“The Silence of the Cloister”: Nuns and Worldly Engagement

15580Today we have an exciting guest post from Jenna Lay, Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University and author of Beyond the Cloister. Lay's book explores the writings of Catholic Englishwomen in post-Reformation England, whether living in convents on the European continent or as recusants in their own country. With careful attention to literary figurations of Catholic femininity and to the vibrant manuscript culture in the English convents, Lay reveals how these women produced politically incendiary and rhetorically powerful lyrics, prayers, polemics, and hagiographies, even as their writings were effaced and became forgotten. Drawing upon this research and expertise, Lay examines a more contemporary topic—the Vatican's recent apostolic constitution on female contemplative life—in today's post.

How might a life dedicated to prayer and contemplation “remain in the world” but not be “of the world”? How has the pace of change in the contemporary world affected those who choose a monastic life removed from it? Which interactions with the world are acceptable? Which are unavoidable? And which are essential to a true flourishing of faith, prayer, and contemplation?

On July 22, 2016, the Vatican released an apostolic constitution on female contemplative life, entitled Vultum Dei quaerere, addressing these questions. As Pope Francis writes, this document “takes into account both the intense and fruitful journey taken by the Church in recent decades in the light of the teachings of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and a changed social and cultural situation.” He calls for dialogue in response to these “rapid historical changes” and a reaffirmation of “the foundational values of contemplative life,” including “silence, attentive listening, the call to an interior life, [and] stability.” These values, Pope Francis suggests, are the means by which “contemplative life can and must challenge the contemporary mindset.”

It was this challenge to the “contemporary mindset”—and the suggestion that nuns might be falling prey to that mindset—that provoked immediate media coverage: “Pope Warns Nuns Against Using Twitter, Nuns Tweet Back,” “Pope Francis Doesn’t Want Nuns to Be ‘Wasting Time’ on Social Media,” and “Pope Francis Tightens the Reins on ‘Listless’ Nuns.”

Depending on your perspective, these headlines might suggest nuns gone astray: obsessively posting to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram when they should be praying; Snapchatting the latest mass; working to garner likes rather than save souls. Or they might suggest a dictatorial pope, interfering in the lives of women who have dedicated themselves not only to contemplation but also to building a community of faith that extends beyond the cloister.

I would argue that this simple binary, a product of the clickbait logic that inspires these headlines, does injustice both to the complexities of contemplative nuns’ engagements with the world and to the broader themes of the apostolic constitution, which dedicates just a single paragraph to the “communications media,” and affirms that such media “can prove helpful for formation and communication” while also recommending “prudent discernment.”

By focusing on the language of chastisement—“wasting time” on social media, and the temptations inherent to a life of contemplation for both men and women, such as “listlessness, mere routine, lack of enthusiasm and paralysing lethargy”—these articles seek controversy over thoughtful engagement with the potential contradictions inherent to a life of monasticism. In so doing, they join a long historical tradition, one with its roots in anti-monastic medieval satire: a tradition of questioning, critiquing, or mocking the feasibility of true withdrawal from the world, especially when accompanied by vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and of condemning those who would choose such a life—or treating them as the victims of a corrupt or tyrannical religious hierarchy.

There is more to contemplate in Vultum Dei quaerere than these articles suggest, since the cautionary reference to social media is just one (strikingly contemporary) manifestation of the document’s more general emphasis on “the silence of the cloister.” For example, the section of the document devoted to “esteem, praise and thanksgiving for consecrated life and cloistered contemplative life” describes how “the contemplative monastic life, made up mainly of women, is rooted in the silence of the cloister.” Pope Francis further suggests that this alignment of women, enclosure, and silence has a deep historical tradition: “Over the centuries, the experience of these sisters, centred on the Lord as their first and only love, has brought forth abundant fruits of holiness and mission. How much has the apostolate been enriched by the prayers and sacrifices radiating from monasteries! And how great is the joy and prophecy proclaimed to the world by the silence of the cloister!”

In foregrounding the monastic female experience, this document treats that experience as one predicated on and productive of silence—but a silence that nonetheless speaks to the world. What, then, counts as silence? Are “joy and prophecy proclaimed” through a literal absence of speech or through a contemplative practice that depends upon diverse understandings of how silence might communicate and how separation from the world can enable greater presence to it? Based on the language used throughout the document, it would be easy to imagine that the church hierarchy hopes for the former, and yet the “centuries” of experience invoked by Pope Francis offer a great deal of support for the latter.

For sixteenth and seventeenth-century English nuns, silence within the cloister did not prevent engagement beyond its walls: in the decades following the dissolution of the monasteries, Catholic women who entered convents on the continent remained in contact with family members in England and were active in a variety of religious and political networks. This took many forms: from polemic to prayer; from letter writing to the creation and transcription of meditations and devotional texts; and from translations of monastic rules to petitions for material support of enclosed communities.

Early modern English nuns published their written materials in both manuscript and print, and these documents belie any simplistic notions of contemplative life, female enclosure, and the silence of the cloister. These nuns may not have been heard by people outside their communities, but they were certainly read by them—and we would do well to remember this when contemplating the engaged, active, social, and technological forms that monastic silence might take in our own historical moment.

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