Cloistered Nuns have the special calling of living heaven here on earth. Yes, it is true for all of us that our heaven or our hell can start in this life. Yet, in God’s providence, some of the elect are asked to live in a very close way to Him. For example, in the Gospels we see that Jesus takes only Peter, James and John away on certain occasions. The greatest example is the account of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Jesus is transfigured in glory before Peter, James and John for an instant (Mt 17:1-8).
Our series on Dominican Monastic Life in the United States continues as we head out to the upper midwest region. At Mt. Thabor Monastery, Dominican Nuns live out this calling to consecrated life to accompany Jesus on the mountain top. However, the nuns do not go up alone, but take the entire world in their heart and prayers.
Located about an hour northwest of Detroit in Ortonville, MI, the nuns began to occupy the monastery on August 1, 1973. The first feast the nuns celebrated in the new dwelling was the Transfiguration, hence the name. Mt. Thabor Monastery sits at the end of a long tree-lined entrance and was built next to a serene lake. This picturesque setting is a long way from the monastery’s roots in Union City, NJ, where its two foundresses, Sr. Anne and Sr. Mary Martin, were members of the Blue Chapel Monastery. It was at this monastery that the nuns of the perpetual rosary devotion began in 1892 in the United States.
After the Second Vatican Council and its call for the renewal of religious life, Sr. Anne and Sr. Mary proposed a new mission to ponder a future contemplative mode of life within the monastic setting. An invitation from John Francis Cardinal Dearden in the Archdiocese of Detroit drew the sisters to an old home in a poorer section of the city in October of 1969. After the sudden sale of this first house, providence directed the sisters to Ortonville’s country setting. The owners of the property gave it to the sisters with no down payment and 10 acres of land, encouraging the sisters to repay them in the future. The sisters were blessed with neighbors skilled in construction, who helped build the monastery. In the four decades since the original construction much expansion has taken place including a library, cloister increase, retreat house and a chapel enlargement to accommodate more worshipers for Mass and the divine office. During this time, one of the most important moments came on December 8 1999, when Mt Thabor monastery received its official aggregation into the Dominican Order.
Sr. Anne, the current prioress and one of the foundresses, shared a few insights about life at Mt. Thabor. The sisters, who chose to live a less radical form of enclosure, similar to Benincasa Dominican Monastery in Delaware, explained that the people who pray with them “become part of us,” not to interfere but to “become part of [our] life.” Sr. Anne recalled that in her days at the Blue Chapel Monastery, prayer requests for the nuns would come in by phone or written communication or perhaps in person. However, when Mt. Thabor went online with a website, the very first prayer request was from Belgium.
Regarding the use of technology and social media, Sr. Mary Joseph, who was solemnly professed in 2012 and manages online communication for the monastery, offered some perspectives on its reality: “We use social media knowing that the particular effort could result in a vocation to this monastery, but you quickly realize that these efforts (in using social media) are not just for getting vocations but are for the whole church and the new evangelization. It’s a bigger mystery.”
The key goals in founding Mt. Thabor were to observe the following pillars of monastic life: prayer and liturgy, silence, solitude, work (especially sewing), study, and recreation. After the Council’s call for renewal there was a deep desire to foster and support the study of sacred truth. Much effort was put into the library wing, dedicated in 1995 under the patronage of St. Thomas Aquinas. And of course, the prayers of the nuns for the preaching of the Dominican Friars for the salvation of souls goes back to the very founding of St. Dominic’s order 800 years ago. Sr. Anne said that the best way she has heard this relationship described in her 57 years in religious life is when a friar told her, “You supply the ammunition to do the battle”.
The sisters pray for the whole world at Mt. Thabor Monastery and they are blessed to have such a peaceful setting in which to carry this call to be alone with the Lord, as were Peter, James and John. Why our Lord calls some to live closer to him while on earth is a mystery that will only be fully revealed in heaven. Just as the Transfiguration was only an instant, so too is this life on earth. And just as the three apostles heard the voice of God the Father on Mt. Tabor saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him” (Mt 17:5), the nuns listen to Christ for us and for the whole world. Heaven starting now…
Image: Statue of Our Lady at Mt. Thabor Monastery