Keeping The Faith

The nuns at the Carmelite Monastery don’t want their community to die when they do. But can they recruit a new generation of sisters without compromising their most sacred beliefs?

Weekdays, before they eat lunch, the 13 nuns who make up the cloistered community at Indianapolis’ Carmelite Monastery gather in their chapel for midday prayer. Going down the list of prayer requests that members of the public have phoned or mailed in, the sisters pray attentively and sincerely for perfect strangers. They pray for victims of injustice–bomb victims in Moscow, hostages in the Philippines, men and women whose fates they follow via magazines, newspapers, TV. They pray for farmers in need of rain, for all who are living on the streets, for elected officials. Amnesty International, children, the unemployed, the dying. They pray for the roofers working on the monastery’s roof. And lately they pray that they won’t be the last group of women to enjoy the roof’s shelter.

These are not the kind of nuns who go out and about to do good deeds. Their good deed is prayer. As Carmelites, they’ve devoted their lives to prayer and contemplation–occupations best fostered by silence, solitude and what the Indianapolis sisters call a “selective presence to the world.” So while they keep tabs on current events, and while they invite the public to join them at their liturgy, and while they charm their occasional overnight guest with generosity, kindness and good humor, they remain a community apart, secluded behind stone walls. Their home is an austerely beautiful, medieval-looking fortress on Cold Spring Road, not far south of Marian College and just across the street from Coffin Golf Course. The original wing of the building dates to 1932; the grounds occupy some 18 acres. Even for a hale and hearty group, the property would be a handful to maintain. But the Carmelite sisters are old and getting older. Ten of them are older than the monastery itself. If things continue as they are–13 aging women in a cavernous compound–the day will inevitably come when they can continue no more. None of the nuns is interested in turning the monastery into a nursing home. None wants the community to die with them.

In plainest terms, the sisters need new sisters. In the next four years, they hope to bring in five. To meet this astonishingly ambitious goal (of the current sisters, the five most recent entrants entered over the course of 21 years) they’ll have to make themselves appealing without sacrificing anything essential. They’ll have to change and stay the same. And so they pray.

The sisters stopped wearing habits 30 years ago. They dress for comfort, in slacks and Reeboks. The smell of dusting powder, talcumy and clean. Eleven of the 13 wear glasses. None dyes her hair. They sleep in cells the size of dorm rooms, furnished with utilitarian dorm-room basics.

On a typical day, they rise between 5 and 6 a.m. Some dress before leaving their cells; others trek to the kitchen in bathrobe and slippers. Each is responsible for fixing her own breakfast, and each spends an early-morning hour n private prayer. Silence is to be maintained until 9:30–not at all costs, but within reason. “Good morning” and “Sleep well?” distract from the business of contemplation.

At 8:00, all gather in the bright sanctuary for morning prayer. At 8:30, they celebrate the eucharistic liturgy, usually with the help of a local priest (various priests are scheduled in the course of a month). The public–you need not be Catholic–is welcome at the low-key service, and on any given day, a handful of outsiders attend. Following the scripture reading, there’s a kind of open-mike interlude during which anyone who wants to comment on the scripture or homily is welcome to pipe up. It’s an unusually freewheeling approach to a Catholic liturgy, and every once in a while a talkative visitor gets carried away. But the sisters would rather suffer the occasional windbag than kill this prized, participatory aspect of their service.

At 9:30, work begins. In addition to household duties–cooking, cleaning, laundry, yardwork–there are the cottage industries, the ventures that pay the bills. In the past, the sisters earned money by baking and selling communion wafers for use in Catholic churches. September through May, they baked, producing millions of hosts each year. Now that they’re too old to endure that hot work and the hours on their feet, they buy hosts wholesale and resell them. They supplement that income by publishing inclusive-language prayer books, whose text refers to God as “you” instead of “Lord” on “master” and replaces “brothers” with “brothers and sisters.” The work evolved from the typesetting the sisters did in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The nicely designed books have sold as far away as Mongolia and Tasmania; boxes of them are everywhere in the monastery, stacked in storerooms, offices, hallways. This year, the sisters entered new publishing territory with God in Ordinary Time: Carmelite Reflections on Everyday Life, a slender volume combining their own spiritual volume combining their own spiritual musings with evocative black and white photography.

