An earlier version of this essay appeared in the Pedagogy and Profession newsletter of the New Chaucer Society on September 14, 2020.
Many of us have experienced constricted forms of community during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some have looked to cloistered religious orders to learn skills for living in an “enclosed” context. A medievalist by training, I entered a congregation of Catholic women religious in July 2019 and spent the ensuing year living as a “candidate” (or postulant) in community with four sisters down the road from our congregational motherhouse. Unsurprisingly, the quarantine intensified my introduction to communal religious life. The experience has opened me to the gifts that this way of life, deeply rooted in medieval forms and traditions, has to offer society today, at least in a North American context.
My congregation, the Dominican Sisters of Peace, is not a cloistered monastic community but an apostolic foundation. Communities of apostolic women religious who serve in active ministry were only granted canonical status in the modern era. Although Dominican Sisters trace our heritage back to the first house of Dominican nuns founded at Prouilhle in 1206, the inspiration for our lives of contemplation and action is Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-80), a Dominican tertiary or laywoman member of the Order of Preachers. Catherine, after three years of living enclosed in a small room, completely devoted to solitary contemplation, was told in prayer that she must strengthen her love for God by going out to serve her neighbor. She emerged from her cell to nurse the ill during a time of plague. Famously, she tended a woman with leprosy whom no one else would touch.
Dominican Sisters, in more recent U.S. history, followed Catherine’s example by nursing the sick through cholera outbreaks and the 1918 influenza epidemic. They enfleshed the Dominican tradition of responding to the needs of the times with dauntless courage and imagination. Given this legacy of self-sacrificing service, it has been challenging for our sisters to stay home while COVID-19 wreaks havoc. The majority, however, are in their 80s. They reside in motherhouses and skilled-care facilities similar to the nursing homes hardest hit by the virus. For their own safety, the sisters find themselves strictly enclosed in the convent.
Such strict enclosure is abnormal. Like monastic houses in medieval Europe, convents today are places of hospitality. Friends, associates, and visitors regularly come to our motherhouse for liturgy, spiritual direction, and tutoring in English as a Second Language. Attached to the motherhouse is an outreach center that hosts retreats, art exhibits, citizenship classes, social justice workshops, and a girls’ summer camp. The convent is meant to be a place from which Sisters go out to minister and into which they welcome guests, whether family members or strangers.
The sisters have nevertheless devised ways to continue ministering in quarantine. They’ve made hundreds of masks for front-line workers and prison inmates, assembled food boxes for families in the neighborhood, and provided virtual pastoral care. Importantly, they sustain each other as together they navigate this new reality shaped by loneliness, frailty, and vulnerability.
I have not visited the motherhouse since it was closed to non-residents in March. Yet, as a member of the community, I have indirect knowledge of the mental, emotional, and spiritual impact that the quarantine has had on the sisters, who were largely confined to their rooms for the first three months of the shut-down. Few people my age, in their early 30s, have this kind of connection to the growing retired and elderly population of North America. The risk posed to their health has sunk into my subconscious: one night I dreamt that I was exposed to someone with the virus and unknowingly carried it to the sisters, infecting the whole motherhouse – a horrifying nightmare!
My experience of the pandemic as a younger sister has thus been one of deepening intergenerational solidarity. Living in intergenerational communities is an inheritance from medieval religious foundations. Yet it is a reality that has now become rare in the dominant U.S. culture. A person in her 30s does not normally live with people in their 60s, 70s, or 80s – even blood relatives. For women religious, however, developing the skills for living well in intergenerational communities is an important part of initial formation.
Fostering healthy community living that is mutually interdependent, not hierarchical, is a way of preaching with our lives. It witnesses to the Gospel mandate that, as members of one human family, we must learn from people of diverse backgrounds, caring for one another and prioritizing the common good. Any decision that one sister makes will affect the entire community, so we must risk being honest and vulnerable with each other. During quarantine, this has meant sharing our uncertainties, with respect for whatever emotions each person feels, and then discerning together the common good. Some days we work through this discernment process better than others; consequently, we practice forgiveness. It makes for an intense experience of shared challenges, frustrations, and joys.
When community is lived well, it bears fruit in real companionship and mutual trust. While staying at home, I have certainly not been isolated. Rather, I have been supported, not only by the presence of the sisters, but also by the established structure of our day. Working remotely during the pandemic, time easily blurs. For religious communities, praying the liturgy of the hours provides bookends for the working day.
More importantly, communal prayer helps us acknowledge self-concerns, and then turn our hearts to the needs of the world. Fewer sisters may be serving on the front lines today, yet we are still called to “pray without ceasing” for workers in health care, essential services, the food industry, and public office. Living and praying in community deepens one’s consciousness of our global interconnectedness. For me, the micro-level commitment to prioritizing the common good of my own house community impels me to seek the common good on a macro-level. How does our society protect the health and safety of all, especially the most vulnerable among us? Women religious strive to make choices that will benefit people living at the margins by advocating for equitable policies and educating church and society.
The greatest wisdom inherited from medieval tradition that religious life has handed on is the practice of contemplation. Opening oneself to Holy Mystery remains at the heart of religious life, both apostolic and monastic. Medieval classics on contemplative spirituality are still regarded as practical guides and sources of inspiration to professed religious today. Writings by Julian of Norwich, the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and Meister Eckhart can be difficult for today’s readers to comprehend, perhaps because the practice of contemplative silence is so alien to dominant U.S. culture. Yet these texts, despite their historical contingency, teach skills that remain essential to human flourishing: how to find stillness amidst turmoil, to cultivate a sense of peace in the face of existential uncertainty, and to recognize one’s own powerlessness yet not despair of hope that indeed “all shall be well.”
I think it no coincidence that sisters in their 80s, who have practiced contemplative living over six decades of vowed life, can meet the challenges of this pandemic with grace and resilience. They believe they have something to learn from this new reality because they have spent their entire lives becoming more fully their authentic selves. This wisdom is needed in our world right now, and it is something that women religious, rooted in the medieval past, have to offer future generations.