Cocooning, self-isolation, social distancing — the life of a nun for hundreds of years

Cocooning, self-isolation, social distancing — it’s been a whole new way of life for most of us — but for contemplative nuns, it’s been a way of life for the best part of a millennium. In the first of a two-day series on nuns in Ireland today, Eoin English speaks to members of two contemplative orders about life behind the monastery walls, falling vocations and their hopes for the future, and to one young woman about why she’s made her first profession of monastic vows at the only Cistercian monastery for women in Ireland
Cocooning, self-isolation, social distancing — the life of a nun for hundreds of years

Sr Emma makes First Profession of her monastic vows on Sunday, July 11 — the feast of St Benedict. She was given the religious name Sr Beatrice.

The nuns of St Mary’s Abbey in Glencairn, Co Waterford, home to the only Cistercian monastery for women in Ireland, have recently welcomed the first newly professed member since 2015 into their community.

Emma Brady, 26, from Cavan, who graduated with a law degree from Trinity College Dublin in May 2018, entered the monastery as a postulant in September and became a novice in July 2019, made her first profession of monastic vows on Sunday, July 11, taking the religious name Beatrice.

Sr Beatrice promised stability, conversion of life, and obedience for one year and after reading out and signing her formula of profession, and making her promise of obedience to the Abbess, Mother Marie, she received the black scapular and belt.

Sr Beatrice said she chose that religious name after Blessed Beatrice, the Cistercian nun of Nazareth (1200-1268), whose most famous text, 'Seven Modes of Love', a very influential text in Cisterian spirituality which, in broad terms, deals with how one can dwell in God’s love, is still relevant today.

“We are a community of modern women trying to live a monastic life in an order which dates from 1098,” Sr Beatrice says.

“It is quite beautiful and humbling to think that we are standing on the shoulders of those very prophetic and holy people.

It is not to deny the spirituality of our time but to look back and say how we can bring that forward now, to live this heritage now and bring it into today.

 Sr Beatrice describes her path to her first profession as “an unfolding journey” which featured an ever-deepening involvement in aspects of religious life since her childhood.

“I had been asking the questions about religious life for a long time before entering the monastery,” she says.

“Even as a child, I had wondered if there was something there, I wanted to serve God in a more radical way.

“But as a teenager, the answer to those questions was ‘absolutely not’.

“As a journey, there was a rejection of that desire I knew was in me.

“I became more involved in religious life and I suppose my family wondered how it might work out. Maybe they didn’t expect a radical commitment to monastic life.

“I was quite extroverted and had a real gung-ho attitude towards social justice.

“And then I would have thought about an active religious life, maybe like something out there in the community."

I studied law primarily because of strong sense of social justice. 

“It was very on my mind in secondary school, and looking back now, I would have aligned that with a call to missionary religious life.

“While studying law in Trinity, I wouldn’t have admitted that to anyone else or to myself.

“But in second year college, I would have looked at this call more closely.

“Then I heard a talk for students, given by an alumni, who said you’ve found what you’re meant to do when everyone else is running away from it and you’re running towards it.

Calling to monastic life

“I wanted to run towards it. I began visiting orders, seeing if I could find my fit, and I felt a propeller inside me saying yes, this is what God is asking of me.

“To give ourselves in love and commitment — that is when we are able to be bestowed on others in the best way, to become the person who we are made to be.” 

Sr Beatrice says she had been asking the questions about religious life for a long time before entering the monastery.
Sr Beatrice says she had been asking the questions about religious life for a long time before entering the monastery.

She says it probably came as a surprise to her family that she had chosen a monastic life but that they journeyed with her and were generous and open-minded.

“They want me to be myself as well — to find what I’m called to be,” she says.

The monastic life at Glencairn revolves around prayer, study, and work. Rising at 3.50am for the first of seven gatherings for prayer, the nuns also run a farm, specialising in dry stock with some leased land for tillage, and they tend to a flock of sheep.

In 2010, they planted 27 acres of the bio-energy crop, Miscanthus, which has been the main source of heat for their monastery since 2016.

St Benedict encouraged his followers to ‘live by the labour of our hands’ and the nuns at Glencairn also run a visitors’ centre, a hugely popular greeting card operation, with personalised cards, pressed cards, memorial cards, bookmarks, and prayer cards for any special occasion, as well as candle marking, and book restoration service.

They also bake Eucharistic hosts for distribution to cathedrals, parishes, nursing homes, religious houses, hospitals, and educational institutions throughout Ireland, the UK, and further afield.

