I push the button outside the gift shop and wait at the intercom.
In accord with the instructions that say if no one answers within two minutes, I ring again. This time, a soft voice asks, “May I help you?”
“I’m here to see Mother Elizabeth.”
“She’s expecting you in the large parlor. You can go right in.”
I walk up a few steps past the small parlor, which is barely larger than an old-fashioned confessional and enter the large parlor. Inside the sparsely furnished room, I pull up a straight-backed wooden chair, open my netbook and wait. The pale yellow, windowless room is divided in two by a waist-high wall topped with a crisscross grate of fishing line. An almost invisible barrier, it is, nonetheless, a clear demarcation between my side and that of Carmel.
Mother Elizabeth enters from a door to the cloister and I stand up to reach through the grille to greet her with a hug. “How are you?” she asks, holding me as close as the fine line will allow.
“I’m doing great.”
“And your son?”
“He’s all grown up, living in LA,” I answer.
“Is he married?”
“We’ll have to pray about that,” she says softly, and I smile.
I first met Mother Elizabeth, then Sister Elizabeth, in June 1983, when I was given special permission to go behind the walls of Carmel of Maria Regina to witness her solemn profession from “the other side.” I can still see her, prostrate on the floor of the chapel, surrounded by flowers, a sight even her family wasn’t allowed to witness.
Mother is now the superior of the small community of eight Carmelite nuns perched on a hillside about eight miles outside Eugene, Ore. The sisters range in age from the mid-30s to the late 80s, with most in their 60s. Their newest sister, Sister Agatha, transferred from the Sisters of Mary in Kenya to their community two years ago, making her solemn profession last year.
As we sit on our respective sides of the divide, I remind her of our first meeting. “Do you remember what you said when I asked you then if you missed anything from the outside world?” She shakes her head.
“Corduroy. You said you missed wearing corduroy.”
She laughs and her eyes twinkle. “I don’t miss anything anymore.”
“Not even corduroy?”
“I don’t think I even remember corduroy!”
I show her a picture of my son on my iPhone. We talk about the convent cats, the late summer weather, the effect of the economy on families. Then I shift from friend to reporter. “I’m doing a story on vocations,” I say. “I’d like to know why you joined a cloistered order.”
I knew that she had been a registered nurse for 14 years before entering the convent, an active life of service that she had loved. I also knew that she was an only child who left elderly parents behind when she joined Carmel. As an only child whose mother depends on me, I knew the mixed feelings her decision had created.
She draws a slow breath and folds her hands on the lap of her brown habit.
“Working with suffering so much made me think about life and what it was about,” she says. “It drew me to God. I wanted a deeper level of faith and I felt God drawing me here. I didn’t know what to expect, how it was going to be, how I was going to live it. But I knew he wanted me to come here. He was everything to me. I came and stayed. He made it possible for me because this is not something you do yourself. He makes it possible.”
It’s not easy. “When I first came, I found it hard to not have more space,” she adds. “As I live in this life, trying to live for God, I found out a lot of things about myself. Now I have to do something about myself. I’m trying to say yes.”
One of the real challenges, she says, is to live your entire life in the company of the same few people. As cloistered nuns, the sisters only leave on rare occasions, such as for medical treatment or essential shopping and business. The rest of the time, they are alone together. “Out in the world, you get to pick your friends, the people you are with,” she says. “But here, these are the people God picked for you. The Lord picks them for us, takes a big spoon and mixes it all up and away we go.”
I have to chuckle at the metaphor. Although Mother is the administrative superior of the community, she is also the main cook, a task she thoroughly enjoys. In fact, she had come from the kitchen where she was preparing supper to talk to me.
“There wouldn’t be many suspects if there was a murder, would there?” I joke.
“Murder in the refectory. Oh my, what a thought!” She pauses a bit before continuing. “But this is also the best part of our life — living for God with my sisters and living with peo-ple who want to love God and want to serve him. Although our personalities are different, everyone’s heart is the same. We love God and try to do what he wants.”
Meeting God in silence
Another challenge is the silence. Except for recreation time, only absolutely necessary conversation is permitted. “That’s a big question,” Mother says. “Can you live in silence? It’s a big thing today with cell phones and texting.” She adds, “People are addicted, they can’t function without their computer, but we meet God in the silence.”
Following a centuries’ old rhythm, cloistered life is foreign to most of us who are accustomed to setting our own schedules and making our own decisions. Beginning with the Angelus at 6 a.m. and ending with night prayer at 7:40 p.m., it is centered on and sustained by prayer. Even the way the community supports itself, through the selling of altar bread, is slotted between times of prayer. The rigor of the schedule is both the pull toward and push against monastic life.
“Carmel is a witness to faith,” Mother says. “We live in a culture of death and our way of life is a gift of incredible faith in God. It’s not a career,” she said. “It’s God’s work.”
But the modern world is impatient. “People want to do things. They want to see the results of their work. They want to have an apostolate,” she says. “That’s all good, but it’s not everything. In our life, we aren’t going to see the results of our work in this lifetime. You just trust God. That’s all you can do.”
Although there are roughly 70 Discalced Carmelite communities in the United States, most are aging, as fewer and fewer young women choose a way of life that produced such greats of the Faith like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Thérèse of the Little Flower. “It’s still a viable option in today’s world,” Mother says. “It is actually very needed because of the culture we live in.”
“So why do so few women come?” I ask.
“They aren’t hearing the call,” Mother says. “They are paying too much attention to everything else. They are paying more attention to what they want for themselves. For a lot of people, God isn’t the first place in their lives. This life takes heavy commitment, a willingness to suffer and give up things you would love to have, like a family, in order for God to be the first thing. It’s a beautiful life, if you are called to it. But you really have to want to let go of a lot. You need to put God first in your life.”
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker writes from Oregon.
The Carmelites (sidebar)
The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel was founded by St. Berthold as a community of hermits in 12th-century Palestine. After the Crusades, the order was reorganized and spread throughout Europe. In the 16th century, two branches were formed; the Calced Carmelites wore shoes and followed a modified rule of St. Simon Stock, and the Discalced Carmelites wore sandals and adhered to the reforms of St. John of the Cross. The order numbers some of the greatest mystics and saints among its members including St. Teresa of Avila and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower.
Cloistered Time (sidebar)
5:30 a.m. Wake up
7 Morning prayer
8 Mass, mid-morning prayer, breakfast
9:00-11:30 Manual labor
11:30 Liturgy of the hours
1:30 Afternoon prayer
2-4 Manual labor
4:30-6 Mental prayer/spiritual reading
7:40 Night prayer
8-10 Private time
10 Lights out
Words of Carmel (sidebar)
“Distress and worry ordinarily makes things worse and even does harm to the soul itself. The endurance of all with equanimity not only reaps many blessings but also helps the soul to employ the proper remedy.”
—St. John of the Cross
“Let nothing disturb thee; Let nothing dismay thee; All things pass; God never changes. Patience attains all that it strives for. He who has God finds he lacks nothing: God alone suffices.”
—St. Teresa of Avila
“For me prayer is a surge of the heart, it is a simple look towards heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”
— St. Thérèse of Lisieux
“ In order to be an image of God, the spirit must turn to what is eternal, hold it in spirit, keep it in memory, and by loving it, embrace it in the will.”
—St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)