Today on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary we conclude our series on the monastic life of Dominican nuns.
St. Dominic in 1206 brought together a group of women in Prouille, France to take up a life of prayer, penance, and silence ten years before the official founding of the Order of Preachers. These, the first nuns of the Order, followed St. Dominic’s guidance and spent their lives praying for the success of his apostolate, as they still do for the sons of St. Dominic throughout the world. As part of its 800th anniversary celebration between 2006 and 2016, the Dominican Order has reflected on the theme “Mary: Contemplation and the Preaching of the Word.” In 2013 we launched the project of profiling all 18 Dominican Monasteries (including daughter houses) under the Master of the Dominican Order found in the United States. We also ran a feature on our Canadian nuns.
With over 125 years of Dominican nuns in the USA, a vocation that is not far from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been lived by hundreds of women in a variety of geographic and cultural settings. From the hills of Hollywood to the mean streets of the South Bronx to the quiet escape of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the contemplative life of prayer of the cloistered Dominican nun has flourished throughout our country.
In both traditions of American Dominican Monasteries — those nuns who perpetually adore the Blessed Sacrament and those who perpetually pray the Rosary — the nuns have the sublime calling of being consecrated radically to God and of interceding for the Friars and indeed for the whole world, just as Mary was consecrated to God and continues to intercede for us now in heaven. Without Mary, and her yes to God’s will by the message of the angel Gabriel, the Word would not have become flesh. Mary was the vessel to carry the Savior of the World. In a similar way, the Dominican nun, by her yes to God’s call to the vocation of contemplative monastic life, also becomes a vessel in which the Word made flesh is carried in her heart day in and day out; by her prayer she supports her Dominican brothers, who travel the world preaching the gospel for the salvation of souls. But the vocation of these nuns is not just for the Dominican Order. Pope St. John Paul II remarked beautifully that the enclosed life of nuns paradoxically is not just for themselves — it is for the entire Church and beyond:
I remember once saying to the enclosed nuns, ‘May this grille join you to the world and not separate you from it. Embrace the whole world with your mantle of prayer!’ I am convinced that these dear sisters all over the world are always conscious that they exist for the world and never cease to serve the universal Church through their self-giving, silence, and fervent prayer.
Sadly many women do not know that such a deeply mystical and rewarding life exists in the Church in our day and age. For a culture like ours — a digitally distracted society with strong narcissistic and materialistic leanings — the idea of a life of silence, prayer, and vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience is often thought of as a life of unhappiness, if it is considered at all. But in this series we have seen that dozens of nuns describe their life with words like joy, happiness, and peace, and anyone who has met them in person can see it as plain as day by the countenance of their faces.
One such nun we encountered in our series was the prioress of the Monastery of the Angels in Los Angeles, CA, Sr. Mary St. Pius, who describes her six decades as a Dominican nun in glowing terms:
The specialness of the cloistered life God has called us to, this sublime thing we are so grateful for and the obligations that come with it . . . it is a tremendous thing. As the Little Flower said, it is the heart that keeps everything going to pump the body . . . and we in our life are the heart of the Church.
As the Dominican Order moves closer to celebrating its 800 hundredth anniversary, today let us ask Mary to ask her Son to continue to call women to live this life, that they, like Mary, may “treasure all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:19).
If you or a woman you know is considering a contemplative religious vocation, please use this series as a way to encounter the beauty of the life of a Dominican nun and further explore the calling.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Birth of the Virgin Mary