Why do cloistered nuns appear not to do anything productive?

This is what people often have the hardest time understanding about the life of a cloistered religious.  Why aren’t they teaching, feeding the poor, nursing the sick, or doing something of that kind?

There are two parts to answering this question.

1.First, it must be affirmed that the life of a cloistered nun is basically useless and does almost nothing to help mankind – on the natural level.   It is meant to be so, because her life is offered totally and completely to God as a living sacrifice.  The cloistered nun exists above all “TO BE A PRAISE OF THE GLORY OF THE MOST HOLY TRINITY” in the words of Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity.  “The “Why” of the cloistered contemplative life is answered, then, by the supreme majesty of Almighty God, He who is worthy to be praised and glorified forever and ever – and this WITHOUT ANY NECESSITY WHATSOEVER FOR REFERENCE TO MAN. It is the uncompromising “Why?” of the Hebraic holocaust – that offering to God which was not returned for the use of the people, nor even reserved for the priests, but destroyed and wholly consumed by fire to proclaim the sovereignty of God. It is the poignant “Why” of a costly perfume charging the air with spice and tears as it spilled unmeasured over the feet of Christ. It is the lyric “Why” of “…the solitary flower of the mountains, far up at the fringe of eternal snows, that has never been looked upon by the eye of man; …the unapproachable beauty of the poles and deserts of the earth that remain forever useless for the service and purposes of man…”” ((Worthy is the Lord, An Explanation of Cloistered Contemplative Life by Sister Mary of the Trinity, O.P.)

The Church gives us various images to help illustrate this.  For instance, cloistered nuns have been seen as earthly seraphim resemble the seraphim: Some angels act as guardian angels or messengers or have various other tasks, but the seraphim are the angels in heaven who sing God’s praise “day and night without ceasing” (Rev 4:8).   “God wills “to choose from among the children of men, seraphs on earth – the souls whose entire being is a perpetual libation of praise. The Vows of Profession in a contemplative order establish the soul in this state of divine worship. The true contemplative does not simply pray, but by her professional consecration she is a prayer, an incarnate “Alleluia!”By her state she acclaims before heaven and earth: Holy and terrible is God and worthy of praise and glory forever!”(Worthy is the Lord)

The anointing at Bethany is a symbol of the cloistered life.  A woman poured a jar of costly ointment on Jesus, at which the disciples became angry and said, “Why was this not sold and the money given to the poor?” But Jesus said that her action was good.  It was not a waste of the ointment that it poured out on Jesus, the King of Kings, Lord of Creation, the One who is worthy of all praise!  Neither is it a waste of a life to pour it out entirely in the praise of Our Lord.

Another example is the story of Martha and Mary.   “Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.  But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”  But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:38-42).  Cloistered life is totally devoted to this “one thing” necessary: listening to and loving the Lord.

2. Second, by the paradox so central to Christianity, this complete gift of self to God alone is productive on the supernatural level.  Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24).   Please see post, “How do those in the cloister help those in the world?”

It is not human activity that can save us, but only the Passion of Christ. To this I aspire” (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein))

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