The day of a Carmelite Nun begins at 5:25 a.m. The Sister appointed, having risen a little earlier, sounds the clappers through the corridor and breaks the solemn silence of the morning with the following salutation: “Praised be Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary His Mother. Come to prayer, Sisters; come to praise the Lord.” Each Sister echoes this praise when she wakes from sleep. As she clothes herself in the habit of Our Lady, she is preparing all the while for prayer and meditation.
The first Community act of the day is Lauds (morning prayer) at 6:00. “Lauds” in English means Prayer of Praise. It is one of seven parts of the Liturgy of the Hours, all of which are recited daily by the Nuns in Choir. The Choir is the section of the chapel reserved for the Nuns. Since Carmelite Nuns are not allowed to be seen, there is a curtain which protects their seclusion.
At the end of Lauds, a bell is rung denoting the end of the Great Silence but the stillness of the morning continues to be very conducive to Prayer. Following Lauds then, each Sister remains in personal prayer until Terce (midmorning prayer) begins at 7:15. This is another part of the Divine Office.
The high point of the day for a Carmelite Nun is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which begins at 7:30. Attendance at Mass and the reception of Holy Communion is such a solemn and important part of her day that she clothes herself in a white mantle to remind her of the purity of soul which the very greatness and holiness of her Divine Spouse requires.
A small breakfast of bread and coffee then follows, as well as fruit during the summer months.
The rest of the morning until 11:00, she spends in manual labor. This may be a Community project assigned for the day, such as canning fruits or vegetables or washing clothes on Laundry Day. Or she may have a particular duty for the week and she is responsible to fulfill it with all carefulness and generosity. The Constitutions say: “Each one should try to labor for the support of the others.” Whether sweeping the corridors, preparing the meals or mending the clothes, she keeps in the Presence of her Beloved Spouse Who looks for proofs of her love for Him. She knows that the work which she does under obedience is very pleasing to Him for it is assigned to her by her Superior, “whose will the Lord very much wants to be fulfilled as if it were His own.” (Constitutions) Though she cannot remain praying in the Choir all day, the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament pervades the entire house and His gaze is always upon her. Nothing much distracts her from her primary occupation which is to LOVE Him. She accepts and welcomes everything that happens during the course of the day, knowing that in these occurrences, He is awaiting her response to His invitation to greater intimacy with Him.
The other Sisters too help her to remain in continuous awareness of His Presence. For example, whenever the Sisters meet one another in the corridor, they express their union of hearts by the customary greeting:”Praised be Jesus Christ,” spoken by the younger Sister, and answered by the senior Sister with, “Now and forever.” Community life, in this way, becomes a “mutual support for all in the fulfillment of their proper vocation.” (Constitutions)
At 11:00 the bell is rung for the Divine Office -- the Hour of Sext (midday prayer) which is followed by the Particular Examen. This is a 5 minute assessment of the effort she has made in acquiring a particular virtue or in overcoming a particular fault. The object of her examen is of her own choosing. Since by her vows, she has promised to strive constantly towards perfection, she must know what virtues she needs to acquire and plan how she is going to acquire them. Concentrating on one thing at a time, however, better ensures the acquiring of a habit, and that is what a virtue is - a good habit. Once she has decided what is to be the object of her attention, she uses the time of the Particular Examen to evaluate whether she is profiting by all the occasions during the day to attain her goal. She concludes her examen by renewing her resolution and together with the rest of the Community, she says an Our Father, a Hail Mary and a Glory Be to obtain the grace to keep her resolution. Then, while reciting Psalm 129, the Sisters proceed to the Refectory, a monastic term for dining room.
