Nuns in the Suburbs

Between a Lutheran church and an apartment complex, and across the street from a bar, sits the Carmelite Monastery of St. Therese.

It seems a relic from the medieval age, what with its high brick wall and barred windows. To most, it might also seem a sort of prison. Those brick walls are the outer limits of each nun’s existence. Except for the extern sister, the “face” of the monastery, these women have almost no contact with society. Even during Mass, which is open to anyone, they are separated from visitors by iron bars. They constantly remain, as they put it, “behind the grille.”

But to these nuns—and the thousands of men and women worldwide who live cloistered lives—this is just how they want it. Some people are called to marriage; some are called to the priesthood. Others still are called to single life, or mission work. Then there are monks and nuns, those rare, precious souls who are drawn to a life of silence inside “a school for the Lord’s service.” There, they hope to discover a closeness to God attainable only through silence, prayer, and fasting. They live in community, sharing their search with others while insulated from corrupting influences.

Some accuse them of abdicating their Christian duty. The Gospel calls us to evangelize—surely, this is impossible when confined to a monastery. But today’s nuns and monks are simply following the example some of the earliest Christians, known today as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The greatest of these, aptly dubbed St. Anthony the Great, considered himself to be following Matthew 19:21:  “Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” He took this command to its extreme, giving up not only worldly possessions, but his whole life, converting his entire person to love of God.

Times are different now. Especially in America, it’s tough to flee to the desert—that is, a place cut off from the world. So American religious communities, like our suburban Carmelite nuns, make do with what they can. So what if they’re surrounded by noise, light, and persons innumerable? Having a convent across from a sports bar is not ideal, but it’s preferable to not having a convent at all.

If you visit any of these communities—especially if you go to Mass—you’ll realize they’ve formed their own deserts. Lucky us, too—in a world so full of distractions and despair, it’s nice to have a little slice of Heaven right in your backyard.

I mean that, too. Go on Google Maps and search for monasteries near you. Are there any? If there are, plan to visit, even just to walk the grounds. It might surprise you.

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