Seeking Silence in a Poor Clare Monastery
Katie Devitt stood in front of the Monastery of the Poor Clares in Kokomo, Indiana.
She carried her only remaining possessions:
• Two rosaries
• Two Bibles
• A few family photos
Her family waited beside her, fully aware of what this day meant.
Devitt will never touch them or her friends again. She may see her parents just a few times a year, but only through a screen. Mail is limited. Personal phone calls are not permitted. She may only leave the monastery for medical appointments.
When Devitt was ready, she said her goodbyes and then knocked on the door. Behind it, nine cloistered sisters waited.
At a time when few young people enter religious life, Devitt, Arts ’05, chose what some would call one of the most extreme paths: the life of a cloistered contemplative nun.
A native of Buffalo Grove, Illinois, Devitt once dreamed of being a rock critic for the Chicago Tribune. She was raised Ukrainian Greek Catholic, but never gave her faith much thought outside of Sunday Mass.
That changed when she came to Marquette University and discovered Catholic Outreach, a group that meets weekly to reflect on the Scriptures. When the group started singing the hymn “As the Deer,” Devitt felt something move inside her.
“And bam, it just happened,” she says. “I felt Jesus’ presence for the first time. I knew without a doubt that He was real and that He loved me.”
She fell to her knees and sobbed. She realized how little she knew about her faith, how desperately she wanted to know more.
Devitt started attending daily Mass and switched her major from journalism to theology. Still, she never thought about a religious vocation.
“I thought I’d get married and have kids like everyone else,” she says.
Sophomore year brought another pivotal moment—the 9 p.m. Sunday Mass at Straz Hall. Rev. William Prospero, S.J., shared the Gospel story of the rich young man who asks Christ how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus responds, “Sell your possessions, give to the poor, then come, follow me.”
During the homily, Father Prospero urged students to contemplate what Jesus wants them to do with their lives.
Devitt received Holy Communion. She prayed.
Endless thoughts of the sisterhood started bombarding her mind.
“I didn’t know what a sister looked like, but I could see myself being one. I didn’t know what a sister did, but I could see myself doing it,” she said. “I started crying because I felt such an intense peace and happiness.”
She wiped the tears from her eyes and sprinted upstairs to her three roommates.
“Guys,” she said. “I think I’m supposed to be a nun.”
By the following morning, Devitt wondered if she’d lost her mind. Her next five years of discernment involved a lot of research and internal struggle, wondering whether God was really calling her to this life.
She went on her first “Nun Run,” a whirlwind road trip of different Catholic orders. The first stop was at the Poor Clare monastery in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota. The place was a stark difference from the non-cloistered, active orders she later visited. A metal grate separated the Poor Clare sisters from visitors, and a nun in full habit came out to talk.
“I was completely shocked,” Devitt says. “It seemed so archaic in some ways. But the sister was speaking so gently, and you could just see the joy in her life. In a very internal, subtle way, I was like: ‘I want this. I want this in my life.’ It seemed intensely attractive to me, and, on the other hand, it freaked me out that I found it attractive.
After graduating from Marquette, Devitt spent three years teaching high school. Meanwhile, she went on eight more Nun Runs, visiting more than 30 orders. Along the way, she had the support and camaraderie of Maggie Voelker, a college friend, who briefly entered the Carmelites.
“I could always tell she had a very strong faith, and whatever she ended up doing it would be in service of God,” Voelker says of Devitt. “I could see something a little more intense in her spirituality.”
Devitt continued to feel a pull toward the Poor Clares. In addition to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, Poor Clare sisters take a vow of enclosure.
“Their purpose is to give their lives totally to Christ and offer prayers and penances for the entire world,” she explains. “They are hidden from the world in order to be accessible to the world. And that’s a very, very beautiful thing, but it scared me a lot to think about the practical things. … It would mean I wouldn’t get to travel, I wouldn’t get to go home, I wouldn’t get to hug my mom again. There was a lot of fear there.”
So, she prayed, telling God, “I know you want me to be a sister, but I won’t be one of those scary contemplative sisters.” But none of the active orders felt right. “I desired to give myself in a more radical, complete way. For me, an active order wasn’t enough,” she says.
Devitt made up her mind after her fourth visit to Kokomo. As she knelt in Mass at the monastery, a warmth and peace came over her. She knew she’d found her home.
“In the light of faith, it makes the most sense in the world,” she says. “We have the unique vocation to be all things to all people by being completely hidden in Christ. A missionary in Africa working with AIDS victims or a teaching sister, they are noble, beautiful and selfless people. If that is what God wanted me to do, I would do it. But you touch a limited amount of people directly. Through prayer you are able to touch the entire world.
She dreaded breaking the news to her family. Her mom called and asked how she liked Kokomo. “I loved it,” Devitt said.
“That’s great — you have to follow Jesus,” her mom told her. “Now’s the time to be brave.”
Christine Devitt recognized something spiritually unique in her daughter years before, although she never envisioned her active, fun-loving Katie joining a cloistered order. But Christine was moved and reassured after hearing about a seriously ill girl in Kokomo who, unable to join the Poor Clares herself, prayed that someone else would take her place.
A few weeks later, Katie asked to join the monastery. “To think of yourself as the answer to someone else’s prayer is kind of humbling,” Devitt’s mother says.
Devitt, now Sister Mary Agnes of the Lamb of God, before taking her final vows
After visiting Katie at Christmas, Christine Devitt said her daughter was “positively glowing with enthusiasm and happiness” in her postulant jumper and short brown veil.
Although she knew it would be hard to hug her daughter for the last time, she says it would be harder if Katie were a missionary halfway across the world or in a monastery just up the street.
She is used to Katie living in another state, and she can visit her a few times a year.
Other family and friends had a harder time understanding Devitt’s decision and questioned whether she was “wasting” her life and talents by going into seclusion. Devitt says she understood their feelings but that they eventually came around when they saw her commitment.
“The bottom line is they care about me and support me,” she says. “Even if they don’t think it is right, they trust my decision and support me and my judgment.”
The nuns start their day at 5 a.m. Their activities revolve around Mass and seven sessions of prayer, known as the Liturgy of the Hours. The evening recreation hour is a time for the sisters to talk and laugh together, but most of the day is spent in silence.
“The world is so noisy,” she says. “We are afraid to be quiet. We are worried what we might figure out about ourselves. We are constantly on our cell phones, iPods and computers. The quiet is appealing to me, but it will be a big adjustment.”
After asking to join the Poor Clares, Devitt stopped buying new clothes and wearing makeup and contacts. For Lent she gave up her iPod, once one of her favorite possessions, to help ease her attachment to “stuff.”
But leaving behind the people she loved was infinitely more painful.
“In a weird way, it seems like all the people in my life are dying,” she says. “It hurts a lot. But you have to do it for the vocation. I need to have an undivided heart for Jesus.
“Once I give it all to Him,” she adds, “I can love the world with a divine love.”