If there is no cena afuera, dinner is followed by Recreation. “After dinner and supper, the Mother Prioress may permit all the Sisters to speak together...and they must all have their work.” (Constitutions)
This work includes a variety of occupations: art work, making rosaries, sewing scapulars, repair work around the house, and garden work when the weather permits. Our Holy Mother St. Teresa did not want her daughters to spend recreation playing games, for she said that some of the Sisters would be given the grace to recreate the others by their wit and good humor. Charity, joy, and simplicity reign at these Community gatherings and the Carmelite is thereby enabled to return to her silence and solitude refreshed and renewed in spirit.
Recreation is terminated by a bell at 1:30, and our Carmelite Sister has a little time to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament or she may continue any work that she needs to fulfill.
At 2:00 she must be again ready to stand at her post in the Choir for the Divine Office -- the Hour of None (mid-afternoon prayer). After None, all the Sisters pray the Rosary together.
The Rosary being completed, each Sister proceeds to the cell assigned to her where in solitude she may drink in the spirituality of Our Holy Mother St. Teresa, Our Holy Father St. John of the Cross, or read Holy Scripture and any other approved spiritual books.
At 3:00 the sounding of the bell calls her again to manual labor. During the summer months she may spend this time of manual labor in the garden: planting, weeding or harvesting, according to the season. Always seeking to keep herself united to her Beloved Spouse, she speaks only to Him and communes with Him in the secret depths of her heart even while her hands are busy working. In this way, her work too becomes a prayer.
Vespers (evening prayer) is recited at 5:00. The work of the day now completed, the Carmelite Nun is ready to give herself more intensely to prayer. Forgetting all the concerns and business of the day, she loses herself in chanting the praises of the Divine Majesty. An hour of meditation follows. There before the Blessed Sacrament, she intercedes for a busy world which too often forgets its Creator or does not have time to pray. She prays that the faithful may persevere, that sinners be converted, that Priests may be sanctified, that the souls in purgatory may be released from their prison, and for any other needs and concerns recommended to her prayers. “Those who are given up to contemplation alone, then have the anxieties and sufferings of all men very much - and very lovingly - at heart. Conscious that they are love in the heart of holy Mother Church, they find their capacity increased so as to be able to share the toil, the sufferings and the hopes of all their brethren living in the world. While sheltered as they are from the clamor of the world they seem to have become deaf to the voices of their brethren, it is they who in reality unite the voices of all men, their sighs and lamentations, to the voice of Christ and the Church in the prayer of the liturgy; and their union with Christ endows them with a mysterious sense of the needs of others, and the strength -- drawn chiefly from the Eucharistic Sacrifice -- to lay down their lives in silence and humility for their brethren.” (Venite Seorsum, St. Therese, Statute on Enclosure)
Supper follows at 6:15. The Carmelite fast begins on September 14th, the Feast of the Holy Cross, and continues to Easter. During this fast, supper is replaced by Collation. This means that instead of selecting the amount of her portion, each Sister receives a measured amount. Usually is consists of a bowl of soup and a bowl of vegetables, along with a piece of bread. This meal, like dinner, is followed by recreation.
The night prayer of the Divine Office is Compline. This is recited after the Hour of Recreation. The end of Compline marks the beginning of the Great Silence. This stricter silence may not be broken even by the salutation “Praised be Jesus Christ,” if two Sisters pass in the corridor. To lessen the occasions of breaking this silence, each Sister remains in her cell working quietly or praying until the bell rings, calling her to Matins (the Office of Readings) at 9:30. Our Holy Mother St. Teresa purposely specified in her Constitutions that Matins should be at this time because she wanted her daughters to console Our Lord and make reparation for the numerous sins that are committed at this hour.
The Carmelite retires for sleep at 10:30, protesting to the Lord that though her body takes its rest, her heart watches. Her sleep, taken as it is under obedience, is offered to her Spouse, in the knowledge that He can use even this for His work of saving and sanctifying souls.
This, in brief, is the daily life of a Carmelite. Some Sisters have lived by this schedule for over 50 years and some are just beginning.
