The must-knows about discerning enclosed life

The must-knows about discerning enclosed life

By Sr. Gabriel Davison O.S.C.

The Poor Clare Sisters of Arundel in the UK pray together.

This article is from a talk given to vocations personnel at the invitation of the National Office of Vocations for England and Wales. The talk was delivered in October, 2013 at Birmingham University Catholic Chaplaincy in the UK.

THANK YOU FOR ALLOWING me the opportunity to share with you something from my own experience as a Poor Clare of accompanying people and helping them to discern the will of God for their lives. I can only speak about what I know, what I have lived, so inevitably it is limited. I also speak from living in a particular place called Arundel, in the United Kingdom, where I live and breathe the spirit of St. Clare. I’d like to look at two questions, which perhaps are really only one question, just written slightly differently. First: What will help someone discern, if he or she is called to the enclosed life? And secondly: How might someone accompanying a discerner help that person to discern if the call is to enclosed life? So you can see that the two questions are very close to each other.

Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton in a recent pastoral letter said,

Hearing and seeing are very important parts of how we know anything or anyone. We know God by what we have seen and what we hear. We see God in the created world, we see God in the community of the church, and we see God in the person of Jesus Christ. We hear God in the words of Scripture, and the teaching of the church.

Get to know contemplative communities

So for all of us who are working in vocation discernment and may be guiding people who are discerning a contemplative vocation: what is it that we need to be hearing and seeing for ourselves firstly, and then, secondly, what does the discerner need to hear and see? It helps to think about these questions for a moment before you continue to read on:

  • What personal feelings are generated in you when you think about the contemplative life, just now, just for a few seconds?
  • What have you seen, heard and experienced personally about the contemplative life?
  • What personal experience have you had in the last year with an enclosed community?

I think it is very important, if you are going to help someone discern a contemplative vocation, that you have a personal experience of this way of life for yourself. What it is to pray in a Carmelite, Cistercian, Benedictine or a Poor Clare house? It is important to know and to feel the difference of each charism—through the atmosphere of the guesthouse, the guest mistress, the liturgy, perhaps through meeting a member of the community. I do believe in some mysterious way an interior call to a contemplative way of life is also often accompanied by a call to a particular community. So it is important that you know, have seen, heard, and experienced the presence of God in a contemplative community. Why? Because the question then to ask oneself is: With what you know, have heard, seen, and experienced—could you advise someone to go to this place for a retreat, or a live-in experience—is there life in this place? Will a discerner be enriched by having an experience in this place? Is it a place of beauty? Could you stay one week in this monastery without losing your faith? (I remember once staying in a monastery where the singing was so bad I thought it would destroy my soul if I had to stay much longer!) It is important that you know good places to send people.

Father Peter Funk, O.S.B., of the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago, reads Scripture and prays.

We can’t discern the will of God in the abstract. We can’t help someone else discern the will of God in the abstract. When someone comes to us, we need to feel where they are; we need to have all our sensory powers alert and we need to listen deeply to what is not said. Often they are looking for something they cannot describe until they see it and experience it. It is our job as vocation ministers to be as knowledgeable about good and life-giving communities as possible and to help those who come to us discern and discover the place where they can best seek God. In my own story I had a live-in experience in a Poor Clare community, and I knew deep in my soul this was the place God wanted me to be. It wasn’t rational, it was quite intangible, and I couldn’t say to you what it was that drew me. Then I went to a Carmelite community, and I knew that it definitely wasn’t the place for me (no offense to any Carmelites reading this!).

When you accompany someone who has this question of the contemplative life, four points are worth considering. It will be important to explore them with the person who is discerning.

1. Enclosure: poverty of space

The first point, and it is the only thing we cannot find at all in the apostolic life, is enclosure. All of us in religious life have mission; we all have contemplative prayer, community life, the vows, etc. But what is particular to the contemplative life is enclosure: “the poverty of the space.” So, this person, this discerner who is before you, can he or she live the whole of their vocation in one particular place? That place may not be very big. Does this person have the psychological balance to live in a small space, where he or she can potentially find freedom and build a new life in Christ? As a novice mistress a frustrated and tearful postulant once cried to me, “All I want is to do something ‘normal’—buy a newspaper or go shopping in a supermarket!” Imagine, that seemed like an exciting option from what she was living each day in the monastery.

2. Life commitment to a group of people

The second point is that the community a person enters will be the same community for all of his or her life. Can this person before you build something with this particular group of men or women? Can he or she grow with this same group of religious? Can this person be him or herself with this group of people? The idea of a lifelong commitment to a particular place is not one that will be familiar to many discerners. They may not know very many marriages that have lasted a lifetime. One postulant said to me she couldn’t wait for the group that was coming to visit at the weekend, just so that she could see a new face and talk to someone who wasn’t a nun!

On her knees, Sister Miryam Anastasia, O.P. takes simple vows to join the Queen of Peace Monastery in British Columbia.

