Monastery separate from world, but far from unaware
It’s Maundy Thursday at the chapel of the Carmel of the Holy Trinity Monastery in Spokane Valley.
The scent of incense burns the nostrils of the roughly five dozen laity assembled to mark Jesus Christ’s last supper with the apostles and creation of the Holy Communion, by which Christians recognize Christ’s life sacrifice for their sins.
It is so quiet the air seems to tear like cloth whenever a creak is emitted from the austere wooden pews. A young mother crowned with the traditional lace covering of submissiveness swallows hard, and the noise is heard from several rows back.
It is in this silence that Father James Haynos calls worshippers to rise with the almost musical Latin words for “the Lord be with you.”
“Dominus Vobiscum.” The six syllables roll off the priest’s tongue with the lyrical ring of a mother calling children home for dinner. And before any of the congregants says anything, a response, a loud ethereal whisper seemingly sung by the walls of the building, is delivered.
“Et cum spiritu tuo,” the English meaning of which is, “and also with your spirit.” It is the voice of the Carmelite nuns. Cloistered, the 10 women of the monastery to which the chapel is attached sit behind a seamless black screen.
Carmelites are one of the oldest orders in the Catholic Church. They trace their origin back to 9 B.C. and the Prophet Elias, who lived as a hermit on Mount Carmel in Palestine. The order is also one of the least talked about, in part because the nuns cut all ties with the secular world in order to “be alone with the Alone,” as St. Teresa of Avila, the 400-year-old architect of the modern order, put it.
Behind a solid fence more than 12 feet tall, the nuns work alone in silence as much as possible, seldom talking to one another. They do not eat meat, are forbidden from having personal property and grow their own food as best they can. The only time a Carmelite nun leaves the walls of the monastery is when she needs medical care. Years ago, doctors were allowed behind the walls when a nun needed medical attention, but with so many doctors relying on immobile medical equipment, the nuns now go out.
But it would be wrong to suggest that Carmelites know nothing about the world. They know more than we do, Haynos said after the Thursday ceremony. They know because their prayers are considered extremely powerful and, therefore, the nuns are called upon to pray for things that matter most.
They know about the Iraq war because they pray for peace.
They knew about the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001 because immediately they were called upon to pray for the fallen.
They pray for the newly born, the unborn, the sick and the dying. Every prayer is like a one-inch tile in a giant mosaic of the modern world.
Holy week is part of that modern world, and during the song after the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, the laity stand, raise their voices and sing with the Carmelites. Their Latin verse fills the chapel and flows effortlessly through the black screen that keeps the nuns cloistered.
The ceremony of more than a thousand words quickly draws to two.
“Deo gratias.” To God thanks.