MONASTERY OF THE HOLY NAME OF JESUS
DISCALCED CARMELITE NUNS
Lord, it is good to be here, if You will, let us build three tents.
When one approaches a monastery, the first perception is that there is no other place quite like it.
There is an otherness to the place. The silence is deep and the stillness draws. It has a pull. The initial strangeness is only because we are not used to the thinness of the air, the clarity where even a small sound of nature - a bird chirping, the rustle of leaves - is intensified.
A monastery is not like the places we frequent in our daily lives, like the mall, the workplace, or school. It isnt even like the parish church. Coming here, we have approached a new height as it were, and it requires adjustment. It means quieting down from inside, breathing more slowly, deeply. The pull has excitement too, but it is an anticipation at a wholly uncommon level. At this unique place, we are summoned to a release we dont even experience in the comfort of our homes.
Attuned to the pace and purity, a resonance sinks in, the echo of something deep inside. It is what Elijah experienced on the Mount. It is the still, small voice, a sound that cannot be heard with our ears because it must be perceived with the heart. It is the voice of God calling us out of the whirlwind of our daily clamor into the stillness of His ineffable Presence. We are drawn to this place, a place of the heart . . . a place very much apart.
Your monasteries are spread throughout the world like oases of prayer and of special consecration to God in the silence of the cloister. Give testimony to the beauty and missionary fruitfulness of your hidden life with Christ in God. Show the value of the prayer of intercession and of silent immolation around the Eucharist in order to be as St. Thérèse of Lisieux so ardently desiredlove in the heart of the Mystical Body . . . . The Church has need of your contemplative charism . . . in facing the immense spiritual and material needs of humanity. Exhortation of Pope John Paul 11 to the Discalced Carmelite Nuns, 1991
The Monastery of the Holy Name of Jesus sits in a lowland vale in Denmark, Wisconsin, balanced among the undulating hills that frame the western shore of Lake Michigan. The land is fertile, rich in glacial deposits that cause sweet grass to grow, grass that cows love to devour seemingly all day long. It fortifies them to yield the choicest milk and cream in the nation.
Yet, before trees were cut for pasture there was a woodland garden here where seventeenth century Winnebago Native-Americans encountered French beaver traders. They searched one anothers faces to discover the others ideas about life and the land. Over time, eastern settlers arrived and with axe and plow, trades and art, they made this section of Wisconsin diverse and productive.
The Carmelite community today is a part of this green northern grassland but its history arcs back to Mexico where, amid the turbulence of anti-clerical laws, the peace of the cloister was fractured. In 1910 and 1913 the sisters were forced to flee for the safety of their lives. Exiles, they sought asylum in the United States. The Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan, welcomed them in 1916, enabling the nuns in the ensuing years to nurture seven foundations blessed by God.
In 1992, Bishop Robert J. Banks of Green Bay, Wisconsin, invited the founding group to come from Grand Rapids and establish quarters adjacent to the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help. The Dioceses generous arrangement served well as the nuns planned their permanent monastery built near the town of Denmark and completed in 2002.
They who dwell in monasteries live out this offering to God in continuous prayer, but their consecration is not made for themselves alone. In the midst of a world torn by disbelief and violence, it is made for the sake of all of Gods people. Prayer is the Carmelite nuns apostolate. Through it they reach out to the world, the Church, the young, the sick and elderly, but most especially, as apostles of the apostles, to priests.
Inside the monastery is the cloister, a separate and enclosed area where the nuns, answering Gods call, freely choose to dwell for the rest of their lives. They leave behind the goods of this world for the sake of the Kingdom yet to come. From the day she enters the cloister until the day she dies, the nun does not leave the enclosure except for medical care or other serious reasons. The cloister, setting her apart from the noise and bustle of the world, is a physical separation that safe-guards the atmosphere of silence and solitude so necessary for the contemplative vocation, freeing her heart to unite more universally to her brothers and sisters around the world.
As with everything else, the design of the monastery of the Holy Name of Jesus unfolded through much prayer. When the nuns began to consider its layout, an architect advised them to take the Gospel to prayer. He told them that from this prayer the monastery would then design itself. And so it happened. The Gospel of the Transfiguration had been a central focus of the community from its foundation and the nuns desired to dedicate their Chapel to this mystery around which their lives revolve, desiring with St. Peter to build Three Tents in which to marvel at their Transfigured Lord and His holy ones.
