The Joy of Enclosure: Taking a Cue from the Cloister

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As I was packing a mini-library of books to take home from my office in the wake of the mandate to stay put, this book flew off the shelf and demanded to be remembered and I was immediately awash with a bounty of profound memories of my time spent living and working alongside various orders of cloistered nuns. Recalling the Benedictines from the prairie in Idaho to Dominicans in suburban California to orthodox sisters on the isle of Patmos in Greece to Cistercians on a remote island in Norway, there’s no denying I have been drawn to various expressions of religious enclosure. There is something about the wisdom and spirituality of cloistered monastic life that bears witness to our situation today in which we find ourselves in the enclosure of home as Catholics.

It’s a joy to both remember and discover just what that spiritual wisdom is.

If I were to tell you that exposure to monastic life fueled my adult conversion to Catholicism, would you know what I mean? What about if I said there were several years of my life that I felt irrevocably pulled like a magnet to cloistered life, and that knowing such a thing existed in reality completely changed my world? That all I wanted to do was immerse myself fully in such a mysterious interpretation of living? Would you know what I mean?

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There is an undeniable intensity in a cloistered monastic way of living, and although there are varying degrees of strictness to the interpretation of cloistered, such as how some cloistered nuns travel to academic conferences and go out and about for ice cream cones and sell their goods at summer medieval markets, whereas others never venture beyond the walls and even the priests never encounter the sisters but behind a literal wall of metal bars called a grill. On top of this chosen cage some nuns even have their faces entirely covered by their veils for the reception of the Eucharist, rendering them forever unseen to the outside world. It bodes well if you possess a curiosity about just how far your potential can go as a human being if you’re seeking to understand the cloister. That perhaps, even the very essence of yourself can be transformed into a reflection of the mystery of the Trinity. Maybe your life could be an entire witness to the gift of one’s self to God, and how such gifts benefit humankind. A monastery in its ideal, and seen executed in practice is that of a kind of radical school for the soul.

The first monasteries I happened to visit were actually located in a rural countryside town in Oregon, where one had to drive through bucolic fields of blooming tulips, beautiful barns and frolicking goats. Then you get to the little town itself, and it’s a miniature Bavaria, where all of the architecture is beaming in that bohemian German style, and you are transported to some kind of wunder land in the middle of nowhere. I did happen to see the von Trapp children perform folk songs here once. There’s even a cuckoo clock with giant people-sized rotations of various historical figures and of course, singing nuns. Fight the urge to eat at the local Bavarian restaurant or not, have some fondue or a schnitzel or not, before heading further uphill to the Benedictine monks at Mt. Angel Monastery.

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Remember the trees themselves are something to behold in Oregon, and you go past towering Doug Firs and weave through a road that has quaint wooden carved Stations of the Cross for pedestrian pilgrims, and finally you arrive at something of a rooftop of God on the vineyard of bounty. There’s a lot going on at Mt. Angel. From the undeniably clean and Scandinavian aesthetic of the university classrooms to the Alvar Aalto designed library and its circular shelving so that the books treat the space like you are the spine to their pages, to the wood and white purity of the church and the enchantment of how the light plays with the architecture. This was the first time I heard the Liturgy of the Hours chanted in the real, and everything about it mesmerized me and made me want to know everything about what was occurring.

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Now, the museum of curiosities in the basement of the chapel past the graveyard of the monks is deserving of it’s own post – as it’s like a living wonder cabinet of rare gems and an out-of-control taxidermy collection complete with mutant animals and action scenes from the ferocity of nature. This museum also just so happens to be curated by a Brother Love, who when I first saw him was in the choir, could not but notice his sleeve and neck tattoos poking out from his benign brown habit. I later learnt this tattooed monk with the oddly obvious gentle spirit learn used to be a biker but was struck by God so as to be drawn into the monastic life as a brother, and who now paints icons and curates that museum and is also wholly deserving of his own post.

Perhaps what you can start to see, is that monasteries are treasure troves for anyone who desires to take an adventure with God, where the most unlikely specimens of the holy are found in a pure and natural state, and the fruits of a life lived in prayer, contemplation, and offering oneself as an intercessor for others before God can be found against all the odds of the outside world. This hidden interior world of monasticism is where God became so palpable to me, in a way that made me realize Catholicism was about re-orienting the entirety of your life around the axis of God, and that such an all-or-nothing intensity of devotion to the One whom I loved most was exactly what I desired to experience in my heart of hearts.

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As we continue this exploration of spiritual wisdom mined from the cloister for application to our lives at this time, you will be invited to look at our situation through a new lens, adopt a different perspective and experiment with an outcome that may lead to joy.

Reflection Questions:

  • Have you ever visited a monastery?
  • If so, what was your experience? If not, would you like to?
  • What do you think of someone making the free choice to be enclosed for God? How about being enclosed for the benefit of humankind?
  • Are you aware of the various monasteries that are more-or-less local to you?
  • Would you be interested in making a map of them with your family for a future spiritual pilgrimage?

Further Resources

Book: Walled About With God: The History and Spirituality of Enclosure for Cloistered Nuns

Documentary: The Nun: The Story of a Carmelite Vocation

Trailer of: “The Nun” w/o subtitles – DVD has subtitles

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