Before I became a Dominican friar I considered becoming a monk. I once related my monastic aspirations to a fellow Catholic who then became upset and objected, “I don’t like the idea of you sitting inside and praying all day while the rest of us have to work.”
A similar sentiment pervades the letters of the early friars to their Dominican sisters. St. Peter Martyr complained to the prioress of a convent in Milan, “You have gone up onto the mountain of sacrifice, while I still dwell in the valley of care, and have spent almost all my life for others. You take the wings of contemplation and soar above all this, but I am so stuck in the glue of concern for other people that I cannot fly. Woe is me, for my exile is prolonged.” And Bl. Jordan of Saxony, writing to Bl. Diana d’Andalo, states quite bluntly, “I hardly ever pray, and so ask the sisters to make up for my deficiency.”
While my interlocutor resented the leisure of monks, the friars were happy that their sisters had gained a life of contemplation. And, though the friars were saddened by the contrast between their own busyness and the repose of the nuns, they were grateful to the sisters for their total dedication to prayer and depended on them to supply the friars’ lack. This gratitude often engendered in the friars a deep affection for the nuns, which they expressed in their letters and in visits to the monasteries.
Another brother and I were recently sent on a preaching mission and had occasion to stay with the sisters at the Monastery of Mary the Queen in Elmira, New York. The monastery was founded in 1944 as a daughter house of Our Lady of the Rosary in Buffalo. Since 1945, the nuns have had Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament from morning until evening. And for decades the monastery has nourished the chapter of Third Order Dominicans to which the other brother and I had been sent.
The sisters received us warmly and gathered to converse with us in the parlor. The support they gave us on that visit by way of lodging and conversation reminded me of the help they always give to the friars by their prayers.
St. Thomas said that the task of the friars is to contemplate and to pass on to others what is contemplated. But preachers can feel as if they do not have enough time to contemplate what they are meant to pass on. The nuns, however, have a greater devotion to contemplation. The Constitutions of the Nuns of the Order of Preachers describes their vocation in this way: “the nuns are to seek, ponder, and call upon Jesus Christ in solitude, so that the word proceeding from the mouth of God may not return to him empty but may accomplish those things for which it was sent.”
While the friars are called especially to preach the word, the nuns are called especially to hear it. This activity is the beginning and end of preaching. As professional hearers of the word, the nuns work so that the word that the friars preach “may accomplish those things for which it was sent.” Thus the friars pass on not only the fruits of their own contemplation but the fruits of the nuns’ contemplation, too.
Visiting the sisters deepened my admiration and gratitude for their lives of careful listening to the word of God. Their work is fundamental for the Church. In the nuns, the Church is hidden with God—as one sister said, “at the heart of reality.” No cause for resentment here—only joy.
For more information on the nuns at Elmira, visit the monastery’s website.