A great paradox of the Order of Preachers is that St. Dominic first established a community of cloistered nuns before formally establishing a community of friars to preach. Dominic realized that these women, who lived a hidden life of prayer, were essential to preaching. Since their prayers and life of penance were directed towards the preaching of the soon to be established friars, the nuns from the beginning have been at the heart of the Order’s preaching mission.
Unfortunately, many people today do not know about the Dominican cloistered nuns. And even fewer people are aware of another type of sister within these communities who also bear much fruit: the extern sister. Due to their unique witness of the contemplative life it is important to reflect on this vocation.
Like the cloistered nun, the extern sister is also called to a life of prayer and intimacy with the Lord that is afforded to those in cloistered life. However an extern sister is not bound by the cloister and, thus, is permitted to work outside of the monastery, becoming the bridge between the cloister and the world. Her tasks include grocery shopping for the community, working in the monastery’s gift shop, and representing the community at vocation events. The extern sisters are also readily available to listen to, talk with, and pray with the laity.
Despite these very tangible tasks, the extern sister is not simply a cloistered nun who is permitted to leave the cloister. Rather, being an extern sister is its own vocation. It is in a sense a vocation within a vocation. It is first and foremost a vocation to the contemplative life but it is also a further calling from God to serve the cloister. The cloistered life is after all a privileged life hidden with Jesus Christ. The extern sister recognizes the beauty and privilege of the cloister and from there is called to generously serve the cloister.
While other religious orders also have externs, the Dominican motto “to contemplate and to share the fruits of contemplation” shows the fittingness of Dominican extern sisters. The end goal of every Dominican vocation is the salvation of souls, but that must be rooted in contemplation. Out of her vocation to a contemplative life she is called to service and, in so doing, she becomes the visible image of the cloistered community. Whether it is praying with the public or simply walking down the aisle at the grocery store, she is a witness of the Christian life and a reminder to the world of the many women in her community who also dedicate their lives to praying for the preaching of the Gospel and the salvation of souls.
Image: Dominican Extern Sisters from the Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary, Buffalo, New York