3. Regular, simple, scheduled life

The third point to explore with a discerner leaning toward the enclosed life is this. The contemplative vocation sustains a very regular life and timetable. It works its magic by the medium of regularity. There is no opportunity to have a teaching, nursing, or pastoral career. Our life is very simple; one learns how to give oneself quietly to an unexciting and perhaps repetitive task. One learns how to be patient with the inefficient contemplative way of getting things done. Does the person you are accompanying have the psychological and spiritual strength to live this? Can this person deny what he or she could have become in a career? As one postulant I accompanied said, “I was a great teacher before I entered, and now all I do is clean toilets!” Our life is not usually a wise option for the fainthearted and delicate!

4. Adherence to an old tradition

The fourth point is that one enters into a spiritual tradition, and most of the time it is a very old tradition. Is this person ready to become a disciple and not a reformer? An imperfect human being is progressively transformed by the spiritual tradition, and by God’s grace, to become holy. Humble perseverance in submitting to a way of life is a spiritual tradition that has stood the test of time. It is difficult to be a disciple, to have to learn a new way of living and being.

In my experience a new person entering can always find something that he or she is better at than anyone else in the community. That may be true, but it is not the point. First the new member has something to learn. When I was a junior, a postulant entered who was very strong and robust, and she was put with me to work in the garden shifting wheelbarrows full of manure ... a lovely job. Along she came at breakneck speed, and I did all I could to keep up with her, but to no avail. She wasn’t entering into a tradition of manual labor as a way to seek God; she was showing us what she could do, how quickly, and without any help from me, thank you very much.

In the final analysis our life requires a deep attraction to prayer and a capacity for solitary communion with God, expressed through a particular charism with a specific group of people. So when you think of these four points, of enclosure, of living with one particular group of men or women, of the regularity of the contemplative life, and the spiritual tradition that the person hopes to embrace—could this person you are helping to discern be happy and in peace with God and that particular community?

Discernment in the Poor Clare tradition

Having addressed in general terms the contemplative life, I would now like to share something about discernment from my own Poor Clare tradition. When St. Clare speaks about our life, she begins, “If, by divine inspiration, anyone should come to us with the desire to embrace this life....” Thus, the discernment from the person and the novice mistress is to recognize this “divine inspiration” ... is it a dream or is it from God? Is this person in a personal relationship with God, and is this call from God or is it from me? God has an idea; God sets it free in the person, and we journey together to see where it will take us.

St. Clare goes on to say, “And if she is suitable, let the words of the holy Gospel be addressed to her: that she should go and sell all that she has....” So, if it is divine inspiration, she has to go and sell all that she has—that is, this person must leave her life before. She must let go of what is familiar, come to this place to seek God, embrace something new, and follow and be a disciple.

St. Clare then says, “Thereafter, she may not go outside the monastery except for some useful, reasonable, evident, and approved purpose.” Our way to answer the call of God and to follow Christ is to live in this place with this group of people. There is nothing to look for outside, everything we need to seek the will of God is inside this space. The monastery and the community is the place where we seek God, where we struggle, where we fight our demons, and also where we build the kingdom. St. Clare continues: “The abbess shall carefully provide a Mistress from among the more prudent sisters of the monastery....” The person who enters has to become a disciple. It is a time to learn, to be taught, to listen with humility and docility. There is the whole question of discipline, of obedience, here.

Finally, in the process of canonizing St. Clare, Sister Benvenuta, who lived with her for 29 years, reported that St. Clare taught her three things: to love God above all— so it is a love story; to have an open heart—that means to open yourself to another, to walk with someone; and to meditate on the passion of the Lord—you take up your cross and follow Christ.

Doing our best in the face of mystery

After we have done all of the above, ticked all of the boxes, given people all the tools they need to make a good discernment, all we can say to the person is: “There is still a massive risk, and I can’t be sure you will be happy because it is for you to discover for yourself.” I have seen people who have a great desire to live our life. They are generous and give up a lot to come and enter. They love the community, the place, the liturgy, and they feel loved and respected as persons, but they are not happy, a deep happiness I mean. It is a real mystery, this discernment of vocation ... to listen to one’s heart and be guided by it into mystery, toward God. The discerner has his or her part to do, and we have ours.

One of our jobs is to become aware, as best we can, of our own unconscious prejudices, and seek to neutralize them because no one in the ministry of vocational discernment claims infallibility. We must be attentive to our own inner work, developing as persons whose hearts are open and discerning, whose faith, hope, and love are tangible. We must tend our own spiritual growth and self knowledge. Then we simply do the best we can for those whom God sends to our doors. We have a most difficult job and yet also a most blessed one because we have the privilege of walking with others and to help them to “Seek the face of God."


Sister Gabriel Davison, O.S.C., entered the Poor Clares in 1994 and is currently serving as novice mistress for her community in Arundel, UK. She is also a councillor for the Federation of Poor Clares in Great Britain. Additionally Sister Gabriel works in vocation discernment and spiritual accompaniment and enjoys cooking and gardening in her community.

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