You are dealing with the supernatural," says Mother Mary Margaret, prioress of the cloistered nuns in the Dominican Monas tery of the Perpetual Rosary on Doat Street. "Ask God for enlightenment; pray he will hear you."
Allowing an outsider behind the walls that separate the nuns from the rest of the world was out of the question, not even worth discussing, she says. But Sister Mary Jude -- one of the Dominican nuns who had broken tradition and agreed to be interviewed for this story -- has a suggestion: Just this once, could an outsider sit in the chapel for an hour while the nuns say the rosary as part of their 24-hour vigil called the Hour of Guard?
At 10 p.m. Easter Sunday -- probably the nuns' most solemn day of the year -- the door to the chapel will be buzzed open. Walk through the chaplain's dining room, Mother Mary Margaret instructs. Sister Mary Jude will be in the chapel, behind the medieval-like grille that will separate the Dominicans from those outside until the day they die, when they believe they will meet their spouse, Jesus, face to face.
"You would like to step over," says Mother Mary Margaret while making final arrangements. "Leave yourself open to God and listen to what he has to tell you," says Sister Mary Jude. The sacred setting. The solitude. And the silence, especially the silence, they say. All this will provide a glimpse of what the contemplative life of a cloistered nun is all about.
So on Easter evening the door opens. A rainstorm swirls around the Gothic building making the monastery even more of an enclave in the East Side neighborhood. Sister Mary Jude is behind the screen of the turn, a wooden device the nuns use to pass items from the inside. While she can see visitors, they can't see her.
"God be with you," she says from behind the screen, and silently leaves to make her way to the chapel. The dining room is open. A dim light casts shadows on the religious pictures and simple furniture in an area few people have seen. Even this vestibule between the outside and the sanctuary has a night silence that heightens each sense and wakes the imagination.
Defenses drop away as each image, each sound erupts with power. With computer precision, the telephone in the room goes off in a frightening ring, as if it were triggered by someone walking by. It rings again, the sound echoing in the still room.
Sister Mary Jude is already in the chapel beginning her adoration, and the phone wails on. After four rings the answering machine the nuns use clicks on. "The nuns are not free to speak now," the tape says. "Please leave your message or prayer intention at the sound of the tone." A desperate, pleading voice calls from the middle of the night.
"I'm in so much pain, sisters," the elderly, female voice on the other end of the phone says. "Please pray for me. I'm all alone. My head and my neck give me so much pain and I have no one to turn to. Please pray most of all so I can just get some rest, just one good night's sleep. I'm just in so much pain."
And the woman hangs up.
Inside the chapel on this holiest of days, footsteps are like shouts on the marble floor. The only light comes from two altars: the sanctuary bathed in a deep blue light and highlighted by perfect white lilies at the front, and the Purgatorian Shrine to the side, a statue of seven terrified mortals, their hands in shackles, reaching up for help to the Blessed Virgin and the child Jesus.
The rest of the chapel is fuzzy, the shadows making objects melt into each other. And the most shadowy figure is one of the sisters sitting motionless behind the metal grille in the nuns' choir. Her white wimple glows slightly, making her resemble a ghost in the dark.
"You've come to us to write about how we're locked in," Sister Mary Jude had said. "And yet it's not that way at all. You are locked out."
As for the precise timing of the phone call, Sister Mary Jude nods knowingly and seems more satisfied than surprised.
"God arranged it," she says. "I'm sure he did."
To those without faith, the lives of the 34 women who have chosen the Dominican monastery as their permanent home sound like some Dark Age foolishness. To those who believe, they sound impossible.
Aspirants, or women interested in entering the monastery (the nuns prefer this name to convent), now have a two- or four-week trial period in which they can live at the monastery, leave and then decide if they want to return. But for many, there was one chance. The women went inside the walls. If they wanted to leave, they would never be allowed to return.
The sisters routinely rise to a bell at 5:10 a.m. From 5:45 morning prayer until the retiring bell at 9:15 p.m., their day is almost completely devoted to prayer or work serving God. Private prayer follows morning prayer. Then there is Mass at 7:15 a.m.
Then there is work duty, then mid-day prayer, then the noon meal during which the only talk is a nun reading scripture or other spiritual books. A 90-minute period after lunch is reserved for private prayer, spiritual reading, study or rest. Then there is mid-afternoon prayer. Vesper service is at 4:30 p.m. followed by more private prayer. In the evening, there is the rosary in the church during which laypersons can listen from the part of the chapel outside the grille. Services called Office of Readings and Night Prayer come after that.
There is one exception to this spiritual routine. The nuns have one hour after their evening meal for recreation. They chat, work puzzles and relax as a family. Novices, the women who have lived there for at least six months and have won preliminary approval from the monastery council, occasionally have 30 minutes of recreation after lunch.