At noon, a bell rings, stopping work so that the sisters can gather for midday prayer. At 12:30, they eat lunch, which they old-fashionedly call dinner. The meal ends with a sweet–maybe cookies, maybe Basken-Robbins ice cream. Everyone cleans her plate. Fortified, they return to work.

From 4:30 to 7:00, there s again Quiet Time, during which each sister spends at least one hour in silent prayer; the rest of the time might be spent reading Scripture. Supper takes place during these hours, too. Typically, half of the sisters carry their trays to the common room, where they eat while watching the 6:00 news.

At 7:30, there is evening prayer, then reading or recreation, then bed. The sisters’ German shepherd, Jessie, who sleeps in the corridor beneath the crucifix, likes everyone tucked away by 10:00.

Only five of the 13 began religious life in this monastery; the rest transferred from various other Carmelite communities, known as Carmels, or from different orders entirely. Though a few seem to have landed in religious life more or less by happenstance, most seem to have ardently chosen t.

Sister Joanne, the current prioress, is 71; she’s not called Mother Joanne because the egalitarian community dropped the term decades ago. Joanne is consumed with vocation work–finding and cultivating new sisters. She has a masters degree from St. Louis University and was a hospital president in California; she transferred to Indianapolis from the Santa Clara Carmel in 1975. Appropriately for a democratically elected prioress, there’s a hint of George Washington in her face.

Sister Nancy is 66 and used to be married; she’s the only sister who is also a mother and grandmother. It was awkward when her noisy grandchildren first visited the quiet monastery, but everyone eventually adapted. Nancy likes to play computer crazy eights.

Sister Ruth grew up in Minnesota and is a Colts fan until the Colts play the Vikings. She found the Carmelites after a couple of false starts (with the Poor Clares, a strict contemplative order where she lasted 10 days, and the army, where she didn’t make it through basic training). She entered the Columbus, Ohio, Carmel in 1977, and–with Nancy, who was also in Columbus–transferred to Indianapolis in 1991 when the Ohio monastery was shut down for financial reasons. Only 44, Ruth feels “a gap in shared experience” between herself and the other sisters, and she’s “praying like crazy for new blood.” She selects the music used during liturgy–everything from Anne Murray to Gregorian chants. She is not among the sisters who begin the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father and Mother.” A self-described moderate, she says, “Disagrees are quiet here.”

Sister Rita, 75, entered the monastery in 1947. She is the tiniest. She loves birds. She wears earrings.

Sister Teresa, 68, came to the monastery in 1976 after 26 years as a Franciscan. She taught calculus and linear algebra at Marian College. She earned her masters degree from Notre Dame, her doctorate from Purdue. Like Rita, she still has many friends out in the world. “Your past life doesn’t fall away,” she says. “You’re always who you are.” Teresa loves dogs. She often loses her glasses.

Sister Anna Mary, 82, was a dental technician. She entered the Pewaukee, Wisconsin, Carmel in 1947 and transferred to Indianapolis in 1968. As the monastery’s chief correspondent, she writes back to the people who send letters and prayer requests.

Sister Rachel is 74 and transferred in 1968 from the Philadelphia Carmel. She oversees the altar-bread business. She also telephones. The Indianapolis Star to offer praise when the paper covers women athletes. Teresa calls her “a good commander.”

Sister Helen, 69, came to the United States to attend college in New Rochelle, New York, after she and her family fled mainland China in 1950. After college, she did graduate work in philosophy at Fordham University. She’s been at the monastery since 1969.

Sister Jean Alice is 72 and a former prioress who entered the monastery in 1949. She grew up in Cincinnati, but her family’s roots were in New England; her father studied at Harvard. She keeps a flower garden. She runs the kitchen and likes candles on the table even if the main course is hot dogs. Last year she and Teresa went to Ireland (where Jean Alice’s grandmother was born) and Belgium (the first U.S. Carmelite monastery had Belgian roots)–an anniversary trip marking their 50 years in religious life.

