For many it may seem unnecessary that cloistered nuns are never to leave their monastery except for emergencies and that they can only speak to visitors through a grille. But the Church has continually taught that this way of life is a grace from God and a gift to the whole Church.
In the early days of Christianity, becoming Christian meant expressing a willingness to be martyred, because so many were killed for their Faith. With the legalization of Christianity in AD 313, the spread of monastic life perpetuated the spirit of the martyrs. At first those wishing to imitate the martyrs in dying for Christ went into seclusion into the desert. Later the enclosure took the place of the desert, with the same effect of separation. In the 20th century, Vatican II affirmed that this way of life is a necessary and beautiful aspect of the Church. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Expressing the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Venite Seorsum explains, “Withdrawal from the world for the sake of leading a more intense life of prayer in solitude is nothing other than a very particular way of living and expressing the paschal mystery of Christ, which is death ordained toward resurrection.” For the Christian death means Life. Entering the enclosure is a sign of death to the world, but an entering even now into the Resurrected Life of Christ and a striving toward the fullness of eternal Life to come. “It is impossible to imagine how happy I am. I feel peace, so intimate a joy that I tell myself that if people in the world would see this happiness, all would run to shut themselves in convents” (St. Teresa of Jesus of the Andes, Carmelite nun).
- The mystery of the church is more fully expressed. “Certainly the faithful are called to follow Christ in the proclamation of His gospel of salvation, and they should at the same time contribute to the construction of the earthly city…Yet with this mission the fullness of the mystery of the Church is not expressed, since the Church, though established for the service of God and man is likewise-and even more especially-the aggregate of all who are redeemed, that is, of those who through Baptism and the other sacraments have already passed from this world to the Father.The Church is indeed “eager to act,” yet at the same time she is no less “devoted to contemplation,” in such a way that in her “the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation.” It is therefore both legitimate and necessary that some of Christ’s followers, those upon whom this particular grace has been conferred by the Holy Spirit, should give expression to this contemplative character of the Church by actually withdrawing into solitude to lead this particular type of life, in order that “through constant prayer and ready penance they give themselves to God alone”” (Venite Seorsum).
The whole world is asleep, and God so full of goodness, so great, so worthy of all praise, and hardly anyone is thinking of Him! See, nature praises Him, the sky, the stars, the trees, the grass, everything praises Him, and man, who has knowledge of His benefits, who ought to praise Him, sleeps! Let us go and wake up the universe!
St. Mary of Jesus Crucified
- The enclosure is like the rib cage around the Heart of the mystical Body. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians says the Church is like a body. “Cloistered religious are at the Heart of the Mystical Body of Christ. Through their prayers and sacrifices they pump life and vitality to the visible members of the body. The heart is always invisible in the body or else it would lose its strength and die. It is vulnerable and so that is why it is protected by a rib cage, the enclosure” (from a Carmelite nun). “The contemplative nun fulfills to the highest degree the First Commandment of the Lord: “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, with all your mind” (Lk 10:27), making it the full meaning of her life and loving in God all the brothers and sisters… Through her unconditional love of him and in the spirit of renunciation proposed by the Gospel (cf. Mt 13:45; Lk 9:23), (24) she accomplishes the sacrifice of all good things,“consecrating” every good thing to God alone” (Verbi Sponsa). The enclosure is both an aid to this love which is the calling of cloistered nuns and a visible sign of it.
- A sharing in the Eucharistic life. “Choosing an enclosed space where they will live their lives, cloistered nuns share in Christ’s emptying of himself by means of a radical poverty, expressed in their renunciation not only of things but also of ‘space’, of contacts, of so many benefits of creation. This particular way of offering up the ‘body’ allows them to enter more fully into the Eucharistic mystery. They offer themselves with Jesus for the world’s salvation” (Vita Consecrata).
“More and more I love the dear grilles that make me His prisoner of love. It is so good to think that we are prisoners, in chains for each other; more than that, that we are but one victim, offered to the Father for souls…” (St. Elizabeth of the Trinity)