Sr Beatrice doesn’t view monastic life as “giving up” a way of life.

“Far from it,” she says.

“I think more of how much I’ve gained — of learning how to be bestowed on others, our true selves, as revealed in the silence of the monastery.

“In the radicality of the life, of what you give, you gain 100-fold. That’s the gospel promise of life."

If the monastery is your call and your vocation, you realise that with new wonder again and again.

“It might not be in the way you imagine but that’s where you’re called to accept, and to see what you’re gaining is really from God, a call to joyful service.

“Of course there is renunciation, but we learn to live with it. 

"We live a simple life, there is a call to simplicity in every aspect of the monastery — communal ownership of goods and that might look quite sparse — but it’s really a liberation.

A call to joy and hope

“Monastic life isn’t opting out. It’s not about renouncing the values of society at all.

“It’s a call to joy and hope, we’re deepening awareness of what it is to be human, and cherishing that.

“It’s not about running away because in a monastery, you have to face yourself.

“The profound radicality of monastic life is ever more attractive in contemporary society.

“People want to live lives of integrity and this is a really tangible way of doing it.” 

Sr Beatrice believes that their monastic life, centred on prayer, is and will remain a “beautiful gift” to society.

We are in communion with Christ, with people who are struggling, and with those who are being destructive, and those who maybe can’t face the coming of the day.

“We are here in love and we hope that it radiates out,” she says.

“The best thing for us to do is to do what God is asking of us — to stay here, to stay in faith.

“There is room in the church for both the active and the monastic way of life, and many things in between.

“The value of monastic prayer is esteemed and encouraged.

“Monasteries are a place where we can allow God into the world, through a crack in the world. It is a free place for God to be, and to act in us.” 

London-born Sr Michelle, 53, who joined a Benedictine monastery in Bedfordshire in 1993 before moving to Glencairn in 1997 to follow the Cistercian tradition, points out that there is a distinct difference between the isolation that was felt by many during the lockdown and the chosen isolation or solitude of monastic life.

Monasticism apart from society

“Comparing the experiences of lockdown to a monastery is dodgy,” she says.

“First of all, we make a choice to leave society. Monasticism is apart from society — it’s one of the reasons there’s enclosure in the first place — to make a geographical difference.

“Isolation, like that experienced by many during lockdown, is painful for some.

“But we live in community. We don’t have the same experience of isolation, because we come for solitude. And that’s very different.

“The solitude in a monastery implies space to allow oneself to be in touch with oneself, and with the love of Christ.

“We take a vow of stability. There is a saying, by the Carthusians, that the cross remains still while the world turns. There is always change and flux in society and for the contemplative, there is a sense of stillness.

“To remain in your cell, your cell will teach you everything, you will gain self knowledge.” 

The Cistercian Monastery  at St Mary's Abbey in  Glencairn, Co Waterford. Picture: Denis Scannell
The Cistercian Monastery  at St Mary's Abbey in  Glencairn, Co Waterford. Picture: Denis Scannell

She believes fully that the role of the contemplative order in society today is of value — it is one of witness, of giving our lives to Christ in a total way, she says.

“In our formation, we learn that the human tendency is to go to the extreme,” she says.

“Benedict himself emphasises the middle path, one of balance. And you get to know that when you find yourself.

“We get a lot of prayer requests and feedback. There is very much a sense of the effect and power prayer has had in peoples’ lives."

It’s not magic. It takes faith to understand and recognise the power of prayer.

Sr Sarah, 48, from Dublin, who worked with the former Anna Livia FM radio station in Dublin before joining the monastery in 2001, aged 28, says she “felt filled” by what she discovered in her relationship with God “at the ground of my being” when she discovered the contemplative dimension of life.

“I was a lapsed Catholic at college age, but I always had this intuition that there was a spiritual dimension that I wasn’t expressing, deepening into and connecting with,” she says.

Her father had gone to school in Mount St Joseph Abbey, in Roscrea, and had maintained his link of friendship with the monks who lived there, taking Sarah and her brother and sister to visit the monks over the years when they were growing up.

Spiritual nourishment for life

“I sensed there was a peace and love in their way of life, in them, that was always very attractive to me,” she says.

A renewed interest in Catholicism and that lasting impression of the monks reemerged in her 20s and propelled her towards Glencairn.

“At an intuitive level, I knew that this could be the path for me, the path towards God I was looking for,” she says.