Sister Jean Marie, 76, is from Minneapolis; she entered the monastery in 1942. Her aunt gave the community a substantial sum of money to be used for art. The sisters pondered the term “art,” then commissioned Louisville, Kentucky, architect Ken vonRoenn to design the sliding glass doors in the chapel.

Sister Marcie, 64, S A Texan and a people person. “It’s a hard life for an extrovert here,” she says. She’s a peacenik, deeply committed to issues of social justice. She transferred to Indianapolis from the Carmel in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1970. She faithfully picks up litter in front of the monastery.

Sister Betty is 68, the community’s financial coordinator and a former prioress. She grew up near Pittsburgh. As a college student, she thought she’d be a psychiatrist. But she’d wanted to be “a religious” since she was 12, and at 25, she entered the monastery. “Prisons blow my mind right now,” she says. “What goes on there just about kills me. I pray about that a lot.”

Sister Mary, 81, grew up on a farm in Illinois and has lived in the monastery for 61 years–since before Pearl Harbor was bombed. In the days of high-volume altar bread production, Mary was the chief baker.

To see these women assembled, to spend time in their company, is to be touched by their collective age and in some cases, their physical frailty. But what impress most are their intellectual vigor, their capacity for delight, their curiosity and lively interest in the world. Even as they share a devout commitment to silence and solitude, they are a community, gregarious and social. They are not the stern, humorless nuns of Catholic-school lore, who would sooner take a ruler to your knuckles than crack a smile. They love to talk, and listen. They have a well-developed sense of irony, and they laugh at themselves with jolly self depreciation. They’re warm-hearted and welcoming, open-minded and tolerant.

For a citizen of the outside world, their generosity of spirit can be disconcerting. Twenty-four years after she became a Carmelite, Teresa remains struck by the community’s propensity to give the benefit of the doubt. “When I was an academic,” she says, ‘everything was about critical thinking. You had to look at things with suspicion: ‘where’s the documentation?’ ‘where’s the footnote?’ The thinking isn’t dismissive. For me, that was a big change.

The Carmelite order as it’s known today began in 16th-century Spain. Baltimore was the site of the first North American Carmel in 1790; today, there are 65 in the United States, 850 worldwide. The Indianapolis monastery was designed according to the vision of its first prioress, Mother Theresa, the former Emma Seelbach of Lexington, Kentucky, a woman of privileged background and refined taste who joined the contemplative Carmelites after studying operatic voice in Europe. Theresa’s elaborate plans for the monastery–scored plaster walls, custom light fixtures and rounded oak doors throughout; a large church with underground crypt; an entire infirmary wing–were never fully realized; indeed, they seem excessive for the simple Carmelite lifestyle. But the building, with its arches and leaded windows, its battlements and turrets, is magnificent nonetheless. And the grounds–home to cedar, juniper, beech, white pear, larch, blue spruce, white pine, locust, sycamore and walnut trees–are idyllic. Over the grave of the sisters’ beloved golden retriever, Chewbacca (Chewie) Monastery, a flowering dogwood grows.

The sisters cleared and landscaped much of the property themselves after the enclosure wall was completed in 1953. Clad in full-length habits, they wielded saws and shovels, pickaxes and posthole diggers. They hitched up their skirts and rolled up their sleeves and learned to drive a bulldozer. As a group, a community, the sisters own the monastery, and living there, in their eyes, is a blessing. Not only is their home a place of beauty and serenity; its walls make it a sanctuary. By keeping the world at bay, enclosure makes the Carmelites’ contemplative life possible.

Jean Alice says, “In the sense that you free yourself of the burdens of social life, living here is an escape.” And that’s how the sisters want to keep it; they want to minimize the claims on their time and attention–the things that would interfere with their intense focus on prayer. This same thinking is what made them decide, back in 1989, that comes the day when any of them could no longer care for herself, the others would relocate her to a nursing facility (they chose St. Paul Hermitage in Beech Grove) rather than assume the time-consuming and emotionally draining care themselves.