This schedule is "a recurring rhythm of prayer and pondering on God's word," Sister Mary Thomas says. This is rounded out with the perpetual rosary adoration, a spiritual assignment that the nuns believe they were called to fulfill when the monastery began 85 years ago. This assignment requires the nuns to take turns at the Hour of Guard, waking at all hours of the night, seven-nights a week. They then return to their small rooms, called cells, until the morning bell rings at 5:10.
"On special feast days and federal holidays, time is more free," says Sister Mary Amata (which means "beloved" in Latin), one of the sisters who agreed to be interviewed for the first time since entering the monastery. "There is more time for prayer."
The nuns are not completely alone. "Chief," a German shepherd dog, is the only non-Dominican to live behind the walls.
The inside of the monastery is filled with sparkling tile floors and rich oak woodwork, cleaned faithfully with Murphy's Oil Soap. Four hallways, or cloisters, surround a garden called a garth. The private areas of the convent are light and airy. The nuns have eight acres in all, some of which resemble a park. There is a cemetery outside with simple little crosses marking the graves and a vegetable garden where "a couple of sisters work like 10," one nun says.
In the transitional East Side neighborhood, the convent is very much different from its surroundings ("Jesse loves Denise" is written on one part of the outside wall surrounding the monastery). It's similar to the way the Vatican gardens are different from the frantic, chaotic streets of Rome.
Except for doctors, nurses and workmen, no layperson is allowed within the monastery enclosure. Nuns do not leave the monastery for anything except medical treatment. Except for recreation hours the nuns seldom speak -- even to each other.
"There is not a vow of silence," says Sister Mary Amata, at 72, one of the women who entered the convent before the rules loosened a bit. "But as far as possible, you work in silence."
Do you say good morning?
"No, no," she says, laughing. "When you pass each other, sometimes there is a prayer in the heart. We're trying to keep in communion with God. We feel we are bonded with each other. There isn't the need to do a lot of talking."
Mother Mary Margaret calls it a time of solemn silence. "Silence fosters recollection, which means putting away the distraction of the day," she says. "Recollections foster prayer, and prayer is to foster union with the Lord."
A pamphlet called "The Dominican Soul" puts it more directly.
"Nothing, apart from God, is worthy of attention," it states. "It realizes the ideal of St. Dominic: 'To speak only with God or about God.'. . . This is the fundamental attitude of every Dominican soul. God, God, God."
Considering all this talk of mysticism and God, God, God, the nuns at first appear quite normal, remarkably so for anyone who has lived so long in self-imposed isolation (The nuns insist their lives are not isolated. The purpose of the separation is to be closer to God, they say, which in turn brings them closer to those outside.). The three who agreed to be interviewed -- each representing one of the three generations living there -- sound and look like the nuns of 30 years ago, when a nun was a nun. Sweet voices. Firm but gentle manner. Traditional habits.
After a few minutes, things start to change. The normal begins to turn, well, giddy. Sister Mary Jude, Sister Mary Dominic and Sister Mary Amata are telling their stories and having a snorting good time of it.
"In the summer we have monastic sports," says Sister Mary Dominic, 29, one of the youngest nuns in the convent. "In baseball, it's three strikes and you're out. Well, it could go on forever here. You just keep swinging until somebody hits something."
"Praying it's not another sister," Sister Mary Jude adds.
Then they all laugh.
Originally from Louisiana, Sister Mary Dominic was a respiratory therapist before she came to Doat Street.
"A boomerang came over the wall a couple of months ago," she recounts. "I threw it (more laughing) and it went (she's laughing so hard she can't continue) . . . it went to an unreachable spot. I'd have to pass through some squishy ground to get to it (she's more composed now). So I've had to wait. I've been chomping at the bit waiting for the ground to dry."
Sister Mary Dominic is holding her head in her hands she is laughing so hard.
"We have Scrabble," says Sister Mary Jude when discussing the evening recreation hour. "And we have Monopoly, only we named it differently. One of the sisters drew a board with the same setup as Monopoly but in the center we have a picture of a little nun. And we call it Nun-opoly."
The three are laughing again.
"And in place of the railroads, we have four cloisters," Sister Mary Jude continues. "We've made it very . . ."
"Monastic," Sister Mary Amata says.
"There is a lot of joy here," says Sister Mary Dominic. She is laughing because she is nervous but she admits there is a lot of giggling inside.
Sometimes it's like junior high school, Sister Mary Dominic says. You see someone laughing and it's impossible to stop.
"We'd rather see our novices like that," Sister Mary Jude says during one of Sister Mary Dominic's laughing attacks. "It's healthy for the community. God likes a cheerful giver. We're willing to give our heart. You should be cheerful about it."
