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My Weekend as a Nun

“What,” I wondered idly, “would my family’s reaction be if they could see me now?”

I am lying in the dark in a sparse bedroom. Behind my bed hangs a wooden statue of the impaled Christ on a cross. I’m a Jew d’ya see? It’s Friday night, holy Sabbath. My family is distinguished in the Jewish community, and I, while not observant, cling true to tradition and cultural conditioning.

However this is my weekend of “being a nun” - not just any nun, but a Carmelite nun” - an extremely strict religious order. It’s the female equivalent of being a monk or friar. I am staying in The Carmel of St Therese Monastery (technically the Carmelites home is an enclosed monastery. They live and pray in a communal setting like monks and they never leave except for occasions such as medical emergencies and the like. IT does not resemble a convent.

I have never been exposed to nuns. They seem a dying breed. Catholic friends who attended convent schools have told tales of veiled women who terrified their young charges calling them sinners. The fully blame their convent schooling for their now very un-nun lifestyles.

But nuns always look so impressive and kindly to me. Are they as forbidding as rumours have it? And what makes a young woman become a nun? Why ditch sex, marriage, career and kids?

Curiosity got the better of me, leading me down a dusty Benoni North road to the Carmel of St. Therese Monastery.

I am warmly welcomed by head nun Prioress Marie Therese and Sister Lucia who show us to two of the three guest-rooms available to the members of the Diocese in need of quiet time.

It feels a bit like a like a B&B gone holy. Crucifixes hang everywhere; the spotless lounge/dining area hosts a couch, two chairs, a table and bible. There is a refrigerator, cutlery and crockery, and a tiny oven for our self-catering purposes. (Carmelite nuns only eat with their “family” inside the monastery.)

After dumping our bags, we set off for ‘vespers’, an hour of silent prayer, in the simple wooden chapel. This, I think to myself, is how all places of worship should be - it seems ludicrous to construct opulent places of worship costing millions, when people starve.

Vespers is only one of the seven prayer sessions of the day, the first starting at 6am, with one hour of silent prayer. At all sessions the nine nuns sit in a horseshoe-shape pew reciting psalms, prayers and singing hymns. It’s really relaxing, humbling and everyone seems so at peace. It makes me feel safe and I find myself silently praying. The silence, a general house rule that one might conceive as frustrating, is liberating - I can actually hear myself think. But after a while, thinking gets in my way as I begin to miss the exquisitely poignant voices of Synagogue’s Sabbath Choir and suddenly guilt courses through my veins. Holy Sabbath evening and instead of being in synagogue I am in a monastery. Praying to Jesus! I dissolve my inner dispute by resorting to Buddhist meditation; perfectly conducive to silence. Now, between concentrating on my breathing thoughts start intruding, like, what if every human followed the same religion, praying to one Supreme Deity without surrendering dignity of differences in cultures and ethnicity? Wouldn’t it be wonderful? ..….Back to concentrating on silence and breath.

After our self-catered supper at our “cottage” we meet the nuns in their recreation room where they gather after a simple dinner of a sandwich and fruit. Here, for 45 minutes, is the only time (occasionally after lunch too) they converse, or even relax.

Some critics say that the basic part of religion must be acted out in the real world; that it’s easy to be spiritual in a monastery protected from life’s daily tribulations. But, after two nights of bread and jam combined with a weekend of heavy-duty prayer action, I’m not sure I agree.

There’s friendly chatter and busy fingers, knitting, beading for rosaries or crocheting. Occasionally there is laughter like the tinkling of a bell. I begin to chill out. I’m also uncharacteristically quiet because I usually talk too much, more so when nervous and I’m terrified now that I’m going to slip up and say “Oh God,” or “Jesus” or something probably far worse.

But everyone seems genuinely excited to have us here, and they are all really approachable. Moreover, they accept me for who I am, without passing judgment or proselytising.

They ask about our lives and our work, and tell us how they became nuns, and their countries of origin.

Sister Marie 43, (most of the nuns names are Marie or Theresa) has been here for 5 years. She was previously at the Lubumbashi Monastery in the Congo for 12 years and she shows us pictures of her exquisite country that she had to leave due to heart valve problems necessitating more sophisticated medical treatment.

Do any of them ever regret their decision? They chorus “no”. Sister Marie says she was a seamstress for a large company when younger. But, one day after attending daily morning Mass daily en-route to the factory she had what she calls an epiphany: she knew she wanted to become a Carmelite Nun.

“In the beginning I was very lonely. It took two years to get used to the new and different things and the discipline,” she said. And she learnt, like the other nuns, that one has to live by strict rules.  

One nun recounts her move: “The first time I wore this habit I gave everything away. I gave my suitcase to my family. I never need worry what to wear or eat.”

