In his homily on Sunday, our parish priest reminded us of the power of lives steeped in prayer. He mentioned the Carthusians of Parkminster in Sussex, who live eremitical lives within a community, each monk being allotted a small two-storey cell, with bed/workshop/study/oratory areas, as well as a small garden. Outside the liturgy they only meet fraternally once a week.
People outside the Church find it hard to grasp such radical love. I use this phrase as I have just been reading – or rather looking at – a book with this same title: a photographic narrative of the first seven years of a young American woman, Lauren, who chose to become a nun within an enclosed community in New Jersey.
Its author, Toni Greaves, first met Sister Lauren at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in 2008 on a photographic assignment. Having built up a relationship of trust with the community, she was allowed to photograph the significant moments in the young woman’s spiritual journey: first when, as an athletic and popular 21-year-old student, she chose to give her life entirely to God as Sister Maria Teresa of the Sacred Heart; then at her first profession, aged 24, when she received the black veil; finally her Solemn Profession aged 28, when she received a gold ring to signify her “marriage” to God.
There are no captions to the photographs, encouraging the viewer to contemplate the images as a form of visual poetry. It is very effective: we see the nuns’ graveyard in the snow, where Sister Maria Teresa will finally be laid herself; we see her singing with a guitar (radical love doesn’t preclude a joyful use of talents); at recreation with other nuns, and so on.
The book radiates a mysterious, moving beauty, communicating a message of how life can be purposeful, serene, varied, dignified and totally fulfilling within such an “unworldly” community of women. The nuns rarely leave the enclosure, except for medical appointments or other serious reasons; “They will tell you that leaving the enclosure is a sacrifice.”
Toni Greaves concludes her book with the comment: “Some say that nuns hold up the world in prayer. Maybe that is true…”
Our newspapers are filled daily with stories of radicalised loners and misfits, venting their anger in unprovoked attacks of extreme violence. Yet it is “radical lovers” who will save the world.