ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

In the House of Our Father

For hundreds of years, a community of Carmelite nuns have lived a cloistered life of prayer.

To one side of the Mount of Olives is the isolation of the Judean wilderness, where prophets such as Elijah sought God in solitude. To the other side lies Jerusalem, where the faithful have come together for generations to find God in community. Overlooking both the desert and the city is a grotto where Jesus often came to pray and to be with His disciples. Tradition says that here Jesus gave them the eschatological discourses on the destruction of Jerusalem and the final judgment (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). Perhaps here, tradition claims, He also taught them the prayer of unity, the Our Father.

From this vantage point a community of cloistered Carmelite nuns serves God and the faithful through prayer. Their monastery is called the Carmel du Pater Noster, or the Carmel of the Our Father. These enclosed Carmelites live a silent witness to a life of prayer for the Church and all humanity. Daughters in the house of their Father, most are elderly with a sprinkling of younger sisters. They all come from widely diverse backgrounds and cultures, including France, England, Switzerland, Belgium, Lebanon, Jordan, Italy, Canada, and the United States of America.

In prayer, the Carmelite reaches out from within the heart of the Church to participate with Christ in uniting all for the praise and glory of the Holy Trinity. Although a Carmelite’s apostolate is contemplative, by her “hidden” life of prayer and her desire for holiness, she embraces all humanity within her vocation. Her enclosure does not isolate her from people, but in a very vivid way places her in the midst of life and its activity as a “garden enclosed.” Her life demonstrates that each person needs to be “set apart” for God alone.

Cloistered Carmelites live out a faith tradition begun in the Holy Land seven centuries ago, when individuals lived in prayerful solitude on Mount Carmel, near modern Haifa. This traditional holy site is where Elijah challenged and defeated the priests of Baal in sacrifice (1 Kings 18). This prophet’s fidelity inspired an ascetic spirituality marked by solitude and prayer.

Within their cloister, the nuns lead a simple, structured life. Rising early, they attend Holy Mass and during the day chant the Divine Office, a recitation of psalms and prayers. Each sister seeks a silence which begins deep within herself. Two hours are given to meditation and some time for spiritual reading. Three hours or so in the morning and afternoon are for assigned chores. The nuns eat meals in silence, while a sister reads an appropriate selection of literature. This structure creates an atmosphere of tranquility and peace so residents can be recollected in God’s presence. In their human frailty, the nuns continually rededicate themselves to this presence.

Afternoon and evening recreations are an important part of community life each day. They create opportunities for charity and awareness of each sister’s unique personality and the total community. The nuns find the peace and joy of their solitude alone and together. Curiously, they remain acutely aware of the world outside their cloister. Although they have neither television nor radio, they do read newspapers.

With its simple life, the Carmel has simple needs. A large vegetable garden and fresh eggs from chickens raised by the nuns offer a steady supply of foodstuffs. Other needs are supplied by generous friends, including the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. The agency donates rice, powdered milk, and flour, which the Carmel shares with needy neighbors. CNEWA also periodically sends large bundles of clothing for distribution in the neighborhood.

The nuns of Carmel du Pater Noster also work for their livelihood in simple, traditional ways. Some do needlework, paint icons, or make olivewood rosaries and other crafted items. Of course, housework always keeps them busy, too. But a special ritual comes in the fall. Around September or October all the sisters who are able to climb gather olives to be eaten or processed into oil. From the top of an olive tree on the Mount of Olives, the view of the Judean desert is marvelous! Looking west down the holy mountain, one can see the Church of Dominus Flevit, where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, and, finally, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane.

Each year the monastery and other Christian communities nearby – the Benedictine nuns of Calvary, the Russian Orthodox nuns of the Ascension, and the German Lutheran Sisters of Darmstadt – witness a major international celebration for Christians. The Palm Sunday procession follows the path of Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem before His Passion. The pilgrims, led by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and various Eastern-rite Catholic hierarchy, wind their way up the Mount of Olives while waving palms or olive branches and singing. Though their songs are in many different languages, they all sing one word in common, “Hosanna!” As the procession passes the Carmel du Pater Noster, the nuns celebrate this unity by ringing their enormous bells.

The Carmel du Pater Noster once was the site of a great basilica initiated by St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, around 336. Originally called the Church of the Disciples, it later became known as the “Eleona.” Some 300 years later, war ravished the land and the church was destroyed, hiding beneath its rubble the holy grotto where Jesus prayed and taught His followers. A few monasteries subsequently built on this spot also succumbed to the devastation of wars.

In 1870 the Princess de la Tour d’Auvergne bought the site of the great basilica. She had long desired establishing a contemplative order on this holy site. After excavations uncovered the grotto of the eschatological teachings, the princess helped finance the construction of the Carmel du Pater Noster next to the site of the Eleona.

The Cloister has also suffered from war. The nuns of Carmel du Pater Noster had to evacuate their monastery when Turkish soldiers confiscated it in 1916. Fleeing to Egypt on the path of the Holy Family, the nuns settled near Cairo in the village of Metarieh. Their temporary home was the “Exiled Carmel of the Holy Family.”

While in Cairo, the exiled Carmelites welcomed a young British nurse who felt called to religious life. She had come to them in a roundabout way. Two days after her conversion to Catholicism, her ship had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean. Brought with other survivors to Egypt, she happened upon their convent. In time she became a postulant.

When the war ended, the nuns returned to their beloved Carmel in Jerusalem, the young postulant with them. Turkish soldiers had left their Carmel a shambles. The heads had been smashed off of a stone bas-relief of Jesus teaching His disciples. After much cleaning and scrubbing, the nuns resumed their cloistered life. Today that bas-relief, minus the heads, is in the Sisters oratory off the grotto. The “young postulant” is now 93 years old and the community’s treasure, full of fun and humor, seasoned wit and wisdom, and as sharp as ever!

No matter what unimaginable changes in the world, the cloistered nuns remain dedicated to their mission. By partaking in the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, the Carmelites in the Holy Land unite their prayer to Christ’s as a “Eucharistic Presence” among peoples of many nationalities, cultures, and religions in a land held holy by each. The nuns of the Carmel du Pater Noster are especially called to the prayer of unity, the Our Father. Their unity begins within themselves, as it must for each Christian, and then spreads out to others so a harmony of voices may pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”

The author is a cloistered Carmelite who wishes to remain anonymous.

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