The strict daily schedule of prayer, reflection and work, rising early for Vigils in the abbey church followed by quiet prayer, lectio divina and spiritual reading isn't easy but it 'nourishes her for the life', Sr Sarah says.

You have to discover that every day, get back in touch with it, surrender to God every day.

“The monastic life opens a window. I feel there is a spiritual energy that is shared when anybody prays, when anybody lives from that depth of their being.

“We get a lot of comments on our Facebook page thanking us for our prayer and our presence.

“A lot of people in times of great crisis and distress would have an instinct to turn to monks and nuns in those times to remember their intentions. We try to be faithful to that.” 

Sr Sarah, who is also the monastery’s director of vocations, says they always encourage and welcome young women to explore their own vocation, with five people booked in for a vocation weekend at Glencairn on August 27 to 29.

Sr Sarah says they always encourage and welcome young women to explore their own vocation, with five people booked in for a vocation weekend at Glencairn on August 27 to 29.Picture: Denis Scannell
Sr Sarah says they always encourage and welcome young women to explore their own vocation, with five people booked in for a vocation weekend at Glencairn on August 27 to 29.Picture: Denis Scannell

“It offers a monastic experience for those searching for their path, for those who want to take a closer look at life in Glencairn,” she says.

'It is our way of offering hospitality and support to those who are discerning their vocation.

“We still have a couple more places available for those who would like to attend the August weekend and we will be offering another weekend for discerners on October 22 to 24 this year too.” 

Others are welcome to experience an element of the monastic life, the prayer and the wonderful natural surroundings of the monastery, at Glencairn’s retreat-oriented guesthouse.

“It offers an experience of some sense of the simplicity of our life. In all the distractions of life today, these are good spiritual values to have,” Sr Sarah says.

Living in lockdown is the norm in the 'powerhouse of prayer'

Poor Clare in Cork city have taken a vow of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure, leading a life relatively unchanged since the order’s foundation in the 13th century

“We live in lockdown most of the time. And we are all on our feet and well,” says Sr Francis.

She is one of the seven Poor Clare nuns living in the landmark monastery on Cork’s College Road, in the bustling heart of the city’s university quarter, who have taken a vow of poverty, chastity, obedience, and enclosure, leading a life relatively unchanged since the order’s foundation in the 13th century.

She was one of eight nuns in the community when we last spoke. Sr Mary has died since. She is buried in the cemetery within the monastery walls.

Today, Sr Francis, 60, who entered the monastery on her 21st birthday, lives with Sr Colette Marie, Sr Faustina, Sr Clare, Sr Anthony Mary, Sr Bernadette, and the abbess Sr Miriam in a building described locally as a “powerhouse of prayer” in the city for a century.

Sr Colette Marie (left) and Sr Francis in the Poor Clare Monastery in Cork; they lead a life relatively unchanged since the order’s foundation in the 13th century. Picture Denis Minihane
Sr Colette Marie (left) and Sr Francis in the Poor Clare Monastery in Cork; they lead a life relatively unchanged since the order’s foundation in the 13th century. Picture Denis Minihane

When they each entered the monastery and after a period of formation took their vows, they effectively said goodbye to the outside world, and committed to spending the rest of their lives behind those convent walls, with family members permitted to visit a few times a year.

“Most people get the keys to the world when they turn 21, and there I was, being locked away,” Sr Francis jokes.

They rely on the outside world for almost everything, putting their faith in God and in people to deliver what they need when they need it.

Sr Francis says the pandemic has given people time to reflect on the true meaning of life, and also an opportunity to experience their way of life.

“Life is short. If Covid has taught us anything, it’s taught us about the fragility of life,” she says.

During the pandemic, people have taken on a lot of our values — living a more balanced life, with routine. Routine is so important, it’s the real scaffolding to the day.

“Covid has taken away a lot of the clutter too and on the issue of vocation, when the call happens, you have to be able to listen to hear, to hear what God is saying. He has a plan for us all.” 

The Order is named after Clare Offreduccio, a remarkable 13th-century figure known to the sisters as St Clare of Assisi — the first female follower of St Francis of Assisi.

'Privilege of poverty'

Despite her wealthy family background, she left her secure future, under cover of darkness, on the night of Palm Sunday 1212, to join Francis and his followers.

She spent a short period in two other monasteries before settling in San Damiano outside Assisi and was later joined by her younger sister, Agnes. Soon, other women, including her mother, joined and the Poor Clares began.

