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Studying in one’s cell

· Consecrated women ‘Per evangelica consilia’ ·

Women and buried alive? Is this the way today’s society sees us?

Of course in burial grounds speaking of culture really seems absurd. And yet we encounter this way of thinking only with the firmly rooted prejudices that are characteristic of the very absence of culture!

We could revisit the history of nuns who breathed culture in their monasteries, from the Roman Marcella to Silja Walter, the Swiss nun of our own days, via the great Hildegard of Bingen; a direct grasp of today’s monastic fabric nevertheless proves more credible and debunks the myth of the non-life of women supposedly buried alive. The woman who is a nun today has nothing to envy in the male monk: the theological training process, required not only to be able to develop a priestly ministry but also to be able to live to the full a life interwoven with silence and solitude, knows no gender difference nor any difference in cerebral capacity.

A few anecdotes will be able to shed light specifically on the need for a biblical and theological culture in order not to leave in a swamp of ignorance precisely those who, sought by God and seeking him, are in need of the nourishment of a faith reflected on.

A nun from a rich family, educated in exclusive boarding schools that nevertheless still bore the mark of “girls’” schools, discovered the Word of God, passed down through the Bible. However, in the monastery she entered it was not passed on to the sisters. She managed to get in touch with a priest friend who enabled her to meet the President of the Biblical Association and so the Bible crossed the threshold into the sacred enclosure!

From here stems the urgent need to realize and to understand in order not to defend with a drawn sword the theory that Ambrose was born in Rome and that Benedict and Francis lived in the same century!

Now the younger generations – because they still exist! – arrive at monasteries not to bury themselves alive but to live to the full.

In the mornings domestic work absorbs all the time, while the afternoons, in the solitude of the cell, are often spent in studium veritatis, in studium amoris.

Christ’s face is sculpted in the story of the young nun and reflected everywhere, because the Word is refracted throughout the universe, passing through the microcosm of the person praying. This is how history is changed, how its crucial problems are faced and how their meaning is found in turning to the Risen One.

The biblical and theological path may be familiar with the (fateful) stages of examinations but may also be unfamiliar with them because the goal is not represented by a diploma, more or less snatched, but by the living water which gurgles within and underpins the daily rhythm of monastic routine.

Of great help are the distance courses which make it possible for a nun to remain in silence and solitude even while bending over her studies.

It is amusing (but also somewhat offensive!) when in the course of an examination one hears the exclamation “Look straight at the video camera”. This implies the presence of a cue card which would make the examination easier.

Those who behave in this way have not grasped the extent to which study for nuns is perfectly free. They do not count on being awarded a degree, or on gaining a chair, but rather on making themselves transparent to the mystery of God’s bursting into history. Into contemporary history which is groping for answers. Into that personal history to which they respond as women of the 21st century, customarily with a degree and qualified for their own professions.

Doesn’t the problem of “distraction” crop up in all this? Where by distraction is meant all that detaches us from God’s presence in the Word and in the Eucharist?

True knowledge does not detach but rather leads to deepening, to letting ourselves be transfixed by the mystery, not in order to reduce it to our limited brains but to bring, perhaps with effort, our brains to the level of the infinite and of the absolute.

Thus another relationship with history itself is played out, that of daily events which touch the life of the cosmos, of the planet, of Europe, in order to reach the microcosm of one’s own monastery.

The concreteness of the facts demands an equally effective response which can become a leaven and oblation of self. Of course it does not mean leafing through all possible newspapers and stuffing oneself with gossip! As indeed might happen if we were still bound by the prejudice that gossip is an absolutely feminine characteristic.

Nuns walk side by side with all humanity, not on clouds clumsily imagined but on realities shared and suffered together.

Thus the nun is not constrained to the mortifying railway track of exclusively menial work in which the sap of thought and knowledge is preserved and enclosed in a jar so that only the soul can breath and levitate.

If we accept the teaching of Ratzinger the theologian the individual person today is open to the infinite, he or she is brushed by it and left free to adhere to it.

Therefore the road of beauty cannot not but make us fall in love and transport us. Thus the so-called “established customs” fall away, a legacy of good breeding of dusty past times, and room is left for a creativity which listens to the Word and spends its segment of history in entering into it ever more profoundly.

The time required by reading, by savouring the great texts of our tradition, forges a young woman who does not relegate herself to the lowliest services because in this way she is sure to live in humility and to attract to herself the Lord’s graces. This concept is barren because it humiliates the woman and does not make her blossom as what she is: a thinking person.

The entire monastic world requires the services of manual work, but isn’t what counts basically the inner attitude which causes any service to be impregnated with the absolute?

However still today we note the sad burden of a male chauvinist culture in which the sister and the nun are considered as work machines, industrious hands and nothing more.

It is necessary to pull down a few walls and perhaps to open gaps in them with one’s bare hands. Only in this way does Hans Urs von Balthasar’s definition of a nun acquire its full light: “I have encountered God”.

Testimony becomes visible to the eyes of faith and of anyone who discovers him- or herself to be a thinking person.

Cristiana Dobner




St. Peter’s Square

Oct. 15, 2019