Those who have just started to live the Carmelite life are called Novices and they have a separate place in the monastery reserved just for them called the Novitiate. The Novices can easily be distinguished from the rest of the Community by their white veils. In the Novitiate, they are instructed in regular observance and in all that is necessary to prepare for the complete giving of themselves to Our Lord by the Three Vows of Religion. They are directed by the Novice Mistress who patiently and lovingly gives herself to the task of forming these souls into dwellings where Our Lord may take His delight. Though the Novices have a separate place in the monastery, they help with the cooking, the cleaning and the garden work, and some of the other duties of the house, just like the Professed Sisters. They do not remain secluded in the Novitiate, but they silently work and pray alongside the other members of the Community. The Novices assemble in procession to go and return from the Novitiate at various times throughout the day, praying Psalm 50 for the conversion of souls in mortal sin. From the Novitiate Oratory, they proceed in this way for Matins, Lauds, and Vespers, joining the Professed Sisters who have already begun to assemble outside the Choir, in the corridor which is call “the Preparatory”. After a few moments of silent preparation for this great act of worship which they are about to offer, they enter the Choir, all reciting Psalm 50. In union with the whole Church they ask to be purified from all their sins, that they may worthily offer praise, adoration, and thanksgiving to God, and intercede for all their brothers and sisters. It is a true family spirit that unites all the Sisters in the house, whether working or praying. In this unity of mind and heart, they seek to be a true reflection of that unity for which Christ prayed at the Last Supper:”that all may be one.” This unity and family spirit were very important to Our Holy Mother and this is one of the main reasons why she wanted only a limited number of Sisters in each monastery.
Another special part of the Community is the Extern Sisters. Theirs’ is a very unique calling. An Extern Sister has a very similar schedule of prayer and manual labor; however she does not live within the enclosure.
Her main responsibility and service of love is to take care of the exterior business connected with the monastery, thereby enabling the cloistered Sisters to live their vocation of hidden immolation in solitude as Our Holy Mother St. Teresa envisioned for the reformed Carmels she founded. An Extern Sister receives visitors to the monastery, takes care of their needs or relays their gifts or messages to the Cloister. She also tends to the grounds around the monastery building: cutting the hedges, planting, watering and weeding the flowers, etc. Though separate from the Community most of the time, an Extern Sister still remains very close to the Community under the guidance of and in obedience to the Mother Prioress. She and her fellow Extern Sisters enter the Enclosure to take their main meals and they share in many acts of devotion and recreations with the Cloistered Sisters. The Extern Sisters do not recite the Divine Office in the Choir with the Cloistered Sisters because of their separate schedule, but they do recite it together in their own private Chapel before the Blessed Sacrament.
The greatest privilege of an Extern Sister is to care for Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, adorning His Altar with flowers and preparing His sanctuary and Chapel for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Their duties have won for them the fitting titles of “Guardians of the Cloister” and “Guardians of the Tabernacle.”
Whether Postulant, Novice, Professed or Extern -- the life of a Carmelite remains simple in its beauty and joy. It is a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, humility, silence, and solitude -- a life of union with God through prayer and sacrifice for the needs of the Church and the world. “This is why the Church has shown such special care in safeguarding Nuns’ withdrawal from the world and the enclosure of their convents.” (Statute on Enclosure) Even though the enclosure embraced by the Carmelite may seem radical in requiring such separation from her family, friends and material things, it brings down upon them and the world graces and blessings from her Divine Spouse which could never have been obtained for them otherwise. Her life is a constant witness to them and to the world of the reality of the Eternal life we were all created to enjoy. “The Second Vatican Council did not hesitate to affirm ‘that communities which are totally dedicated to contemplation...no matter how urgent may be the needs of the active apostolate, will always have a distinguished role to play and that ‘their withdrawal from the world and the practices of their contemplative life should be maintained with the greatest reverence.’ “ (Statute on Enclosure, Perfectae Caritatis)
Praised Be God and The Virgin Mother