Before the entrance of the Church, connecting this Sacred Temple with the rest of the monastery is a corridor called the Preparatory. Here the nuns silently kneel to prepare their hearts to sing the Lords praises before processing into the Church. Here too are the Stations of the Cross, reminding the nuns, to leave aside their hidden work and pass through the Passion into the glory of the Liturgy. Indeed, the monastery is so designed that the mysteries of Christs life, death and resurrection are lived out each day, many times a day, to draw down a shower of graces on all the people of God.
The primitive Rule of Carmel instructs, Let an oratory be built in the midst of the cells wherein you propose to live . . . , thus placing the chapel at the very heart of the monastery. Through the Sacred Liturgy, this Heart is the source of life and strength of the whole monastery, its design in the form of a Cross portraying the mystery of the Crucified Lord. It faces east, the ancient orientation toward the rising sun, symbol of the Resurrection and the hope of Christs final coming. Faithful to the ideal of early Christian architecture, its earthly materials express the promise and durability of the heavenly afterlife. The monks of Europe built simple, practical monasteries for their work, study and prayer; they used stone as a token of the eternity into which they had already entered.
While the Chapel, cloisters, refectory and Chapter room are finished in brick, the remainder of the nuns living quarters present austere concrete block. These rooms and spaces surround the Chapel. The nuns, hidden with Christ, carry out their duties day by day within them, following the simplicity of the hidden life of the Holy Family of Nazareth.
Passing on from these holy precincts the remainder of the monastery is given over to its own participation in the sacred. As the human being is made up of body, mind and spirit, so each of these aspects must be nourished and balanced to form an integrated whole.
Using the very words of God, which the Church places on their lips, the sisters carry the divine prayer throughout the day in the Liturgy of the Hours. Their hymns of praise and petition ascend like incense to the throne of God. The first hours of the day, even before nature herself is roused, are given over to unceasing attentiveness of the heart. The Divine Office and private prayer lead into the heart and soul of the monastic day, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the treasure from which all else flows. From its grace the nuns receive the strength to live out their lives of self-sacrificing love in union with the Sacred Victim daily offered on the altar. This grace radiates out from the hidden cloister to the entire world. From the wellspring of the Eucharist every action of the nuns day flows and is brought back in praise to God.
Through this liturgical prayer each community, in union with the Church in heaven and on earth, joins itself to the unceasing praise and supplications which Christ offers to the Father for the salvation of the world (Constitutions of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns).
A Carmelite is a soul who has gazed on the Crucified One: who has seen Him offering Himself as a Victim to His Father for souls and, recollecting herself in this great vision of the charity of Christ, has understood the passionate love of His soul, and has wanted to give herself as He did! - Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity
The common table is the symbol of family unity, an extension of the Eucharistic table where God, the giver of all good gifts, blesses the work of their hands. The nuns gather in the refectory for a simple, nourishing meal taken in silence while they listen to sacred reading. There their souls are fed with holy thoughts as their bodies are refreshed with the blessings of Divine Providence. On a festive occasion, the Prioress may dispense from the usual silence of the meal.
Twice a day there is recreation where they affirm their bond in the joy of spontaneous and affable conversation, sitting together occupied in handwork, or enjoying the beauty of creation outdoors.
Prayer and solitude are the hallmarks of Carmel. The nuns keep to their cells when they are not actively engaged with the community in choir or at work. There they remain in Gods presence personalizing their resolve to follow Him in prayer, work or study. There are also times when the sisters, in imitation of the Holy Fathers of the Desert, may spend short, more intense periods of solitude in hermitages.
Manual labor is an essential part of the nuns life. Her vow of poverty compels her to live simply, as do the poor, and share in the necessary work that is part of every human life. Her work and daily household chores are done in a spirit and an atmosphere of prayer. While their hands are busy, their hearts are lifted up in prayer for Gods people. Thus do the nuns associate themselves with the redemptive work of Christ.
