When we visit parishes or schools, and whether we are talking to children or adults, people want to know about our daily life, our clothes, our histories … nuns haven’t exactly been “real people” to the rest of the world, and given a chance, those are the questions they ask first.
Part of the reason we seem perhaps distant has been historically intentional; in many religious communities, the members were stepping away from the life that most of their peers led — to focus on their own inner lives, to draw nearer to God in a practical (and practiced) way, to remove some of the temptations (allowing busyness to isolate them from deeper contemplation, for example) that plague us all.
Most of us in religious orders today seek the same benefits. But, as were our religious foremothers, we are human beings, too, with the same struggles, both internal and external, that everyone else faces. We have bills to pay and mouths to feed. We each arrive on the monastery doorstep with psychological wounds from our childhood, with personality quirks, with the best of intentions, and with a deep yearning to live in a way that manifests the spiritual nature unique to the human.
There are some aspects of our lives that are profoundly different, however. Foremost is the fact that spiritual focus occupies the primary place of attention in our lives. Like our non-monastic counterparts, we attend church on Sunday morning; but unlike most of them, we also worship together every day — several times a day, in fact. Each of us meditates twice a day, as well; this important event appears in the morning and evening of our daily schedule. On days when we do not have a priest to preside at a Eucharist, we study religious texts together.
Another big difference is that we work together, live together, play together, learn together, celebrate and suffer together; we are always there for each other, and in a sense we cannot get away from each other.
As you can probably imagine, this is a finely honed two-edged sword. The result of all this closeness is that we either learn how to “hide out”, holding others firmly at bay (and yes, that can and does happen); or we jump headlong into the depth of holy relationship. We dismantle our own defenses in order to welcome each other with the love, compassion and understanding that Jesus taught. And yes, that happens, too.
The most frequent question I hear is, “Do you pray all day?” Whether this inquiry comes from a child or an adult, it is usually is delivered with a tone of disbelief, and sometimes even a mild horror. I assume that many of them find prayer a stilted, stifling, uncomfortable affair, their imaginations feeding them boring (maybe even painful) images of black-clad women sitting silently on straight-backed wooden benches, hour after hour, day after day.
There are orders dedicated to contemplation, but even these committed women (and men) experience prayer much more broadly than just in chapel — though all of us, of course, have that aspect in our traditions. Prayer is being in relationship with the Holy One, and all relationships are deepened through close contact. That means that we pray in chapel, but we also pray in the garden, in the kitchen, over letter-writing, in caring for our wise elders, in sickness, in celebration, in confusion, in conversation … every moment of every day holds an opportunity to be aware of being in relationship with the Divine.
The good news is that all humans are essentially spiritual, and every one of us can walk a path of spiritual attention and intention. We can all give our hearts to deepening relationship with that which created us. It doesn’t require a chapel, or a long black dress, or a commitment to live with like-minded folks. It requires that we develop that which lives in us all; the ability and the desire to love each other, to be tender with ourselves and our friends and our enemies, to protect and honor that which gives us life moment by moment, to notice and celebrate the many wonders that surround us, and to spend a few moments every day allowing the Great Mystery to whisper in our ear.
This, then, is a good question for us all: Do you pray all day?