While nuns are allowed visitors once a month for a short while, none of them pine for their blood family they say. They become a family in enclosure..

Recreation flies past; everything runs on a tight schedule - then it’s back to chapel for prayers and night silence and bed by 9-ish. You know, the time I’m usually still working or going for dinner.

The next morning, Saturday, I awake at 7.30 am to the sight of a vase of dahlias plucked from the little enclosed garden on my windowsill.

At Mass Theres (not Theresa this time), lays a heavy Senagalese harp (kora), carved from a calabash,

close to her shoulder. The emanating sound is angelic.

After breakfast (bread with jam or peanut butter and tea or coffee), the Office of Readings there is a demonstration of the workrooms and ‘’factory". (And yes, nuns do get their daily intake protein and veggies too: lunch is one vegetable, a starch and sometimes either egg, soya, fish or chicken.

Perfect. Had I been at an orthodox Jewish luncheon, either hosts of I would have been embarrassed by my strict vegetarianism. Traditional Sabbath luncheon is

A feast of cholent, a bean and meat stew, prepared and placed in a slow cooker prior to Sabbath onset, as observant Jews don’t cook on Sabbath day.

An overdose of good Jewish cooking probably is causative towards my strict adherence to vegetarianism. 

The Carmelite community earn their daily bread by manufacturing altar bread (communian wafers) supplied to churches around South Africa and neighbouring countries. They also make rosary beads and greeting cards.

Sister Emmanuel and Sister Joan give us a baking demonstration. Both are beautiful and young with Sister Emmanuel at 31 the youngest member of the monastery.

“I was born of a Catholic family, the youngest of five,” she says. “At nine I first looked at a nun and said in my heart: ‘One day I am going to be a nun too.’ “

She graduated as a microbiologist, but continued to wrestle with the idea of becoming a nun

“Between university and work I was employed in a workshop making rosaries and statues. My family complained I was never at home; daily after work in the laboratory, I attended prayer groups. This continued for two years. My relationship with Christ deepened.

“The Carmelites felt I was too young to enter the monastery. But, at 25, I finally entered. I knew the time was right. I have been here ever since.” 

“ All in, it takes six to seven years of study. I finished my Postulancy after seven months (constitution rules are 6-18months).

After Postulancy, which is the toughest time of adjusting, one reaches novitate. This lasts for two years of studying, thereafter you take your first commitment vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.  

“I find far more fulfilment in religious life than anything else. There are many ways of loving. For me the relationship with God and the depths of fulfilment is so great. Nothing can compare. I don’t feel I am shutting humanity out. When you feel this calling to be with God, you just know it.”

So, um, is it true that many nuns are lesbians?

“We are certainly not lesbians! There is a long process of discernmentbefore we accept someone to join the community - and in this process it willusually be discovered if the person's motive for entering is not the rightone,” comments Sister Joan.And, what happens if a nun seriously disobeys rules often or gets involved in a sexual relationship?

“Out of concern for the welfare of the sisters, particularly the prioress helps those who err by encouraging them to amendment. In the event of a grave scandal proceedings may be started for dismissal from the Order. But that would be a very extreme case.” After it’s Quiet Time, Spiritual Reading and a very short rest. Then at 2.45pm it’s afternoon prayer and later again more work, each nun in charge of different duties.

What have I learnt during my stay in this place about which so many know so little? I now know that a whole mystique is built up around the idea of enclosed contemplative nuns that has very little to do with the reality. The main prerequisite for sanctity with the Carmelites is humility. Then there is Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

Here is something not seen in everyday life. These women possess radiance the look we ‘outsiders’ often identify with a woman in love.

Their outer beauty is reflected from love of The Lord. It’s an inner serenity, beauty in its simplest and most unadorned sense.

When I first went to visit the St. Therese Carmelite Sisters I was curious, perhaps sceptical, about how anybody could maintain such discipline. And how could a tiny pocket of women, praying in a barely known back wood town somewhere in the world, make any difference?

I now truly believe they do. When one focuses energy so completely on one thing, especially if you give up distractions like sex, marriage, career and kids, it’s bound to effect some positive change in the world. I sincerely appreciate the effort they make, spending their lives looking out for the rest of us.

Sister Emmanuel explains: “We cannot affect decisions or stop people from declaring war, but the energy of our prayers can help others.”

We are treated so kindly, and invited to come back. The nuns pray for us showering us with protective energy before our journey home - I can still feel it now.

On my drive home, I think about how fortunate I am to now appreciate a generally misunderstood lifestyle. The manner in which these women support each other is truly inspirational. I am awed by their simplicity, lack of greed and kindness. We bought them a few chocolates to thank them for their hospitality. No child could have been more appreciative.

As I turn the key in my apartment door I smile remembering. Awesome.


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