The realism and practicality evident in such planning is likewise apparent in the sisters’ thinking about the monastery’s future. If it becomes obvious that a new generation of Carmelites is not going to materialize, the community will likely sell the monastery, to a buyer of their choosing, pending approval by the body with ultimate jurisdiction over such decisions, The Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Apostolic Societies in Rome.

But this is not the future for which the sisters pray. Two years ago, Joanne and Teresa attended a vocation workshop and came back excited about recruiting–excited enough to motivate the community to adopt a five-year-plan of devoting its primary energies to generating new life for the monastery. The group adopted a vision statement expressing the desire “to pass on our legacy to an expanding membership.” The hired a director of communications and development. They hooked up with a hip local and agency–Young & Laramore, best known for its Steak ‘n Shake TV spots. Next month, in media including The New York Times, they’ll launch a national print and campaign designed to drum up interest in joining the Carmelite order.

The sisters are looking for mature women between the ages of 30 and 45 with substantial life and work experience. They want women in good physical health, with glowing references and recommendations and psychological evaluations that raise no red flags. Early in the community’s history, a prioress had a nervous breakdown, and no one is interested in repeating that distress. In the quiet monastery, which lacks the world’s ready distractions from personal demons, you have to be able to stand what Teresa calls “the cloister of your own skin.” Latter this year, two women will be doing three-month “live-ins,” a kind of trial run that lets the community and potential newcomers take each other’s measure. One of the women came to know the sisters through their liturgy; the other was drawn to the Carmelite order after researching religious communities. One is a pharmacist who’s been attending theology classes at Marian College; the other is finishing her degree at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. During the past two years, Joanne has been meeting with the women to talk and pray. If, after the live-ins, either wishes to proceed with joining the community, she will petition the sisters, who will or won’t invite her to live among them. If all goes well, at the end of three years, she’ll make her first vows. Three more and she’ll make her solemn, or final, vows.

In certain respects, there’s every reason to hope that things will go well. It isn’t as though prospective nuns are being asked to enter what the sisters groaningly call “the 16th century”–the old ultraconservative days before Vatican II, in the mid-1960s, liberalized church life like an ecumenical (and longer-lasting) Prague Spring. In the old days, you entered the monastery and left your former life at the door. You got a name when you got a habit. Rachel was Sister Joseph. Marcie was Sister Mary Joseph. Jean Alice was Sister Agnes of the Virgin Mother. You slept on a straw bed. You did not talk at meals. You engaged in rigorous fasts. You did not visit your family, even to attend a parent’s funeral. You were a novice for five years, and as a novice, you talked to no one except the prioress and the novice mistress. During “recreation” time, you sewed or did other work. Occasionally, the prioress might read to you from a magazine, to let you know what was going on in the outside world. When you had to deal with that world–when it was your turn, say, to man the little window at which visitors to the monastery stated their business–you shielded your face behind a veil.

Jean Alice says, “Nun humor is when you get together and talk about the old days. I laugh just thinking about it.”

Betty calls it “all that crap.” But Betty, one of the group’s most thoughtful thinkers, also sees the value in so much regulation and structure. Indeed, she believes that in the absence of such strict rules–repressive and unpleasant though they were–“new people will have a harder time adjusting than we oldie moldies did.” By being plunged into the 16th century, Betty says, “you got the silence in your bones. And I needed that. It’s the difference between wearing a girdle and not wearing a girdle. Without the girdle, you have to make the muscle on your own, and it’s hard. It’s like trying to boil water. It burns a heck of a lot faster with the lid on.”

Here in the 21st century, of course, the lid is decidedly off. The sisters watch TV not just to “pray the news,” but to be entertained; they named Jessie, their German shepherd, after Jessica Fletcher of Murder, She Wrote. They work on computers. They’ve been to the Internet and back. They’ve tied blue ribbons around their trees to spur on the Colts. The listen to NPR and subscribe to periodicals including The New Yorker, Newsweek, National NOW Times (the newspaper of the National Organization for Women), Smithsonian and Indianapolis Monthly. They shop at Sam’s Club. When they need to drive somewhere, they sign out one of the three cars at their disposal: a Taurus, an Escort and a Sable wagon, all 1995s. A couple of years ago, the whole gang took a field trip to Eagle Creek Park. They don’t sew much anymore because it’s easier to buy clothes at Goodwill.

