A Faithful Few Don the Habit and Pursue God Through Work and Prayer
This article was originally published in the Oracle, the student newspaper of Oral Roberts University, on February 25, 2010.
Inside a striking brick edifice at 21st Street and Lewis, twenty-two sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict rise faithfully on Sunday morning to spend time in prayer before breakfast. They gather in the small Oratory, an alternative to the cavernous chapel built for larger Masses.
Before the sisters begin singing a selection of the Psalms and reciting traditional prayers, an elder nun rises from her chair, bows in respect to the image of the crucified Christ on the wall, and makes her way to a podium where she recites a passage from the sixth century Rule of St. Benedict.
Morning prayers begin shortly thereafter and, afterward, the sisters retire to the main dining hall for breakfast before spending the rest of the morning reading, working, praying, or resting before Sunday Mass.
This is St. Joseph, a monastic community of Benedictine nuns who have dedicated their lives to prayer, meditation, and service to God. Founded in 1872 in Iowa by Mother Paula O’Reilly, the community moved to Oklahoma in 1889 after the Land Run.
They were asked to open a school in Guthrie, the territorial capital, and the community was moved to Oklahoma permanently in 1892.
In 1926, they opened Monte Cassino in Tulsa, originally a boarding school for girls and now a K-8 private co-ed school. In 1955 they moved to their present location in the former Monte Cassino Dormitory at 21st Street and Lewis Avenue.
A typical day at St. Joseph includes morning and evening prayers, Eucharist celebrations, and observance of the Mass as well as the sisters’ assigned work in various on- and off-site locations.
“The idea of the Liturgy of the Hours throughout the day is to return to our prayers and to regroup, breathe, and remember what we’re about,” said the prioress of the monastery.
The prioress, Sister Marie Christine, is a native of St. Louis, Missouri, and is a 1982 graduate of Oral Roberts University with a degree in Business Administration. Raised a Roman Catholic, she made the decision to become monastic at the age of 23.
“I had spent time working at other places,” she said, “but increasingly I found that the work I was doing in my local church was really the most fulfilling for me, even though I wasn’t getting paid to do it.”
The sisters at Saint Joseph seek God on a daily basis and spend their lives in celibacy. “[Remaining unmarried] impacts people differently depending on their age in life and their experience,” she said. “That’s not something that’s been a big, big issue for me, but I will say the challenge is staying focused on a vibrant prayer life and community life within the monastery. And while those things can’t take the place of having a husband or of having a family, there are ways to learn to channel that energy into ministry.”
“Knowing that this is truly what God is calling me to do, he will give me the grace to do it,” she went on to say.
Not far from the shores of Lake Fort Gibson, the Monastery of Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek is a relatively new monastic addition to Green Country. Clear Creek was settled in 1999 by monks from the Benedictine Abbey of Fontgombault in France, itself originally founded in the year 1091. The monks of Clear Creek have traditions and lifestyles with medieval overtones, spending much of the day praying and working.
The monks sing their Latin services in the Gregorian style of chant and wear hooded black garments that easily distinguish them, even among the other people who live and work at the monastery.
The monks live their lives much as their brothers did in the early years of monasticism, a fact that becomes particularly poignant when the father guest-master points over my shoulder to a small mound and a simple cross marking the grave of monk who died not long ago; the cycle of life and death is very personal inside the cloister.
These men spend every day much as the day before, rising to keep the Benedictine Hours, which call for several prayer services throughout the day. Meals are presided over by the visiting abbot from the Abbey at Fontgombault. Surprisingly, the language that unifies them is not French or English, but Latin, in which all of the prayers and blessings are sung.
A common meal might include a brothy, salmon-colored soup served with pureed carrots, a platter of greenish-colored beans and baked bread, and an orange and coffee for dessert. Meals are eaten in silence while a monk chants aloud from a book in the corner; afterward, the monks return to their duties.
The remoteness of the monastery contributes to an otherworldly atmosphere within its silent, empty halls. An overwhelming sense of quiet dominates here, indicative of the spiritual purposes being served by those who call it home.
These two stalwart bastions neatly tucked away in nondescript corners of Tulsa and environs stand as stark reminders of a seemingly bygone era. The monks of Clear Creek and the sisters of St. Joseph are people who have pursued lives that are difficult to understand in our ever more complicated, quickening culture.
The Benedictine Order is only one of many such orders, all of which expand and contract with the changes in social attitude toward the monastic lifestyle. But for the faithful few who dedicate their entire lives to prayer, it isn’t a vague, primal notion. It is a way of life.
“Never swerving from his instructions, then, but faithfully observing his teaching in the monastery until death,” reads the prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict, “we shall through patience share in the sufferings of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his kingdom. Amen.”