Sometimes, talking about how their lives differ from those outside sets off their senses of humor. Sister Mary Jude, now 62, came to the Dominican monastery when she was in her 30s and happy in her work as a court stenographer in a Utica bankruptcy court.
"I think I've been outside six times since I've entered in 1961," Sister Mary Jude says. "It's been to the eye doctor or a physician or something. I had to go to a doctor about a month ago. Well, we had to wait in the waiting room, and I mean I couldn't wait to get back."
Laughter all around.
"The music was going and there was somebody over here saying, 'Well, I'll take my past-a and I cook it this way and I'll cook it that way,' " Sister Mary Jude says as she holds her head in her hands. "Past-a, past-a. I heard past-a until it was coming out of my ears.
"Everything is food, drink, cholesterol," she says, laughing again. "God, bring me back home to the peace of the monastery. I don't blame these people. I'm sure they're trying to lead good lives. But they had no time to stop and say, 'Oh, Jesus, am I doing all right?' But to step out of here and go into it! You can see why people are so nervous. All day long running around."
It's an odd sight, really. Three sisters in traditional dress behind an iron grille laughing together as one tells of the distractions of the outside world.
This may sound like a far cry from the ghostly figures who pray silently in the night and talk about the mystery of divine intervention. But there is room in the Dominican nuns' lives for both.
The nuns are different from those on the outside because sometimes the laughter is replaced by a voice, a beautified expression as if they were touched by God. For the Dominican sisters who put prayer above everything, this is a living, real part of their rou-PrayerContinued on Page 10
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tine. Ask someone from the outside how often he or she feels close to God. Then ask Sister Mary Jude.
"Oh, I feel that way always," she says in that voice. "Always."
"If you don't tell people out there another thing, would you please tell them, God loves them," she says, still in that voice. "And he hates the sin, but he loves the sinner."
How each got there is different. But everyone says she was happy before crossing the threshold.
"I remember when I came to visit, Mother asked me, 'Are you happy in your work?' " says Sister Mary Jude. "I said: 'Oh, yes. I wouldn't want to work anywhere else.' It wasn't an escape. People think it is, but that's not true. You wouldn't last."
Sister Mary Amata was born in Boston, Mass. Since she was a little girl she felt herself drawn to religious life but had reservations about going into the convent. Someone asked her if she wanted to be a nun.
"I said yes but I never could be one," she says. "I never could be happy being away from my father and mother. But as a little child, I had it all figured out. I would stay with my mother and father and belong to our Lord. Then I would teach. Every year I would adopt a child, and my Mom would take care of them."
As she got older she realized the plan would not work. When she was 15 years old, a priest in the Catholic school she attended told her about the Dominican convent in Buffalo and she began to anticipate the day she finished high school. Then she could enter the monastery. When it came time to apply for college, she went to her father and told him what she wanted.
"I want you to go to college and after you finish and you still feel the call, you can go then," she recalls her father saying.
"I would have had to wait four more years," Sister Mary Amata says. "I had waited two years already."
Her parents asked her how could she leave people who love her so much and go with people who don't care a thing about her.
"It's not for them," Sister Mary Amata says she replied. "It's for Jesus. It's for Jesus." She was 17.
So in 1935 she went into the convent. She arrived in Buffalo from Boston on a train. God was holding her to her desire, she says. "But he didn't make it easy," Sister Mary Amata says. "It wasn't easy to step on your own heart.
"I got in the train and looked out the window," she remembers. "My father was holding my younger brother in his arms. He was not quite 6 then. My brother was blowing kisses and my father was waving, but the tears were coming down his face. That was the last picture I had of home."
Seven months later, her father came to Buffalo to persuade his daughter to leave the monastery. "Honey," he said, "are you ready to come home?"
"Oh, no, Daddy," she told him. "This is where God wants me."
"I was feeling all jumpy and full of butterflies," she recalls. "Yet, when I thought, Do you want to get out now? I said, no. No. Because he wants me here and I love him just like someone would love her husband and a husband his wife. There's a love that's stronger than that. But it's different. It's to the one who made you. The creator."
Arlene Brawley, Sister Mary Amata's sister who lives in Westwood, Mass., says her family could see that their sister, and daughter, was doing the right thing from the time she arrived at Doat Street.
"She's been there over 50 years," Brawley says. "We could see how happy she was. Smiling and beaming with a happy heart. We know active religious people who come home for vacations. But this is her vocation. This is her choice."
Sister Mary Dominic came to the monastery for a month trial period and then left. She returned to work for two years. Nothing else but God brought her back to Buffalo, she says.