The familiarity of it all can lull a visitor–or even one of the sisters–into thinking that life within the walls is “normal.” Yet, as evidenced by promising prospects who came and went because they couldn’t adjust–and there have been plenty of such women over the years–nothing quiet prepares you for cloistered life. As Betty says, “Because we eat meat and don’t wear habits, we think we’re like anyone else. We forget that solitude and silence are a big deal, that there’s a difference between living an ordinary Joe Blow Christian life and really opening yourself to God and saying Zap me. Coming out of the culture and into this is hard. We need a bridge, and we still don’t know how to build it.”

Ruth, the youngest sister, would like to be that bridge. If things go according to plan, recruits will be 25 to 40 years younger than most of the sisters, and 44-year-old Ruth will be the newcomers’ closest contemporary. But having entered religious life at 21, in 1977, even she will be radically estranged from the experience of women who have lived as adults in the modern world. In important ways, she’ll have more in common with the septuagenarians. And this brings up another challenge the Carmelites face in their efforts to generate new life: they’re not simply asking newcomers to adjust to being cloistered; they’re asking them to adjust to being cloistered in a community, to live in unrelievedly close quarters with a bunch of women who readily admit that they’re no saints.

The sisters reject the idea that their mini-society is marked by factions or cliques, but there are clearly friendships and alliances, dominant personalities, leaders and followers, histories of hurts and irritations and resentments. “Community life is hard,” they say. “We’ve certainly had disagreements.” “It’s like being married to 12 people at once.” “It’s a blessing and a cross.” Recruits will be entering a group whose members have been together so long and so exclusively that they have their own language, their ingrained customs, their unspoken expectations. Any newcomer will be like a stranger in a small town, trying to fit in. That’s why the sisters are hoping to welcome new women in pairs, so each will at least have one other person in her boat.

Indeed, the sisters plan to do all they can to be a group that younger women might conceivably want to join. They’re expecting to forego some degree of solitude and silence. They’re willing to endure the slight disorder, the light disruption of routine known to everyone who’s ever had a houseguest. They’re ready to live with the mild undercurrent of unease that comes with change, the odd sense that life doesn’t fit the way it used to. But they’re prepared to change only in degree; they’re not prepared to stop being Carmelites. And this means that they have to accept the possibility that, in Indianapolis, they’re the last of a dying breed.

The sisters have a longstanding interest in the poet May Sarton, whose four-day sojourn at the monastery in 1986 inspired her poem “Guest of Silence.” The admire her work–a body of writing that, in addition to volumes of poetry, includes novels, short stories, essays and memoirs. But what seems to captivate them most is Sarton’s character. As the sisters tell it, the poet was a complicated soul. She longed for companionship and had to have solitude. She needed the affirmation of receiving letters and couldn’t bear the responsibility of responding.

Most people would present these character traits in terms of but: wanted company but needed solitude, loved getting letters but hated writing. The sisters, in their subtlety, understand that the terms aren’t mutually exclusive, that it’s possible to be one way and the other simultaneously. After years of reflecting on the world and all its mysteries, they’ve grown comfortable with the idea of paradox.

This explains how they can be feminists in a patriarchal institution whose opposition to women’s ordination is viewed by many as archaic if not misogynistic. (Teresa, the most outspoken feminist of the bunch, says, “I’ll be disappointed in 300 years if women still aren’t priests, but for now, I don’t have to agree with the Church to love it. And as one becomes an adult, there’s a way in which one transcends one’s religion. The Church has always taught that you owe your conscience.”) It also speaks to the seeming contradiction of their loving the world but living apart from it. This is, after all, a tough equation for the average lay person to reconcile; if you’re devoted to peace and justice and the welfare of all people–if you care enough about the world to spend your life praying for it, shouldn’t you be out in that world actually working for its betterment? Shouldn’t you be doing something?

At ease with paradox, the sisters would say humbly but with great conviction that they are doing, that the intensity of their prayer makes them a transforming presence in the world. Do they have proof? No. Do they have faith? Yes. Do they trust that God will take care of the future? Absolutely.