Many do not know that the Archdiocese of Vancouver is blessed with its own monastery of cloistered contemplative Poor Clare nuns.
Without doubt they are one reason for the extraordinary measure of spiritual blessings and advantages that set the local Church apart.
The community consists of eight sisters who have dedicated their lives in the hidden life of the cloister.
Women are still called to this life? Impossible!
Or-is it? The enduring paradoxes of religious life continue to stir the hearts of young women called to the cloister. It has been said one must lose one’s life to find it, be humbled in order to be exalted, become as a little child in order to reach spiritual adulthood.
The history of the Order of St. Clare (OSC) is a long and fruitful one. The story goes back to Assisi, Italy, with St. Clare who became the first female follower of St. Francis of Assisi.
When St. Clare left her castle home in the blackness of the night on Palm Sunday 1212, she was setting out to become the first of the “poor ladies” of St. Francis - Franciscan nuns dedicated to a life of prayer and penance in the silence of the cloister.
The Poor Clare way of life was first brought to North America in 1875 when Mother Magdalen Bentivoglio and her sister, Mother Constance, arrived from Rome as pioneers in a new world.
In 1912 the first of the Poor Clare sisters arrived in Canada from New Orleans to establish a convent in Victoria. From there four sisters came to establish a convent in the Archdiocese of Vancouver in 1950.
In 1962 the convent moved to Mission to be near Westminster Abbey and the Benedictine monks who could more easily serve the convent as chaplains and confessors.
The name of the monastic enclosure is St. Clare’s Monastery, a hidden, simple place set just off the road, surrounded by the mountains and overlooking the Fraser River.
The community of sisters is dedicated to
praying for the Church and all God’s people. In particular, the sisters pray
for the Archdiocese of Vancouver.
Worldwide there are about 18,000 Poor Clare sisters. Today the monastery in Mission is one of six such Poor Clare convents in Canada – two in B.C. and four in Quebec. The U.S. has about 40 such monasteries.
Each convent is a little different, each self-contained, autonomous, and having their own government and formation program. At the express request of the Holy See, some of the monasteries, while remaining autonomous, have formed federations of Poor Clares in order to help and give assistance to one another.
The Poor Clare works hard and rejoices in poverty. A great emphasis is put on obedience in all things. Each nun works because she is obedient and all her works are given to her in obedience.
Life in the convent is busy. A busy monastic schedule avoids idleness. The sisters pray for the world and do penance for the world.
While most people end their day before midnight, Poor Clare nuns begin their day when they rise at midnight for the first of the canonical hours, the Office of Readings.
While the world around them is sleeping, the signal of prayer goes out into the Fraser Valley to seek out the lost and to reclaim all for Christ.
The night office is a spiritual torch held high, searching for the lost, the straying, the despairing, the suffering, the dying.
At 4:40 a.m. the sisters rise again for the day, which includes three hours of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament as well as the daily recitation of the Rosary and the Way of the Cross.
The sisters receive many requests for prayer as well as gratitude expressed by those who have received graces through their prayer, keeping the nuns in touch with the personal needs and sufferings of the local community.
All this in an age calling for less work, shorter hours, more vacations, higher wages, and more benefits. In the cloistered convent work itself is seen as even a reward.
The nun believes that her works, including prayer, have special meaning insofar as they are the function of her obedience, the sacrifice of her hands and mind, the overflow of prayer.
Whether she bakes bread, writes cards, sweeps the cloisters, patches habits, or plays the organ, the Poor Clare strives to maintain unity with God in all things.
“The prayer of an obedient person,” said St. Colette of Corbie, “is worth more than one hundred thousand prayers of a disobedient one.” It is thus that a basketful of weeds pulled up from the cloister garden can be made to shine like gold and curl as incense in the light of the Lord.
Obvious tasks in the convent include participation in Holy Mass and the recitation of the Divine Office, both of which give glory to God directly. The liturgical role of prayer in the chapel surpass all other works and to these the sisters are primarily dedicated.
Meanwhile, simple tasks such as calligraphy, answering letters, gardening, sewing, etc., give God glory indirectly when transformed by the love and the intention of the one who performs them.
The nuns know that their own work will not supply. In other words, they are completely dependent upon the alms of the faithful who understand their life and donate generously.