Yet, there is a bigger, deeper picture. One must observe Carmelite life in the larger context of salvation history. The Discalced Carmelite Nuns belong to a worldwide religious family. The Order of Carmel finds its spiritual paternity in the example of the holy Prophet Elijah who withdrew from the world to pray and intercede for Gods people on Mount Carmel. He was a holy man sent to turn Israel from infidelity toward the ways of its loving God. Wearing a hairy garment with a leather girdle, he lived continually at Gods command, advancing from place to place until his mission was revealed. Israel had known no prophet who so astonished them by his wondrous acts of raising the dead, calling down a consuming fire, killing false prophets and conversing with angels. Most remarkable, he finally ascended to the heavens in a chariot-ball of fire.
The cloak of Elijah passed in time to his disciple Elisha who went on to equal his masters wonders, but unlike him established a following of avid disciples as well. From then on, in the spirit of Elijah, the tradition grew that, as part of the call of God over the centuries, the Holy Land drew hermits and ascetics to its desert keeps. Withdrawing from the lure of the cities, men and women sought refuge in solitude where prayer and study perdured. Carmel in Hebrew conveys the meaning of a woodland garden. Thus did these arid parts bloom, not with vegetation so much as human lives whose sweetness perfumed the winds, where God and man communed in intimate friendship.
At the time of the Crusades, it is known that Latin hermits at Mount Carmel sheltered pilgrims wending their way to Jerusalem. In the thirteenth century, St. Albert, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote a Rule of Life for these holy ascetics.
Shortly thereafter the English Carmelite, John Baconthorpe linked Isaiahs image of the splendor of Carmel with veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Lady of the Mount. Through the intimacy of prayer she became the greatly beloved Mother of Mount Carmel. She presented to the Order dedicated to her the gift of the holy Brown Scapular as a sign of her special love and protection. Within a few decades, the eremitical life of the Carmelites was transplanted back to their native European countries where these Western monks became part of the mendicant movement of friars and took up a thoroughly cenobitic life of active apostolic works. They would remain so a full three centuries with communities of nuns added to the ranks of the Order in the mid-1400s.
St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross, two outstanding luminaries in the history of Christs Church - proclaimed doctors because of their enlightened teaching -infused a new and invigorating dimension into the Carmelite Order of the sixteenth century. With the inspiration to rekindle the primitive spirit of contemplation and prayer at the heart of the original desert experience, they launched the Order toward greater heights of sanctity and the mystical life. At the center of this renewal was the acknowledgment that God alone suffices and that perfection lies in simply giving oneself wholeheartedly to a life of loving conversation with Him Whom we know loves us.
St. Teresa came to the Order at the age of twenty, entering the Monastery of the Incarnation in Avila, Spain. Ill-health accompanied much of her life, but it was a sense of self-doubt, set amid the weak religious observance of the day, that enkindled her desire for a more authentic Carmelite life. She put her trust in the Holy Spirit and took as her guides St. Mary Magdalene and St. Augustine.
Her earnestness quickened and the Lord rewarded her efforts with a profound and sustained mystical union. Her prayer became an intimacy of two lovers who yearn for the presence of the other, who suffer gladly the piercing pain of longing for the other and who reach the ecstasy of total rapture at the experience of the other.
As Teresas spiritual gifts became recognized, she was celebrated by a widening circle of patrons and admirers but she also suffered from the fierce jealousies and suspicions of notable detractors. The tensions only increased when she founded the reformed convent of St. Joseph in Avila, the first of many to follow, cultivating a marked simplicity of monastic style and a strictly cloistered life of prayer and contemplation.
Into this tangle of success and failure came the person of St. John of the Cross. A zealous Carmelite like herself, he bolstered her resolve by his wise counsel and spiritual friendship. One can only imagine the conversations held by them, their spiritual talks together soaring to moments of sublime transcendence. In his Spiritual Canticle St. John wrote: We must dig deeply in Christ. He is like a rich mine with many pockets containing treasures: however deep we dig we will never find their end or their limit. Indeed, in every pocket new seams of fresh riches are discovered on all sides. In the same book he warns, Because the door by which one can enter into the treasures of His wisdom is the Cross, and this same door is narrow, while many seek the sweetness that can be reached through it, there are very few who desire to enter through it.
