A Life Of Prayer Poor Clare Nuns Devote Themselves To Sending Out ‘Little Rays Of Light’
FOR THE RECORD: April 9, 1996 CORRECTION: Sister Patricia Proctor of the Poor Clares was honorably discharged from the Navy in the 1970s. A story in Sunday’s paper incorrectly described her discharge.
Sister Eileen Lillis fills her days, as she has for the last half-century, with prayer.
At 75, Sister Eileen celebrates her 57th Easter as a Roman Catholic nun today at the old brick Monastery of St. Clare in north Spokane.
She has spent Holy Week standing before her sisters asking their pardon, burning a small fire on the front steps of the monastery for Easter vigil, singing alleluias.
She and the eight other Poor Clare sisters on North Hawthorne Street live a cloistered life of faith.
“There are a lot of little rays of light in prayer that go out from this little corner that nobody knows about,” said Sister Eileen.
Visitors ring the Poor Clares’ front doorbell often, but they usually speak with the sisters through a black metal grille in the foyer or in a small rose-carpeted parlor.
Unlike active orders of nuns, the Poor Clares do not run hospitals, teach college students or counsel prostitutes.
“Their whole life is a type of prayer,” says Father Sebastian Drake, the Franciscan friar who acts as their chaplain.
The sisters, ranging in age from 32 to 86, pray seven times a day.
They base their lives on the 13th century teachings of St. Francis of Assisi and one of his followers, St. Clare. Their order was founded in 1212.
The Poor Clares take vows of poverty and live entirely on the gifts that they believe God moves others to provide. They receive thousands of prayer requests a year, from everyone from Catholics to people who describe themselves as atheists.
“We pray for those who do not believe,” said Sister Eileen. “We pray for those who do not pray and we pray for those who refuse to pray.”
On a recent morning, Sister Eileen sat in the monastery dining room, beneath a painting of St. Clare. A votive candle flickered before the icon. A pale spring light fell on the nun’s face, defining her dark brown and gray curls, her wire glasses, her round, rose-colored cheeks.
“I cannot look back over these many years without being profoundly grateful to God for having called me to be a Poor Clare,” said Sister Eileen.
For her, the entire world has changed since her childhood. She grew up in a time when mothers did not endanger their babies’ lives by smoking crack, when schoolboys did not take guns to school to shoot their classmates. Only God has remained constant.
“God never changes,” said Sister Eileen. “No matter what changes, I’ve always got the root and the anchor. I can always find him.”
She prays for Bosnia and the rehabilitation of Spokane’s downtown. She prays for the Pope and she prays for Spokane’s isolated spikehaired teens.
“They will maybe never know somebody is praying for them, but we are,” she said.
When the Poor Clares pray for someone, they become a tangible symbol of God’s presence in that person’s life, said Sister Joy Milos, assistant professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University.
“Their symbolic presence in the community is a reminder to people that God is among us somehow,” she said.
When the Poor Clares answer a call from a suicidal man, open their door to an abused child, or pray for a woman struggling with cancer, they say, on God’s behalf, “I’m not abandoning you.”
On Saturday night, during their Easter vigil service, the nuns lighted candles from a small fire on their front porch.
“We receive our light from Christ and it spreads,” said Sister Eileen. “It becomes a sea of lights.”
The vigil ended with the ringing of bells and the display of blooming Easter lilies. Easter, the culmination of the Poor Clares’ year, began.
Today, the Poor Clares will share a lamb dinner. The day will be a time of celebration, a time to find joy in a life removed from mainstream culture.
The Poor Clares don’t buy diamonds, don’t attend baseball games, don’t covet Bill Gates’ new mansion.
“We’re trying not to live a superficial life,” said Sister Mary Rita Dolan, the monastery’s abbess.
They do own a television with a large screen. They watch an hour of news each day to plan their prayers. Their favorite broadcasters are KREM weatherman Tom Sherry and ABC’s Peter Jennings.
When a major news event, such as the Fairchild shootings, occurs, they turn on the news and pray as the information unfolds.
Last week they prayed for the victims of the Bosnia plane crash, the Montana freemen and the Unabomber.
The Poor Clares own a computer, but don’t surf the Internet yet. They have a VCR for Sunday evening videos.
The nun genre is always a hit. They love everything from Julie Andrews’ “The Sound of Music,” to Whoopi Goldberg’s “Sister Act.”
Behind their concrete wall, they grow fruit trees, and huge vegetable and flower gardens, which explains their fondness for the local TV weatherman. They can their own peaches and bake their own potatoes.
The Poor Clares don’t keep statistics on the gifts they receive or draw up a budget. One day, a $50 check may arrive in the mail, the next day $10, the third day nothing.
“We have no assurance of what tomorrow is going to bring,” said Sister Mary Rita. “We know God is going to provide. And he does.”
They’re building a $300,000 addition to the monastery that will contain guest quarters for family members and women considering joining their community. Women from the Spokane Catholic Diocese sponsor an annual fashion show to help pay for it.
The first Poor Clare nuns arrived in Spokane in 1914. The community has always been relatively small, usually no more than 14 members.
One of the younger members is 39-year-old Sister Patricia Proctor, an organist and writer who recently helped produce a CD of Spokane’s top church organists.
In the 1970s, Proctor was kicked out of the Navy for using speed, hashish and LSD.
“I switched to looking for spiritual highs,” she said. “Sometimes you get ‘em, sometimes you don’t.”
Sister Eileen, who suffered polio as a child and uses a cane today, has never been in robust health. She reads the obituary pages and finds frequent listings for members of her generation.
For her, the most extraordinary life ahead is symbolized by the resurrection Christians celebrate on Easter Sunday.
“There is definitely life after life,” Sister Eileen said, beaming. “I think it’s going to be a time of incalculable surprises.”
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