I was reading a blog post by someone who had been to Mass and some of the Offices at St. Cecilia’s. They expressed pity for the nuns. They talked of the nuns being trapped and lacking in freedom. I almost commented to them in response but decided it was the perfect opportunity to post on the enclosure.
I loved the enclosure. I thought it was beautiful. It never felt enclosing. It felt so natural. The grille is as much a part of the abbey as the ceiling or the walls. One of the first things I read in the enclosure was Verbi Sponsa: Instruction on the Contemplative Life and on the Enclosure of Nuns. It is one of the most beautiful texts I have ever read, and I thoroughly recommend it.
In watchful waiting for the Lord’s return, the cloister becomes a response to the absolute love of God for His creature and the fulfilment of His eternal desire to welcome the creature into the mystery of intimacy with the Word, who gave Himself as Bridegroom in the Eucharist and remains in the tabernacle as the heart of full communion with Him, drawing to Himself the entire life of the cloistered nun in order to offer it constantly to the Father. To the gift of Christ the Bridegroom, who on the Cross offered His body unreservedly, the nun responds in like terms with the gift of the “body”, offering herself with Jesus Christ to the Father and cooperating with Him in the work of redemption. Separation from the world thus gives a Eucharistic quality to the whole of cloistered life, since “besides its elements of sacrifice and expiation, [it assumes] the aspect of thanksgiving to the Father, by sharing in the thanksgiving of the beloved Son”. (Part 1, 3)
One of the things I did for work was clean the church. This photo shows the outside church and sanctuary, although things are slightly different now. There is a low grille/fence in place of that rope and there is a new crucifix on that far wall. The choir is, obviously, on the other side of the grille on the right.
Obviously to clean the sanctuary and the church we had to go through the grille. Sister would get the key and we’d unlock the grille and open up the doors. When we were done, we’d go back down the stairs and through the grille again and lock it behind us. It was one of these simple things that was somehow still so profound. For me at least, it was a weekly reminder of everything the enclosure is.
People associate the enclosure with imprisonment. The enclosure is many things but it is not a prison. Never have a met a group of women so happy and so fulfilled. They do not feel anything is lacking in their life. St. Cecilia’s is not a small space, the abbey is spacious and fairly large and has large and beautiful gardens. But it is still not the same as being out in the world. There is still a physical limitation of space but it is anything but limiting.
I managed to find this beautiful picture of the abbey. You can see just how spacious it is! My cell (the visitor’s cell really) overlooked the gardens and the woods beyond the boundary of the abbey. I would stand at the window and look out at how beautiful it was. I realised after a few days that my gaze never left the abbey. I could look out beyond what was the abbey grounds but I didn’t. I purposefully looked beyond the grounds but my gaze was always drawn back. That is only a simple thing, but I did not for a second in the abbey long for anything outside of it.
The enclosure is beautifully symbolic of the total forsaking of the world, not just in possessions but in literal space. They enter into a place of God, they go into the house of their heavenly Bridegroom. Just as their lives are centred around him, so is their physical space. They have left behind the meaningless frivolities that occupy so much time for those of us here in the world. In the enclosure nothing is missing, nothing is lacking. There is not need to wander, there is no need to leave because everything that fulfils them so totally is already there.
The cloistered nun chooses that space freely because as I have said, those things her heart longs for she finds in the enclosure and not outside of it. The enclosure is not a prison, far from it. The enclosure is place of freedom, because the nun is loosened from those bonds that tie us to worldly things. In giving herself entirely to Christ, she is made free in Him. There are so many things in the world that we think are important. Those meaningless frivolities I have already mentioned. I had thought myself before I went into the enclosure how much I would miss these things and wondered how I would cope without that. As I have already mentioned, I did not for second long for anything outside the enclosure. One might wonder why but answer is simply that I did not need them. There is nothing missing in that way of life – the fact that it has endured for millennia is a living testament to that.
So my message here is do not pity those in the enclosure, because they do not need it.