"It had to be God because I don't think I could have done this on my own," she says. "It's not like going to school and getting a degree. That's something you can just bear out. Here, it's a whole lifetime. It's like you're never done. I looked forward to the day I take my solemn vows. But you're not done then.
"Every day the bell rings at 5:10 in the morning," she says. "You never sleep late. The Hour of Guard is difficult. It interrupts your sleep. What can be difficult is keeping up the intensity of your life. You're enclosed with this group of people 24 hours a day and you never get a vacation."
Sister Mary Dominic says she considered entering a convent that was more active in the community, where work was the major purpose and not contemplative prayer.
"I needed this place because I wasn't holy," she says. "Why come in here? Because it frees me. I am weak. Parts of yourself die so that Jesus lives in you."
Feb. 2 was Sister Mary Dominic's Clothing Day, the day she was given permission to wear her habit. Coming from Louisiana, she has always been fascinated by snow. But for weeks before her Clothing Day, there was no snow.
"I just love the snow but it had stopped snowing almost completely the whole month of January," she says. "On Feb. 2 at 3 in the morning it started snowing and I couldn't sleep. The trees were just covered, and the day of my ceremony the snow was just coming down as thick, flat flakes."
"I just knew God had sent that snow," she says. "It was obvious. And after that it stopped snowing again."
Snow as a sign from God went beyond this. Sister Mary Dominic knew her parents were driving up from the South, and she was worried they would be traveling in hazardous weather.
"It was so strange how it happened," she says. "I wanted it to snow on my Clothing Day. But I asked God to keep safe conditions for my parents' traveling. So he arranged it. And it didn't start until after they got here."
Sister Mary Jude's story sounds different but ends the same. Providence brought her here. It's the reason she stays.
A cousin of hers entered the Doat Street monastery in 1910. Sister Mary Jude's parents lost contact with her over the years. In 1949, the cousin and former prioress sent a Christmas card to Sister Mary Jude's parents in Utica. When her mother died, Sister Mary Jude and her cousin continued writing.
"Then out of the blue, my father was transferred to Buffalo," Sister Mary Jude says. "I stayed in Utica. Then one weekend I came to visit the convent. Something kept calling me: 'I want you. I want you.'
"We had been in one place for 35 years," she says. "All of a sudden my father is transferred to Buffalo. I thought I could never leave. I could never give up this job and move. Come on, that is impossible.
"I loved my job," Sister Mary Jude says. "I loved it. Now don't ask me why but I had to come. This is what I want. All of a sudden, this is what I really want.
"Now that's coming from somebody else through me," she says.
The Dominican nuns living in the monastery know those on the outside are very curious about them. With this curiosity often comes misunderstanding, they say.
"What's it all about? This garb? This hideaway act? This mystery look," Sister Gracemary, a young nun who made her solemn vows a year ago, says she imagines others asking. "You preach the word? How so when you do not teach, you rarely give speeches, you even more rarely contact the world outside the cloister walls? What are you accomplishing?"
The nuns accomplish nothing on their own, explains Sister Mary Thomas. But their complete dedication to seeking God in solitude and silence allows them to be caught up in God's will and God's accomplishments.
"For us, it's God's will," Sister Mary Amata says. "He wants us here. There have to be some people who are able to give this amount of time and thought to him. If he's asking them to teach or be nurses, he's not going to ask them the same thing he's asking us."
As for the hidden nature of the nuns' lives -- the "mysterious quality of the life of the nuns behind the grille" -- as Sister Mary Thomas describes it, the cloistered monastery is a place where prayer is more important than anything else. Besides this, the cloistered monastery protects them from the secular world. They won't run into someone who does not believe or is bitter about her place in the world.
Sister Mary Thomas borrows an expression used to describe St. Dominic, who founded their order in the 12th century, to best explain their situation. Dominic has never been a well-known or popular saint. No picturesque legends surround Dominic as they do Francis of Assisi.
"So he is hidden, lost, as it were, in the light, and the light is the word of God," Sister Mary Thomas says. "But the message was transmitted, and the Church was made fruitful with new offspring. We would be proud to resemble St. Dominic in our hiddenness."
Still, these are only words. The nuns could answer questions all day, they say, and couldn't tell you as much as you would learn in one hour in the chapel.
The deep blue light of the chapel altar is unchanging. Without the familiar reference points, hours pass without notice. Five minutes could be five hours. More than anything, the privacy seems calming -- until the nuns' words come to mind.
"We're sure of our love," one sister has said. "We're sure of our lover. You're a spouse of Christ, day and night."
Then the calm becomes more than calm. How could anyone get closer to the nuns' experience than these unchanging moments? There is no time, no talk of pasta, no need to rush to family, friends, work. "There are things you can't express," one nun says. "Like your love affair with your wife. There are sacred moments you couldn't possibly share with anybody else."