The question was asked by Sr Fulvia Sieni, an Augustinian sister from the convent of the ‘Santi Quattro Coronati’ [Four Crowned Saints]: “Monastic life is a delicate balance between hiddenness and visibility, seclusion and involvement in diocesan life, prayerful silence and words that proclaim. How can an urban monastery enrich the spiritual life of the diocese and other forms of consecrated life, allow itself to be enriched by them, remaining steadfast in its monastic prerogatives?”
You speak of a delicate balance between hiddenness and visibility. I would say more: a tension between being hidden and being visible. The monastic vocation is this tension, tension in the fundamental sense, the tension of fidelity. Balance can be intended as “let us balance, as much here, as much there…”. On the other hand, tension is God’s call to a hidden life and God’s call to make oneself visible in a certain way. But how should this visibility and how should this hidden life be? This is the tension that you live in your soul. This is your vocation: you are women “in tension”: in tension between this attitude of seeking the Lord and being hidden in the Lord, and this call to give a sign. The convent walls are not enough to give the sign. I received a letter, six or seven months ago, from a cloistered nun who had begun to work with the poor, in the foyer; and then she went out to work outside with the poor; and then went further and further, and at the end she said: “My cloister is the world”. I responded to her: “Tell me, dear, do you have a portable grate?”. This is a mistake.
Another mistake is not wanting to hear anything, see anything. “Father, can news come into the convent?”. It must! But not the — shall we say — news about media “gossip”, but news about what is happening in the world, news — for example — of war, of illness, of how much people are suffering. For this, one of the things that you must never, ever give up is the time to listen to the people! Even in the hours of contemplation, of silence…. Some monasteries have an answering service and people call, ask for prayers for this or that: this link with the world is important! In some monasteries they watch the television news; I don’t know, this is discerned according to the rules of each monastery. In others the newspaper is received, it is read; in others this link is made in another way. But this link with the world is always important: to know what is happening. Because your vocation is not a refuge; it is precisely going onto the battlefield, it is fighting, it is knocking at the heart of the Lord for that city. It is like Moses, who held up his hands, praying, while the people fought (cf. Ex 17:8-13).
So many graces come from the Lord in this tension between the hidden life, prayer and hearing the news of the people. In this, prudence, discernment, will enable you to understand how much time to allot to one thing, how much time to another. There are also monasteries which spend a half hour a day, an hour a day giving food to those who come asking for it; and this does not run counter to being hidden in God. It is a service; it is a smile. A nun’s smile opens the heart! A nun’s smile is more filling than bread for those who come! This week, it is up to you to feed a half hour of your time to the poor, who may ask for a sandwich as well. This one, the other: this week it’s up to you to smile to those in need! Do not forget this. A nun who doesn’t smile is missing something.
In the monastery there are problems, challenges — like there are in every family — small struggles, some jealousy, this one or the other…. And this can help us understand how people in families suffer, the struggle in the families when a husband and wife argue or when there is jealousy, when families separate…. When you too experience this kind of trial — they happen everywhere — feel that that is not the way and offer it to the Lord by seeking a path of peace inside the monastery, so that the Lord may bring peace in families, among peoples.
“But tell me, Father, we often read that in the world, in the city, there is corruption; can there also be corruption in the monasteries?”. Yes, when one loses one’s memory. The memory of the vocation, of the first encounter with God, of the charism that founded the monastery. When this memory is lost and the soul begins to be worldly, one thinks worldly things and one loses that zeal of the prayer of intercession for the people. You said a really, beautiful, beautiful phrase: “The monastery is present in the city, God is in the city and we hear the city’s noise”. Those noises are the sounds of life, the sounds of problems, the sounds of so many people going to work, returning from work, people who think, who love…; all of these noises must spur you on in the struggle with God, to have that same courage that Moses had. Remember when Moses was sad because the people took the wrong path. The Lord lost his patience and said to Moses: “I shall destroy this people! But fear not, I will place you at the head of another people”. What did Moses say? “No! If you destroy this people, destroy me too!” (cf. Ex 32:9-14). This link with your people is the city. Say to the Lord: “This is my city, and my people. They are my brothers and my sisters”. This means giving one’s life for the people. This delicate balance, this delicate tension means all of this.
The last question is: how can a monastery enrich the spiritual life of the diocese and other forms of consecrated life, allow itself to be enriched by them, remaining steadfast in its monastic prerogatives? Yes, the diocese: pray for the bishop, for the auxiliary bishops and for the priests. There are good confessors everywhere! Some not so good…. But there are good ones! I know of priests who go to the monasteries to hear what a nun says, and it does so much good for the priests. Pray for the priests. In this delicate balance, in this delicate tension there is also prayer for priests. Think of St Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Pray for the priests, but also listen to the priests, listen to them when they come, during those minutes in the visiting room. Listen. I know so very many priests who — allow me the word — vent when speaking with a cloistered nun. And then the smile, a few words and the assurance of the sister’s prayer renew them and they return to the parish happy.