“Let them confidently send for alms,” wrote St. Clare in her Rule. “Nor should they feel hesitant, since the Lord made himself poor in this world for us.”
The habit of the Poor Clare nuns is brown in color. The simple white headdress is unstarched; the black veil is plain. Novices wear a white veil.
In exchanging the white veil of the novice for
the black veil of the professed nun, the young Poor Clare assumes her full
responsibilities as a member of the Order: prayer, penance, and the spiritual
motherhood of souls. The more perfect her life of love and reparation, the more
fruitful is her vocation.
The white Franciscan cord around the waist has four symbolic knots representing the religious vows.
To the ordinary three vows of religion, the cloistered Poor Clare adds a fourth, that of enclosure. She promises to live in obedience, in poverty, in virginal chastity, and in enclosure.
“Receive me, O Lord!” sings the young Poor Clare about to make her solemn vows. It remains the song of her heart all the days of her consecrated life, “as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Cor 6:10).
At this convent the time of formation comprises generally of one year of postulancy, two years of novitiate, and three years of profession before final profession.
Candidates unceasingly offer themselves to God in spousal love. The sister’s life is an intense expression of the Church’s brideship with Christ. During her solemn vows the Poor Clare wears a crown of thorns because her groom is Jesus Christ.
It is recommended for those young ladies who enter the convent to have some previous experience of work after graduation from high school or university, living some time independently of their families in the world.
In an age when the pleasures of the world more than ever turn to ashes and leave only sorrow and frustration in the heart, a perfume of joy is to be found in the convent for those young women who answer the call.
Consecrated virginity generates tenderness and compassion beyond what carnal love can obtain, simply because it is not limited. Christ has a heart of infinite love. The sister’s capacity for his love increases as she grows in union with him.
Christian motherhood and consecrated virginity form a marvelous entity. Each is a fulfillment and a symbol.
The nun makes a positive, soaring commitment of her womanhood to her Divine Lover, Jesus Christ. The nun is wedded to Christ. This is why her rite of consecration has the placing of a wedding ring on the finger of the newly professed: “Receive this ring that marks you as a bride of God.”
Young Catholic women are encouraged to visit the convent chapel for the experience of Mass (6:10 a.m. on Sunday mornings) or for other chapel prayers or a profession ceremony. Visitors can chat with a nun behind the parlour grille.
Such a vocation in the cloister is a free gift of God. It is offered, not forced. God invites, but does not compel. Only eternity will reveal how many vocations have been lost or never come to fruition.
God does not choose a young woman because she is good, but because he is good. The one called is usually confused and humbled that God should look towards such a poor soul for the fashioning of such a noble vocation.
Every year the nuns hold a vocation afternoon for young ladies to visit who might be interested in religious life – to help them discern the voice of Jesus in their hearts – if they are being called to be his alone.
The encounter consists of a welcome introduction, a short conference on a related theme usually consisting of a video presentation on a topic of discernment, and an informal chat over juice and cookies. The meeting concludes with prayer and the community singing their anthem, the “Blessing of St. Clare.”
For young women discerning, they should know that God is master of his works. It is enough to know that and to listen for his voice. Listening is a requirement difficult to cultivate in the midst of the clangor of the world.
The invitation is heard often in the inner court of her being as a whisper in the quiet watches of the soul.
St. Clare was fond of calling herself the “little plant” of St. Francis. Each new postulant is like a little plant of both St. Francis and St. Clare, a part of the perennial springtime of religious life in the Church.
Experience has shown that any young woman of average strength and good health, free from illness or serious physical defect, can observe the Rule of St. Clare without detriment. Indeed, the regularity of life with food, diet, and outdoor work is conducive to good health.
Postulants are expected to bring a willing heart, a teachable mind, and a pliable character. These are the desirable dispositions.
To progressively fathom the contemplative vocation requires the full effort of mind, heart, and will. The ability to be taught is of itself a prerequisite.
Because the Poor Clare is separated from the world, she is in a better position to love it selflessly. She has the access to the listening ear of Christ; being entirely his, she knows he is entirely hers.
She prays with the complete confidence of one loved, cherished, and chosen. The marriage vows of religion make Christ her beloved spouse.
Such a beautiful life of oblation, to those who are called to it, grants a joy and peace which the world cannot bestow or understand or take away.
J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholic Travel.