To the reform he offered a wellspring of inspiration and the prudent tools with which to endure the arduousness of the effort required. Together the friends pressed fearlessly on in their strivings eventually winning the blessing of the Holy See for the new Discalced Carmelite Order of friars and nuns in 1580.
St. Teresa balanced warm affection and astute intelligence in directing her nuns, peppering wise counsels with the sparkling wit of common sense. She wrote the Way of Perfection for the sisters instruction and in the Interior Castle her wisdom extends to the wider Church. Entrusted entirely to Christ, she wrote, What more do we desire from such a good friend at our side? Unlike our friends in the world, he will never abandon us when we are troubled or distressed. Blessed is the one who truly loves Him and always keeps Him near.
The Discalced Carmelites flourished through the centuries producing many saintly men and women. Perhaps the one who has received most devotion worldwide is St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, affectionately known as the Little Flower. Born in Alençon, France, in 1873, she entered Carmel at Lisieux while still a young girl.
With an ardent desire, she gave herself in total abandonment to the Will of God. In return for His immense love, she offered her life for the salvation of souls and the growth of the Church. In The Story of a Soul she recounts: Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling I turned to the epistles of St. Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer . . . .
I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will now show you the way which surpasses all others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading to God. At length I had found peace of mind.
Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed, I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realized that love set off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.
Then it was that she knew: In the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.
Thérèse finds contentment in seeing the scope of this love focused in faithfully following Christ in childlike simplicity: You can see that I can offer God only very little things.
Simply put: Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wants us to be. With this self-understanding the Little Flower teaches the paradox that our greatest offering to God is to serve Him in simplicity and honesty using those gifts we are given: I have come to realize that all the flowers He has created are beautiful, that the radiance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the fragrance of the little violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy . . . . He has desired to create the great saints who can be compared with the lilies and the roses. But He has created smaller ones, and they must be satisfied with being daisies or violets that are destined to gladden the eyes of God when He brings them low to His feet.
Through Gods grace, this simple nun understood the power of living a cloistered life of radical humility and complete surrender. She made bold to promise that even after her death she would let fall a shower of roses. At her canonization, Pope Pius ix named her co-patron of missions and called her the greatest saint of modern times.
Other Carmelite saints followed, too many to count: among them Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, who wrote of our participation in the life of the Trinity; St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), the brilliant Jewish philosopher who after her conversion to the Catholic Church joined a German Carmel, and was later martyred in Auschwitz; Blessed Titus Brandsma, the German priest and publisher, also martyred in that same period for his allegiance to Christ.
Heroic as they were, the saints were ordinary people. They moved in ordinary day-to-day concerns, as those around them did, and as we do today. What made them different? What makes a Carmelite nun in a cloistered monastery what she is? In solitude, where they are devoted to prayer, contemplatives are never forgetful of their brothers. If they have withdrawn from frequent contact with their fellow men, it is not because they were seeking themselves and their own comfort, or peace and quiet for their own sake, but because on the contrary, they were intent on sharing to a more universal degree, the fatigue, the misery and the hopes of all mankind (Venite Seorsum).
The Carmelite Order has stood the test of centuries, persevering through countless trials, persecutions, and vicissitudes. God has blessed its growth and today there are almost 800 monasteries around the world, with 58 of these in the United States alone.
The monastery welcomes visitors who understand the pull of silence and the deepening quiet where the search for God is realized. The public chapel is open daily for Mass and silent prayer.
Carmel is an open witness of the reality of the existence and presence of the God who in todays broken world is often denied. It is a reminder to the world of the validity of the Gospel. In this hidden garden the needs, joys, wounds and sorrows of the world are carried before the throne of God daily-hourly - especially in the Sacred Liturgy. It is a vivid reminder that here below we are only pilgrims in a foreign land; that here we have no lasting city, but seek one that is to come. Our true homeland is eternal, where eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him. The cloister is a witness to the fact that the world as we know it is passing away. (1 Cor. 7: 31)
Just as in the Upper Room, Mary in her heart, with her prayerful presence, watched over the origins of the Church, so too now the Churchs journey is entrusted to the loving heart and praying hands of cloistered nuns. - Verbi Sponsa
of the Holy Name of Jesus