To Begin at the Beginning – Entering Carmel
(Enclosure door where I entered Carmel.)
Approaching the “vineyard of God” by train I made my way through fields and villages and towns while, overhead, a clotted sky glowered and threatened, turning itself over, liberally releasing its store of rain upon all living things. This was the capper! It felt to me as though I had been through quite a lot – recently, not so recently and even in the distant past – to come to where I was now, within an hour of entering Carmel. Couldn’t there at least be good weather for the occasion! I asked the Blessed Mother: “Couldn’t we have sunlight? Couldn’t we please have a bright sky?” Less than half an hour later, reaching my train’s terminus, the clouds had parted and started to recede.
When I arrived at the monastery, the dome of the sky was shining a crystalline blue, spotted with cotton-white tufts of cloud, and the air, often a raucous wind on this rise of hills, was still and sweet. In this stillness the sunlight drew perfume from the leaves of the trees and the mild twitter of birds could be heard in the shrubberies. All the world round about, it seemed, was at peace as I stood at the entrance to the enclosure, waiting for the sound of unlocking and unlatching as the large wooden doors swung open to receive me.
First Glimpse of the Enclosure
Entering Carmel in England, the gates swung inward to reveal the community, waiting to receive me – standing in the cloister in their white mantles with lighted candles, ranked in order of entrance forming a corridor through which I would pass, moist-eyed and blushing? No. We were not on a movie set but in a cobbled yard, the service entrance of Victorian-era building, formerly an orphanage and vocational school runs by the Sisters of Charity, up on the wild and woolly moors of South Yorkshire.
Sun shone into the yard and onto the Sisters’ faces as they stood loosely together in their habit sleeves. They may well have arranged themselves in some particular kind of order according to Office but, at that moment, I would have been unaware of such a detail. All looked at me intently and in a friendly way. I advanced, returning their gaze with a slightly goofy smile, as a Sister swung the large gate closed behind me. The Prioress came immediately forward to embrace me, speaking quiet words of welcome, and the Sisters followed suit, some giving the typically monastic greeting of a sort of bob to the left and right of me, others giving me a strong hug.
Our Mother (as the Prioress, always and by everyone, is referred to – even by herself!) then took my hand and led me to the door going in. Her wooden shoes (protecting her alpergates from the mud) made a friendly clopping sound on the paving stones as we crossed the yard. She left these aside as we stepped through the doorway. Still holding my hand, she led me to the chapel.
It is customary in any monastery to bring a visitor or a newcomer first to the church or chapel, which is the heart of the monastery. The chapel is central to the practices of any monastic community of any Order or tradition because the celebration of the Mass or the Divine Liturgy takes place there and because it is the setting for the chanting of the Divine Office, the public prayers of the Church.
In Carmel there is a third critically important use of the chapel. It is the place where the Sisters encounter the Lord in their practice of mental prayer. This takes place twice daily for a sum of two hours. The 1990 Constitutions speak of this practice thus:
198. Contemplation of the Divine Mysteries and assiduous union with God in prayer is not only the first and foremost duty of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns but it constitutes the very essence of their vocation and the one and only apostolate of their lives, immolated totally in contemplation. Therefore, they should strive to make progress each day in divine intimacy by means of conversation with God, converting their whole life into prayer.
If this chapter, as it seems, is the heart of the 1990 Constitutions then the heart of this heart must be the phrase “…immolated totally in contemplation.” If only a few words could be used to describe or give insight into the Carmelite charism and vocation these would be they.
(In choir in the early hours of the morning for mental prayer).
Led into the chapel, I found myself now inside the photographs I had only been able to look at before on the community’s website. It was all as I hoped and felt “right” to me. Despite the high ceiling and a bit of architectural detail, it was a classically Carmelite chapel and had a simplicity and austerity in which I thought Our Holy Mother Teresa would have been at home.
Standing at the back near the Lady Altar, Our Mother lead me in my first prostration in Carmel. Down on our knees, then bending over forward, face and hands to the floor, kissing it, then rising to our knees then back to our feet. Our Mother, at the time, was soon to be 85. I realized very quickly that she did not and does not have to try to “set a good example” for her daughters as she was and is a living example of a true Carmelite. In her too, I think Our Holy Mother would have found a very recognizable imprint of Carmel.
