Our life at the monastery is about being rather than doing. That’s what most people find hard to swallow. They can look at active religious communities and accept their existence on a purely social level, by their visible good works in schools and hospitals and among the poor. But in the world’s eyes, we contemplatives are utterly useless.
Yet our seeming folly has a purpose. “By our hidden life,” states my community’s constitution, “we proclaim prophetically that in Christ alone is true happiness to be found.” So although our daily routine may seem trivial to outsiders, we attempt to be in union with and bear witness to God, who is the center of all life.
Every day at 5:20 a.m., when most people are still in bed, our carillon peals a loud melody. I extract myself from bed, clumsily make the sign of the cross and mumble, “0 God, come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.” This ancient monastic prayer is an apt first thought, especially when I’m tempted to crawl back under the covers!
It takes me about a minute and a half to pull my habit on, which still amazes me. In my “former life”, it took me at least half an hour to get ready for work, between sorting through clothes and applying makeup, hair spray, perfume and jewelry. (This isn’t to say that I don’t ache nostalgia now and then for a dab of perfume.)
I go downstairs for a cup of coffee and a bun in the empty, semi-dark refectory (our dining room). I’d like to say I do so in a contemplative manner, but I’m barely awake at this point.
At 5:50 the bell calls us to Lauds, or Morning Prayer. By the last psalm we are all pretty much wide awake, and our voices start to kick in.
Lauds is over around 6:30 and is followed by a period for meditation, prayer, and lectio (slow, ruminative Scripture reading). Some sisters opt to stay in the choir for meditations; other go to their cells or outdoors. I usually return to my cell, make my bed and settle down with the day’s Gospel reading.
The celebration of the Eucharist at 7:15 a.m. is the high point of our day. Fortified by the Lord’s body and blood — the center of our lives — we are refreshed and ready for the day. After a 10-minute period of thanksgiving after Mass, we sing Tierce (Mid-morning Prayer).
Then, with stomachs grumbling, we head to the refectory for breakfast, followed by chores or a snatch of free time. Three times a week I help with breakfast dishes, and once a week I give our choir area a light dusting and mopping.
Work begins in earnest around 9:00. As a newcomer to the community, I take novitiate classes taught by a team of sisters from our monastery.
My studies cover topics such as liturgy, monasticism, Dominican history, New Testament and the vows. The classes are exciting for us because they are so relevant to our lives. They are meant to help us live our Dominican life more authentically — to know the truth of our commitment.
We average a class a day, followed by a study period and/or scheduled rosary adoration time. Our community observes perpetual adoration of the Eucharist and perpetual rosary, which means that around the clock our sisters take turns saying the rosary before the Blessed Sacrament.
While the novices are occupied with study, the house starts humming as community members begin their divers tasks. Some sisters hold a particular office, such as bursar (responsible for bookkeeping and supplying material needs, from paper clips to pantyhose) or vestiarian (charged with the upkeep of our habits).
In addition, sisters are assigned chores in the kitchen, laundry, garden or offices. There are letters to write, bills to pay, Mass enrollments to send, meals to cook, habits to mend or make, vegetables to plant, and trees to prune.
Our work not only represents a service to the community — more importantly, it associates us with the work of the Redeemer as we use our creativity, our powers of mind and heart. No matter how humble our task, our every action should preach Christ.
At 11:30 we cease from our labors as the bell calls us to prayer again. We say the community rosary, followed by Sext (Midday Prayer). We arrive from our busy morning tasks ready to be hushed.
Around 12:15, the bell rings for our main meal of the day. The menu varies, turning elaborate during special feast days and solemnities. On Fridays and during Advent and Lent, we abstain from meat.
We eat our meals in silence. Normally this means listening to taped lectures on spiritual topics so we are nourished in mind and body. When the meal is over, we don our aprons and tackle the dishes. (When I first entered, I was fascinated at the clockwork precision of the cleanup, and surprised that we didn’t have more collisions!)
With the dishes done, we enjoy a half hour period of recreation — time to talk, laugh, walk outside or congregate in the community room.
At 1:30 the bell rings again for our optional midday rest, (also known as “profound silence”) — our siesta. I was never one to nap during the day, but that’s changed since I came here. As midday nears, my body starts to slow down, my speech begins to slur and my feet start to drag.
An hour later, the bell signals a block of free time for prayer, study or work, followed by the Office of Readings and None, the Mid-afternoon Prayer. At 4:00 we begin another work period.
The list of skills I’ve learned since entering is long. In my first few years, I found myself wallpapering the novitiate hallways, reupholstering chair seats, gardening, making jam, waxing floors, and even engaging in mini-demolition work as I removed plaster form a leak-ridden ceiling.
At 5:30, the bell rings for Vespers (Evening Prayer), my favorite Office. We come in tired from our labors, yet ready to sing God’s praises. We echo Mary’s Magnificat, “The Almighty has done great things for me,” as we review the day.
Around 6:15 we gather for supper — eaten in silence as we listen to a selection from our constitutions, followed by a biography, article or newsletter. After supper dishes are done, we have a 45-minute period for sacred study, an observance that is specially important for us as Dominicans.
The bell tolls again at 7:45, calling the community to recreation. This period is notable for its loudness and occasional hilarity. We talk, tell stories, crochet, knit, or play games.
Our prioress, or leader, brings this time to a close after about 45 minutes by saying, “Our help is in the name of the Lord.” The rest of us respond, “Who made heaven and earth.” On particularly noisy nights, our prioress has to raise her voice and repeat the formula to capture our attention.
Now comes our time to bid farewell to the day. We enter the choir and take a moment to silently examine our consciences before we sing nighttime psalms, or Compline. We conclude with the words, “Protect us Lord, as we stay awake, watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep rest in his peace.”
As we sing “Hail 0 Queen,” one of our sisters sprinkles us with holy water and invokes Our Lady’s protection and intercession. We sing a song of praise to our founder, St. Dominic, and then trudge to our beds. Except for the sister maintaining our rosary vigil before the Blessed Sacrament, it is a rare contemplative soul who is awake at 10 p.m.
And so our days end quietly, as our lives are lived quietly. We trust that all our actions speak of God. After all, “The main purpose for having come together,” say the Rule of St. Augustine, which we follow, “is to live harmoniously in your house, intent upon God in oneness of mind and heart.”
With thanks to one of the Dominican Nuns in Summit, New Jersey, for sharing her personal reflections.