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Roxane B. Salonen, Published June 28 2013

Living Faith: Monastery visits bring insights on prayer life

It started when I was assigned a story to write about a religious sister professing her final vows.

Within the year, I’d returned to the monastery to work on a writing project demanding more mental space than my everyday life could offer.

Since then, I’ve made a habit, in every sense of the word, of such visits.

Along with the revitalizing benefits, my returns have given me a chance to reflect on this hidden life and its purpose.

The life of a cloistered nun brings not only a sense of mystery, but for many, a great deal of misunderstanding, as I’ve discovered from questions that emerge from curious friends post-retreat.

Who would give up her worldly life for a life of prayer, they ask in honest earnestness?

Though I’ll never be privy to all the intricacies of this life, over time I’ve come closer to understanding, at the very least, some of the whys.

The order I visit regularly rises at midnight to pray and has forgotten the luxury of eight straight hours of sleep.

Every prayer and meal is signaled by a bell heralding the need for a turn of attention. Communication happens mostly in silence. And when they sing their evening compline prayer, the sisters’ voices mimic those of angels fresh from heaven.

The monastery grounds, kept nicely manicured by caretakers, are abundantly filled with the splendor of nature in all seasons – amber leaves in autumn, green sprigs in summer, white lilacs in spring, and crimson, crinkled crabapples in winter that shine against crisp, sun-lit snow.

Guinea hens from another world roam and peck at bugs in the ground all day, cackling like gossipy old ladies when intruders like me come near. And turtles hide in a nearby pond, pretending to be rocks.

This summer, I’ve been reading an autobiography about Sister Dolores Hart, who, in the early 1960s, left her life as an up-and-coming star for the sanctuary of a Benedictine abbey in Connecticut.

Her biggest claim to fame at one time was kissing Elvis Presley, though she later made her own, solitary mark in the world of Hollywood.

Quietly, and shocking many in the process, she left the dazzle for the austere. Why, they asked then and now?

In “The Ear of the Heart,” she shares a revelation of her former superior, who once explained the meaning of the Benedictine phrase “contemptus mundi.” It means not contempt of the world, she said, but detachment from it.

The clarification seems important.

As the Reverend Mother Benedict also told the young actress, “A monastery is enclosed to protect and nourish the life of the spirit that is growing inside you and helps it to grow, in its own terms, to its fullest expression.”

It’s not so much, then, that the monastery pulls its inhabitants from the world in protest. Rather, it harbors the souls within so that as they bloom and blossom, new life can emerge in a way the outside world wouldn’t have allowed.

I’ve come to sense the fruits of this life are meant as much for those of us bumbling along in the real world as the religious sisters themselves, for when they turn inward and upward in prayer, we become the beneficiaries of their invisible petitions. We are, unknowingly, sustained by them.

Though undeserved, unearned and often misinterpreted, the prayers of the sisters and their sacrificial lives thus become a beautiful gift to us.

I believe someday, when the veil between this life and the next disappears, we’ll see the tangible effects of these quiet prayers that might seem so meaningless now. Then we’ll know, without question, the poignant purpose of this hidden life.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email roxanebsalonen@gmail.com