The Poor Clares Convent on College Rd, Cork. Picture:  Des Barry 
The Poor Clares Convent on College Rd, Cork. Picture:  Des Barry 

She decided to live a radically poor way of life and appealed to three popes to secure what she called the “privilege of poverty”.

'Her Form of Life', which laid down the ground rules for the enclosed Poor Clare life, was approved by the pope the day before she died in 1253.

It’s remained relatively unchanged since.

The nuns who join commit to spending the rest of their lives behind the monastery walls. Even in death. They will be buried in the cemetery at the rear of the convent.

They follow a strict code of only being allowed to leave in times of emergency or training, seeing their families three times a year and on special family occasions, of getting up at 5.30am and being in bed for 9.15pm, if possible.

They wear sandals, handmade full-length brown habits, a black veil, with brown rosary beads around their waists, and a white belt with four knots to symbolise their vows. They also wear special rings, symbols of their betrothal to Christ.

They receive hundreds of letters from people around the country asking for their prayers; these letters are placed in a basket at the foot of the altar in their private chapel.

Pre-Covid, members of the public were welcome to drop in to their public chapel for prayer, or to meet and chat with a sister behind a grille at set opening times.

But the chapel and parlour have been closed since last Lent and there are no immediate plans to reopen either at the moment.

Sr Colette Marie, 53, said the last 18-months or so weren’t “terribly abnormal” for their community but they got a real sense of peoples’ fears and concerns through the letters they received.

The graveyard at the Poor Clares Convent in Cork; the nuns who join commit to spending the rest of their lives behind the monastery walls. Even in death. They will be buried in the cemetery at the rear of the convent. Picture:  Des Barry 
The graveyard at the Poor Clares Convent in Cork; the nuns who join commit to spending the rest of their lives behind the monastery walls. Even in death. They will be buried in the cemetery at the rear of the convent. Picture:  Des Barry 

“We close the parlour for Lent anyway, and Covid hit around last Lent, so it’s been like an extended Lent for us really,” she says.

“What we found most strange was the chapel being closed, and missing that spiritual support network when people came to Sunday benediction.

“But people have been writing to us all the time. We are still here for people in that way.

“Initially in the pandemic, the letters were about Covid, there was a big fear around it, but in recent weeks, it’s back to hip operations, someone’s husband isn’t well, my grandchild is going for an operation — that kind of thing.

Our role has, in a sense, always been hidden. It’s more hidden now, but that doesn’t make it less real.

“The power is there, for the whole world. What matters is love and love is God.

“God has made us free, and he asks us to choose him, to live for him.

“He’s at everyone’s door: we let him in, but we must reach out too and our way of going out is through prayer.” 

Despite a near-collapse in vocations, both sisters still have great faith in the future.

“We are hopeful that someone will come along, especially after Covid,” Sr Francis says.

“We trust. There are terrific vocations in the Poor Clares in Africa.

“There are many distractions out there. And our lives are so specialised, we will never have big numbers coming, but that’s OK.

It’s all in God’s hands. All I have to worry about is being faithful to God.

Sr Colette Marie says she sees no need to stress about the future either.

“It is God’s business — I don’t lie awake at night worrying about it,” she says.

Merging monasteries as vocations dwindle

“What has happened in other monasteries in the federation is that monasteries will merge, sisters will leave a monastery where numbers are very low and join a monastery that is thriving.

“It has happened very, very well before and it enriches the monastery they join.” 

The last two nuns at a Poor Clare convent in Belfast, a community which had played a key role during the Troubles, moved to a Poor Clares convent in Carlow.

“They were in Belfast at a critical time when they were needed, and when that time passed, they moved to Carlow,” Sr Colette Marie says.

“I see no easing of enclosure. We would never change our vocation. We must be faithful to God, to your calling and this is our calling.” 

Some young women have dipped their toe in the water, so to speak, and spent some time living in the convent to see if it’s a life they want to pursue.

“It’s very enriching for us, as they dip their feet into the water, and people are always enriched by that time, and they try to see if this is for me but then maybe they find that the Lord is calling you somewhere else,” Sr Francis says.

As one of the sisters says: ‘they comes and they goes but mostly they goes’.

“But that’s our life.

“I don’t worry about the future; my job is to do my job.

“The future is uncertain. But everyone’s in the same boat that way.

“We hope and pray that vocations will come to Cork — it’s in God’s hands.

“What God wants is for us to trust him.”

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