritual reading, silent prayer

6:00 PM
Collation (a light repast)

6:45 PM
Necessary duties, free time

7:30 PM

        7:45 PM       

8:45 PM

(Kind of puts one in one’s place, eh?—no matter how much most of us pray, it’s nothing compared to this!)
        Again, the website portrays the beauty of this life of prayer:

“To raise our voices in praise of God during the silence of the night is a beautiful and profound experience. This service of love seeks to respond to the truth that God is worthy of worship and praise at all times and that at every hour there is need of redemption.  We have the privilege of Perpetual Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and we keep watch with Christ throughout the whole night as well as during the day.”

     Another important way they serve the Church is through penance, thereby increasing the treasury of grace. Penance is incorporated into their lives not only through praying in the middle of the night, but also in going barefoot and eating moderately. Breakfast is merely tea and bread; supper is also light. The only real meal is dinner, at midday, but even then they never eat meat and tend to have simple foods. They also rely on what is given to them—whatever the donations might be.
        I interviewed one of the externs, Sister Saint John, who entered in 1958. She was very sweet and smart, holy and helpful. An extern takes all the same vows as the other nuns—except the vow of enclosure. The externs serve their sisters by being intermediaries between them and the outside world: tending the gift shop, answering the phone and comforting the many who call requesting prayer, and occasionally going out to do necessary shopping. They also maintain the public chapel that mirrors the sisters' own and is joined by a window in which the Blessed Sacrament is exposed, thus He can be adored from both chapels simultaneously. Aside from their work, then, the externs in every other aspect share in the same life of prayer as the rest of the Poor Clares.  Their website points out, “Our Extern Sisters are imbued with the spirit of enclosure and are, in fact, its special guardians.”  
      The sisters can, however, receive guests (though still separated by a grill). Local high-school girls, for instance, have joined them at Mass and then met with a few sisters afterward. They testify to the joy and the peace that the sisters exude.
     That same joy emerges from the vocation stories appearing on their website. 
     “What a grace, what a tremendous joy it is for me to give myself entirely to Christ, my beloved Bridegroom,” writes Sister Faustina of the Blessed Sacrament, who took her first vows in 2010. “How blessed and grateful I am for the Holy Vows which help me to follow the Lamb wherever He goes—in time and eternity. For He is and will forever be: My God and My All!”
      Sister Christina, who entered in 1998,  echoes these sentiments: “We sing His praises day and night, and all our work is for Him infused with prayer. What a great life! I can't believe He chose me!”

     There's a beautiful image on their homepage, depicting their founders, St. Clare and St. Francis. Their evident hunger for God also helps explain the joy their followers find in this life of prayer and penance.
    The sisters' own words best sum up the mystery of their life:
Poor Clares begin on earth the occupation of the blessed in Heaven. It was for the contemplation of God that we were created. And when all activities have ceased, when earth no longer turns on its orbit, and the sun has vanished in smoke, the work of contemplation alone will go on for all eternity. ... [The Poor Clare] ... is called by God not so much to do anything as to be something. Her life prefigures eternity.

To learn more about the Poor Clare Colettines of Cleveland, click here. One can also see a video (from the mid-nineties) about them on YouTube, here.