For St Teresa of Avila, a life of contemplative prayer was not something that could be acquired by merit, like passing an examination, for instance. For her, such a life, whether of the ordinary lay person or a committed religious, was rooted in the imitation of Christ and was primarily aimed at the service of the Lord.
This particular charism is carried and treasured by the nuns residing in the Carmelite Monastery of Nedlands, Perth.
In this year dedicated to the promotion of consecrated life, a religious sister offers an insight into contemplative life to the outsider that sheds light on the crucial role played by enclosed nuns in our society.
“I’ve been pondering the question of how contemplative life serves the society at large for more than 50 years,” said Sister Margaret Mary, in an interview with Archdiocese of Perth journalist Marco Ceccarelli.
“Recently, I found a passage by the Prophet Ezekiel (13:5) that captures the essence of our vocation as an enclosed order. There is an excerpt in which God spurs Israel to venture into the breach of a wall, or a small opening, where the defences are vulnerable, in order to build up a wall round the House of Israel and hold fast in battle.
“That seems to me a wonderful, poetic image of what we do. We get into a vulnerable place in the Church and we implore God for graces for anyone who may need them,” said Sr Margaret, who has been at the monastery since 1961.
Sister Margaret is one of 14 nuns in residence at Nedlands. She grew up in a street close by the Monastery, often wondering what lay behind those imposing walls, and gradually felt a stronger call to enter the religious life as her faith matured.
The commitment to the calling eventually reached a decisive moment as she had to choose between the two honourable vocations of marriage or the religious.
“It came to a point where I had to decide, it had to be done. I was asked to spend a year praying regularly, but I knew that wouldn’t be possible here in Perth. So I volunteered as a lay missionary and went to the Kimberley, where I also lent my services as teacher. I was 22 at this stage. After this experience, I chose religious life and joined the Carmelites,” Sr Margaret said.
Since then, a typical day in her life follows the timetable of the foundress of her order, St Teresa of Avila. She wakes at 5am, presents herself at 5.30am for an hour of silent prayer, says the Divine Office, attends mass at 7am, followed by a brief moment of thanksgiving.
Sr Margaret then works until 11am, performing activities such as making the altar bread for the Archdiocese, gardening and dressmaking. At midday, the Little Hour is said, followed by a short examination of conscience, a meal, and one hour of recreation. The afternoon is comprised of the Afternoon Office, one hour of quietness, spiritual reading and work until the evening Vespers. As evening approaches, there is more time for silent prayer, after which the sisters have free time for playing music or reading and supper at 6.30pm. The day ends with the Night Prayer and the Office of the Readings, the Great Silence (a time of absolute silence) and lights out at 10.30.
When asked about her response to Pope Francis’ call to “wake up the world”, Sr Margaret initially pointed out that our interview would be one of the ways of conveying the message of the Gospel and the beauty of consecrated life throughout the Archdiocese of Perth. She also expressed her desire to write a book and hoped that God would inspire her to put pen to paper in order to give her testimony.
Sr Margaret emphasised that she felt incredibly blessed to have spent the last fifty years within an enclosed order.
Before the interview ended, she did, however, return to the poetic image of a battlefield, stating that “if you try and stand in the breach, praying for others, you can be sure to encounter spiritual opposition”.
For this, Sr Margaret said, “the armour of God, made up of the belt of truth, the breastplate of uprightness, the shield of faith, the sword of the spirit (the Word of God), the shoes to spread the Gospel and the helmet of salvation, is indispensable.”
The picturesque Carmelite Monastery in Nedlands, located at 100 Adelma Road, was built in 1935, although different parts of its building were added throughout the years. The monastery will be celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. Of the seven founding nuns, only one remains alive.