(Carmel of the Holy Spirit, Kirk Edge, Sheffield, UK)
My first morning in Carmel I heard the clackety clack clack of the matraque through a dense fog of sleep. I was not to rise at the sound of it. As a new arrival I was to sleep another hour at which time a Sister assigned would give a knock at our door, I would respond ”Deo Gratias!” and kneel up on the bed and proceed as per usual with the first prayer, dressing, etc.
In my days of “sleeping in” I was rarely able to fall back asleep after the mattraque. I was glad to be awake, a prisoner in bed by obedience, listening in the darkness to the sounds of the house, the bells, the Sisters’ footsteps down the passage as they made their way to prayer. On many occasions I was already half awake before the matraque sounded and would listen as the Sister clapping it advanced down the passage toward our cell. I tried to imagine what it looked like. As it hadn’t been shown or described to me I had no concept of what exactly it was or how it was handled.
Carmels with a French heritage refer to the clapper as the matraque, which is French for ”truncheon.” One may assume that the mattraque originally in used in Carmel was indeed a truncheon or sort of night stick that was sounded by beating it against some object or other, although this is merely speculation. The description quoted above of the whirring sound of the mattraque confirms the use of device, perhaps devised later or elsewhere, whose specific purpose was the sounding awake of the nuns in a call to prayer.
During these first days, in my transit to and fro along the main passage of cells I had noticed a strange object hanging low on the wall by the top of the side stairs. Mortifying my curiosity I neither stopped to examine it nor asked anyone about it. Like many things in the monastery it looked venerable, still strong but well worn, as though it had seen tens of thousands of days of service although its purpose and use were inscrutable.
One afternoon, on my way down from the novitiate, passing for the umpteenth time this strange object hanging on the wall the sound and the object at last converged. It was the mattraque! I looked at it pointedly then, and saw a chunky platform of wood perhaps two inches thick, six inches wide and nine inches long with what seemed to be the largest, heaviest possible loose metal handle bolted to it in two places. It seemed the handle was on hinges and so could be made to flap back and forth, hitting the wood with a clap at each turn.
As a postulant I never used the matraque so never learned if this in fact was how it worked. Nor did I come to know if it was a Sister’s simple and clever replacement of a broken mattraque of a previous design, of the kind that used to make a whirring sound “like a ton of coal being delivered at you door.” Perhaps the next time around I can lay aside the mortification of my curiosity and ask!
Carmelite Egg on Face
(Kirk Edge Carmel’s refectory.)
In Carmel, the oblong linen refectory napkin stretches out across the table in front of you and has all your tableware – a plate, a ”godet” for water, a mug for tea, and utensils – laid out on top of it. One end of the napkin is folded over a bit at the outer edge of the table. The other end is in a deeper fold, covering your utensils and your day’s portion of bread. Once seated for dinner or collation, you unfold the end of the napkin nearest you and tuck it in at the top of your scapular. If you’re a postulant, as I was, you pin it to the front of your cape.
Your food is then brought to you in a bowl which the Sister server places before you on your refectory napkin. You may request a large portion or a small portion. Other than this, the food is the same among all the Sisters. All except, that is, for yours truly: for a month or so, as part of the Sisters’ efforts to fatten me up, a nice fried egg with a runny yoke was regularly added to my collation.
Autumn was advancing and the days were getting shorter. Now it was dark outside by the time we arrived in the refectory for collation. Collation was in progress one evening when a Sister asked Our Mother’s permission to close the shutters over the windows. My place at table was just in front of a window at one end of the refectory near the kitchen turn. When I heard the shutters on the other windows being closed I leaned toward our Novice Mistress and asked should I close those behind me. She nodded yes.
In one deft movement I rose from my seat and swung around to the left, reaching both arms upward toward the shutters, neatly yanking the refectory napkin after me and flinging my bowl of food onto the floor! Sitting back down abruptly, I glanced toward Sister Mistress. Our Mistress is always the foil in any skit performed in the community, with her keen sense of humor barely concealed behind her “straight man’s” mask. Now, as I looked at her out of the corner of my eye, I could see it – I could see the undeniable traces of a smile, ever so slightly curling up the edges of her mouth.
