Why do certain monks and nuns live “behind bars”?
While it may look like a prison, the cloister is seen as a gift from God.
When discussing religious orders, the fact that certain religious men and women live “behind bars” can be confusing to some people. The “cloister” can be a strange concept, but in reality it is much more than meets the eye.
The word “cloister” comes from the Latin claustrum or clostrum, meaning an “enclosed space.” Practically speaking a cloister refers to the enclosed area behind the wall that surrounds a monastery. This architectural feature highlights the basic fact that many religious commit themselves to a life physically separated from the rest of the world. They hardly ever step foot outside the cloister walls, except on rare occasions for necessary appointments, like a visit to the doctor. If a family member or friend visits them, they do so in a special room where the monk or nun is visible behind a wire mesh screen or metal grate.
These monks and nuns freely choose this particular way of life, focusing their attention entirely on God, not allowing any worldly cares or interactions to distract them.
They follow closely the words of Jesus, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). This is not an easy thing to do and God does not call everyone to follow such a radical life.
Yet, the call of the cloister is a beautiful gift from God, one that leads to freedom, not captivity.
A Dominican nun named Sr. Mary Catharine explained this in a lengthy interview.
The cloister frees us immensely! One of the biggest fears in those discerning a contemplative vocation is that the cloister is seen as squashing freedom but it is just the opposite.
The cloister broadens us. It frees us from so many cares and concerns, even something as simple as not minding a stain on my scapular! This freedom isn’t from things so much as for something, really for Someone!
The enclosure is the ‘Garden Enclosed’ of the Song of Songs. Our life is entirely centered on Christ our Spouse alone. Papal enclosure is a great gift of the Church that allows us to live our contemplative life well.
When I have to leave the enclosure for something necessary I am always so glad to be back. The world is so noisy, both audibly and visually. I really don’t understand how people stay sane!
Another cloistered nun explained to the New York Times, “You go to the convent to find solitude, and you find God, and you find yourself.”
Surprisingly a life dedicated to prayer, instead of isolating a person from the world, brings them much closer to it. As one nun added, “As a physical presence out in the world I could only be one person with two hands and two feet … But through prayer, I felt I could reach more of my brothers and sisters. The spiritual dimension is limitless.”
St. John Paul II affirmed the value of the cloistered life in his letter to consecrated persons: “Institutes totally dedicated to contemplation ‘give themselves to God alone in solitude and silence, and through constant prayer and ready penance. No matter how urgent may be the needs of the active apostolate, such communities will always have a distinguished part to play in Christ’s Mystical Body.’”
The words of Jesus do not imply a cloistered life. He didn’t live one.
Christian freedom does not come from physically isolating ourselves from the world. Our lusts corrupt and enslave us (2Peter1:4). Hiding from the world doesn’t hide us from our lusts. We bring them with us everywhere we go, including the cloister. We surrender our lusts to Christ in order to be free from them. This is an act of faith and unconditional trust in Christ, and can be done anywhere.
The quickest and easiest way that I found was being anxious for nothing by casting all of my care on the Lord (see 1Peter 5:5-7, Philippians 4:6-7, and Isaiah 26:3-4).