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A Dominican speaks to us about her choice to live a cloistered life

In a cloistered convent?
To be free

 In clausura?   Per esser libera  DCM-002
03 February 2024

Recently, after asking me many questions about our life in the monastery, a girl exclaimed: “I wouldn’t call it a cloister, but a community!” With her bright insight, Anna, 22, was able to summarize what she had almost touched with her own hand that day when she was with us. “You hit the nail on the head! - I exclaimed - our life is just that: community!”

When I reflect on my entry into contemplative life twenty-five years ago, it feels as though I stumbled upon it serendipitously, almost timidly. The monastery's website found its way into my email inbox without my seeking it out, prompting a chance encounter that would alter the course of my life. At that moment, I bestowed upon the cloister a new identity, seeing it not merely as a secluded retreat, but as an expansive 'portal'—a gateway to a world where the actions, expressions, and mindset of the nuns resonated far beyond the monastery walls, reaching out to embrace the world in a manner both unexpected and profoundly creative. The vivid reality and vitality of their existence left an indelible impression on me, captivating and inspiring me in ways I had not anticipated. These were not mere outliers or relics of a bygone era; they were real, vibrant women—individuals whose presence defied convention and whose stories spoke to the very essence of humanity. To my inquisitive and observant gaze, this revelation was monumental. While I had half-expected to encounter ascetics or spiritual figures distant from my own reality, what I found instead was a revelation—a community of women who, like me, had once savored the allure of ordinary life yet ultimately opted for a path they deemed even more compelling. Their journey mirrored my own in many ways. They, too, had experienced the allure of the mundane—the joys, the wonders, the temptations—only to forsake it with a simplicity and resolve that spoke volumes. Their decision to pursue a higher calling, to embrace infinity with open arms, was not born of discontentment with the world they knew; rather, it stemmed from a profound recognition that their true fulfillment lay elsewhere. In choosing this path, they flourished, their lives imbued with a richness and purpose that transcended the confines of convention.

These women, with their striking authenticity and vitality, defied societal norms. They embodied a sense of normalcy that resonated deeply with me; I could easily envision them as brides and mothers, navigating the joys and challenges of everyday life with grace and humanity. They possessed a depth of understanding about the world that surpassed my own, yet what set them apart was their profound connection to something greater—an insight I keenly felt during my time among them in December 1998, during a retreat for young people at the monastery.  In their presence, I experienced a profound inner spaciousness—a palpable sense of enclosure that, paradoxically, offered boundless freedom. This sacred space, once dismissed as obsolete, revealed itself to be a sanctuary of intimacy with God and mutual acceptance among individuals. Within its confines, I discovered the power of attentive listening to the Word, allowing its light to illuminate the path of daily existence. It became a launching pad for my aspirations, a runway where I dared to release my dreams and soar on the wings of God's infinite creativity.
And thus, at twenty-seven, I embarked on a profound adventure, surrendering myself to the embrace of a “certain” Lord whose silent yet palpable love, emanating from the Cross, enveloped me with its boundless tenderness. His gaze, penetrating and compassionate, had captured my soul, leaving an indelible mark that I could never erase. It was his gentleness that captivated me, drawing me inexorably towards a life imbued with the same radical love that I witnessed in those women whom the world deemed unconventional, yet to me, appeared remarkably modern and alive.

It was 2001 when I walked through the door of the Dominican monastery of Santa Maria della Neve, in Pratovecchio (Arezzo). I took everyone inside, with the desire to enter the heart of God. The contemplative life, in fact, at first seems to separate one from one’s affections, but in reality it unites more deeply. And indissolubly. To God and to all his beloved children. To every woman and man on earth. Starting with the loved ones. And then to every tree, every flower, the blue sky, the rivers; to the wind, the branches, the leaves, the butterflies, the stars. To all creation.

During that era, the monastery retained its iconic iron grate, which was a symbolic barrier that delineated the boundary between guests and sisters in the monastic parlour. Yet within those cloistered walls lay a living embodiment of the “cell of the heart,” a concept frequently referenced in the writings of St. Catherine of Siena—an inner sanctum of communion with the Lord, a sanctuary that every soul should cherish.  For the nun, this inner sanctum represents a sacred space of freedom and intimacy with God, akin to that of an authentic bride. As Catherine eloquently describes, the true essence of the cloister is to be found in “the side of Christ,” which is a vast expanse where the contemplative soul seeks refuge. Here, she draws sustenance from an inexhaustible wellspring of love—an outpouring that not only nurtures her own spiritual journey but also transforms her into a conduit of life and grace for all.

Through the medium of prayer, above all else, the contemplative becomes an instrument of God's tender mercy, a vessel through which divine compassion flows freely into the world. Thus, within the confines of the cloister, the iron grate serves not as a barrier but as a threshold—a gateway through which the transformative power of love radiates outward, embracing all who seek solace and grace.

In this sense, the nuns of Pratovecchio were experiencing a “getting close” to each other’s stories. God is the lover of life. How can one not be so who chooses to respond to his call to become a living intercessor for the world? The Dominican contemplative, at the heart of the Order and the Church, intercedes for all. She supports evangelisation with her prayer.

But we did not enter the monastery simply to say prayers. Rather, “the principal reason why you are gathered together is that you live together in unity in the house and form one heart and one soul reaching out to God” (Rule of St Augustine I, 3).

The communion of life is, for us, a true form of conscientious objection against the wars and divisions that wound history: we try to live among ourselves what we dream for the world. And our small gestures of mutual acceptance and love become living prayer, continuous intercession, and active participation in the laborious conquest of peace between peoples. We take all important decisions together in the chapter, which is the assembly of the solemnly professed nuns of the community. This is the vital place where we have an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit. Here each sister expresses herself in freedom, because in each one God places a ray of his light. Only together, and with each one's contribution, can we know His plan for us. In this effort to listen to one another, the Spirit visits us and surprises us, opening us up to new perspectives and often unthought-of choices. It is God’s way, which goes beyond each sister but in which each, in the end, finds herself. For “and in his will is our peace”. (Paradise III, 85).

This synodal spirituality that St Dominic of Guzmán, founder of the Order of Preachers, passed on to us as early as the 13th century, is surprisingly relevant today. This spirituality is a challenge that is not always easy and often takes a long time. However, it is an experience of God. Of his Presence among us.

Women of different ages, backgrounds, temperaments and cultures, one day we began to dream together of a more suitable space to live monastic life in our time. We left an old monastery dating back to 1568, located in the centre of town, to build a building that would be open to the new, to life, to people, combining simplicity, practicality and beauty. A building without architectural barriers where every sister, of any age and in any physical condition, could be able to follow the community in all the moments and places of daily life. A place immersed in nature, where the cloister was not ‘closed’ but embraced the horizon, because monastic life makes us sisters of all. A monastery without grates, to put communion, welcome and being Church at the centre. In addition, this is how the Lord has made us “home” where people meet. In the daily challenge of diversity, they learn to respect and live together too. To welcome and love one another.

by Mirella Soro
Dominican nun