I leaned over and peered under the table. I saw, to my disappointment, that the dear fried egg seemed to have survived the fall undamaged, its runny yolk miraculously intact. According to our customs, I would still have to eat it. I did, remembering gratefully that quiver of a smile on Our Mistress’ lips. This mere hint of levity lightened the obedience (and also made it much easier to wipe the egg off my face!)
Where Less Is More: A Carmelite’s Cell
What are the contents of a nun’s cell in Carmel today? In one monastery that I know of, they are as follows: A bed consisting of three trestles, a board laid over the trestles, a straw mattress on top of the board, and bedding on the mattress, including a heavy, rather flat straw pillow and, perhaps, another more normal pillow. Each morning when the bed is made, all is covered over with a brown spread. If one has a small crucifix (I have that belonging to my maternal grandmother)this may be laid on the pillow or bed.
There is no closet or wardrobe and there are no hooks on the walls. Nothing is hung. Everything is folded. There are no drawers so night clothes and any little “extras” are folded and stored under the bed pillow during the day. At night the habit is folded and placed on the stool which has been moved to the foot of the bed.
The stool is moved about the cell for different purposes. It is placed near the door of the cell on days when the delivery of clean laundry is expected. It is moved to the desk for working or writing or reading there. At night, it is put at the foot of the bed to receive the habit. When not in use, it is moved to a neutral place against the wall.
(A sister working in her cell).
The desk is a petite table, of moderate length but rather shallow and without a drawer. It is placed (and in some cells built) under the window to take the benefit of the daylight. A box fixed to the wall near the desk serves as a bookshelf. It may be kept filled and can hold about seven books. A “carton” sits on the floor, also near the desk, and is the closest thing one has to a desk drawer. Of heavy black cardboard with a ribbon to tie it closed at the top, it is made by the Sisters in their bookbindery on the upper floor. It contains a Sister’s writing materials – stationery, pens and pencils, etc.
Under the bed is a basin for washing in the cell in the morning and at night. During the day it is a storage place for our towel and other materials related to personal hygiene. Also kept under the bed is a commode, a plastic bucket with a handle and lid which is used at night in the cell and emptied in the morning.
In a corner is a tiny triangular shelf just big enough to hold two jugs, one larger than the other. We fill both jugs with water at night upon retiring to our cells. The larger jug is for hot water and the smaller for cold. The hot water we use to wash with at night and the cold in the morning.
The lighting in the cell is from a naked bulb either hanging from the ceiling or fixed to the wall, put on or off by pulling a string. The heating is from large round pipes running along the base of two of the walls which, in winter, are kept on from about 3:00 in the afternoon until 9:00 or 10:00 at night.
On the wall, normally near or over the bed, is a large black cross (not a crucifix, as there is no corpus). Near the bed or the door hangs a plain brown ceramic holy water font which we may drape with a rosary we have brought with us (my paternal grandmother’s rosary hangs over the font in our cell). Elsewhere on the walls there are two or three religious prints. These are already hanging when the postulant arrives. With the permission of her Prioress, she may exchange these for images she has brought with her. (I brought a holy card of our Lady of Mount Carmel in an inlaid frame, both brought back from Paris during World War I by my paternal grandfather as a gift to my grandmother.
(I also brought a photograph of St. Therese which I had had for many years, the size of a large postcard, behind glass, perhaps the most popular image of her, gazing directly into the camera. It is cropped so that it is mostly face with some veil and laid over a red background (now faded) for martyrdom. At the bottom of it, is an image of her signature, Therese de l’Enfant-Jesus et la Ste Face, and her words, “Le bonne Dieu ne peut pas inspirer des desires irrealisables.”)
This is the basic inventory of a Carmelite’s cell. As one settles in, other things start to appear. For example, I was given a bit of artwork to do and received some supplies for this purpose. At one point, the Novice Mistress and I were sorting out music to sing for Christmas recreations and so for several weeks I had more books than could be contained in our little shelf. As I had a bit of difficulty getting used to moving about in the darkness of the cell at night I was also given a “torch” to use until I no longer needed it. Apart from incidentals like these, the cell remains simple and bare.
Why is it important for a Carmelite to live in such material simplicity? Why does she have the attraction and the will to live this way? Because the richness and beauty and glory she longs for she seeks in God Alone. His Triune beauty and glory are ever indwelling within the enclosure of her own heart and it is this richness that becomes all her treasure in Carmel.