"Call Stories": Poor Clare Rollerblading Towards God
This day, however, she gazes downward, at the sidewalk. Arms pumping, veil flying, the 33-year-old cloistered nun skates into a turn on a path behind monastery walls, hoping that her wheels don't drop into the inch-wide valley between the concrete slabs.
When that happens, she takes a tumble, hitting the ground and rolling to avoid injury. “I know how to fall,” she says with a rueful smile.
What compelled the Gen-Xer -- a college graduate who enjoyed hanging out with friends; surfing the Internet for information on Gary Sinise, her favorite actor; and eating at Olive Garden -- to lock herself away from the world eight years ago?
Sister Christina didn't know then, but she knows now.
In many ways, the Poor Clare Colettine nun is representative of young women who choose to become nuns and are a product of their generation and society.
In one major way, she is not. Unlike many Catholic nuns, she was not raised Catholic. Growing up in suburban Syracuse, N.Y., she attended an Evangelical Covenant church with her parents and younger brother.
“I was really searching for something else,” she says in the monastery's parlor, a large room filled with light and plants.
She sits perched on a straight-back chair behind a 2-foot wooden partition topped with a mustard-color metal grate that reaches to the ceiling. “I didn't quite know what that was. I just felt like, ‘This isn't working for me anymore.’”
A high school classmate gave her a rosary, which is used in a prayer of meditation that draws on the intercession of Mary. She hid it in a dresser drawer.
“I was afraid to use it,” she says. “It seemed like I was praying to Mary. But I was attracted to it, and the more I prayed it, the closer, I think, I got to the church.”
Soon after, she visited a Catholic church. “I cried through the whole Mass,” she says. “Something was there that I had been searching for. And now I realize it was Jesus. ... It was his presence.”
At 17, she converted, without her parents' knowledge. “My mother, when she found out, hit the roof and three planes overhead,” she says with a laugh. “She said, ‘Why didn't you give me a chance to talk you out of it?’
“My parents eventually accepted it. They were just a little upset about how I went about it.”
Seven years later, the couple would receive a second jolt when their daughter told them she had decided to join the Poor Clares, a cloistered community of nuns in Cleveland.
Ask Sister Christina why she chose the Poor Clares, and she answers quickly: “Their spirituality.”
It is, she says, a love of Jesus that manifests itself in a deep concern for the world. “You love the world so much because he does,” she says, and that is why the nuns split away from society. “You see all the grates and the separation. It's not because we don't like the world. It's because we really love it and want to remain so and pray for it.”
Once she was living in the three-story, red-brick monastery, she saw the concern almost immediately in the sisters' compassionate reaction to a disaster outside their gates.
The cloistered sisters knew of the catastrophe because of the community's three extern sisters, who clip items of concern from the newspaper and leave them on a table in the library. The women also answer the phone, shop, drive the cloistered sisters to the doctor, maintain the public chapel and do whatever is needed to keep the monastery operating. They live steps from the cloistered sisters but have a key to the enclosed area and participate in the nuns' community life as much as they can.
Unlike the 20 sisters in the cloister, the extern sisters may watch television and listen to the radio. Usually, however, the public alerts them to news, such as a caller who told the community about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The public also calls in -- day and night -- with prayer requests, which the extern sisters post on a bulletin board outside the kitchen for all the sisters to see.
Prayer is the Poor Clares' main ministry. Every moment of every day, a sister is petitioning God. The women practice perpetual adoration, spending hourlong shifts in front of the Blessed Sacrament, the exposed host that is believed to be the body of Christ, in the chapel. Seven times a day, beginning at midnight, they also chant the Liturgy of the Hours, an ancient ritual of special prayers sanctifying the parts of each day.
The women even pray while they work, in silence, as a cook, seamstress, treasurer or, in Sister Christina's case, the “procurator” who arranges for food and supplies for the nuns' community.
“People think we are a direct channel to God,” says Mother Mary Jude, the monastery's mother abbess who has joined Sister Christina in the parlor. “But they are, too.”
Sister Christina agrees but adds, “Lay people have to work, they have other obligations. We have the time to pray and we take it to heart. It's serious. It's what we do.”
In 2004, Sister Christina pronounced her vows: poverty, chastity, enclosure and obedience. No money. No men. No movement. No problem.
Following orders, that was the challenge.
“When I first arrived, the novice mistress (supervisor) would ask me, ‘Would you like to do this?’ I'd say, ‘No thanks, I don't think I want to do that,’” Sister Christina says, eyes widening. “I soon learned I was expected to do it.”
Mother Jude smiles at the story. “It took me a long time to understand her,” says the mother abbess, who entered the monastery in 1966 at the age of 22.
It wasn't just Sister Christina; many young women who enter the monastery have difficulty with obedience, says Mother Jude, and it causes friction between the older and younger women.
The older Poor Clares -- the average age is in the 50s -- are used to the strict schedule that revolves around prayer and work, the close quarters, the silence.
“It's not that we're being obstinate,” Sister Christina says. “We just don't know it.”
The community includes four women in their 30s and 40s who are in the formation stages of becoming a nun. A 19-year-old from Colorado is expected to enter the monastery in January.
While some orders around the country report an increase in the number of young women entering monasteries, Cleveland does not.
“In the '50s, they were coming in droves,” says Sister Marietta Starrie, director of the Office for Religious in the Cleveland Catholic Diocese. “They aren't doing that now.
“In general, we have seen no real surge in our diocese.”
Sister Christina falls occasionally, both on her Blade Runners -- a possession she is allowed for recreation purposes -- and in her spiritual life.
“Faith is that constant call to become more like Christ. To be constantly giving yourself like Christ, to empty yourself, that's hard to do.”
“Plenty of times,” she says, she has wanted to walk out of the monastery and board a bus to New York.
“Once I calmed down and thought clearly, I realized it wasn't as bad as I thought,” she says.
“When I'm at peace, I don't want to leave. I want to be here. That is a sign to me, a sign that God is in that decision and that this is the place where I'm supposed to be.”
(Janet Fillmore writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.)