I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Karen Luke Jackson’s reflection “Lovers of God: Free Women.”
A ten-foot wall separated the small red brick retreat house from the forty-year-old monastery, home to cloistered nuns in Greenville, South Carolina. Sister Mary waved as I pulled into the driveway. She wore a tan tunic belted at her waist with a rope. Her hair, cropped short and combed away from her face, hinted of gray. I guessed she was in her early fifties, a few years older than I.
I’d telephoned in early December, 1998, and asked Mary, who was in charge of the retreat house, if I could come for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. I knew nothing about the Poor Clare order but my spiritual director had suggested I visit. I didn’t tell her that my marriage was failing and that bringing in a new year alone would be hard to bear. Several years later, she shared that the community seldom hosted anyone the week after Christmas. Something in my voice had made her say yes. “A God thing,” Mary laughingly added.
That night I walked a path from the back porch, through a gate unlocked for retreatants, and up concrete steps leading to the monastery’s chapel. As I opened the door to attend evening prayers, the hinges squeaked. Embarrassed, I quickly scanned the candlelit space. Mary was sitting in the choir stall to my left. I moved to sit beside her. A few sisters acknowledged my presence with a nod but maintained silence.
I came to learn that these women, with their more than 20,000 Poor Clare sisters throughout the world, dedicate themselves to a life of poverty, obedience, silence, and prayer. Clare of Assisi, their founder and a follower of Francis, is the only woman to have penned a monastic rule of life approved by a pope. She declared “Only the lovers of God are free everywhere and at all times, because their center is in the Lord within.”
What followed that first stay was five years of personal retreats centering in God’s love. Seeking freedom. During those years, the nuns prayed for me as I dissolved my marriage, sold the family home, and resigned my community college position to become a facilitator with the Center for Courage & Renewal, an organization founded by Quaker writer and activist, Parker J. Palmer. The sisters rejoiced with me at the birth of my first grandchild and celebrated my daughter’s marriage to the baby’s father.
During one trip, Mary caught me off guard. “While you’re here, Sister Carolyn, our abbess, and Sister Nancy, who looks after our property, want to speak with you.”
Had I done something inappropriate?
That afternoon, in the retreat house’s library, Sister Carolyn broke the silence.
“For the past year, the sisters have been in discernment about whether to renovate the existing monastery or to build a new one. Nancy and I feel we need a facilitator and think you may be able to help.”
I took a moment to digest her words. “Why me?”
“Mary has told us about your work with other communities and we’ve witnessed your growth these past few years.”
“But I’m a Protestant lay person.”
“Neither Francis nor Clare was ordained,” Carolyn reassured me, “and sometimes it’s good to have an outsider.”
The book I’d left on my nightstand at home was Discerning God’s Will Together. That synchronicity was not lost on me. What better way to learn than in the presence of a praying community of free women?
Thus began a six-month journey delving into literature about discernment practices and soaking in what the sisters had to teach me about the Franciscan and Clarian tradition. God took us where books could not and taught me to trust my gift of intuition and sense of Spirit’s movement. I fell in love with these women, each with her deeply held values, beliefs, and apprehensions, each dedicated to caring for all creation and living out her call to a communal life of prayer. Eventually they came to one mind: God was asking them to move forward in faith and build a new monastery.
At a gathering to acknowledge that my time inside the cloistered walls was at an end, Sister Marie, a scholar who’d deepened my understanding of the Clarian theology of place, named my path an apostolic one. “You offer your gifts to a community. When it’s time to move to another community, you take what you’ve learned and share that wisdom with others.”
A pollinator of sorts, I thought.
Soon the sisters purchased property near Travelers Rest, South Carolina, (a name they loved) and raised more than five million dollars to build a LEED certified monastery with a womb-like chapel.
I wholeheartedly embraced my new vocation, offering contemplative and leadership retreats for clergy and nonprofit leaders, writing, and serving as a spiritual companion to people in the midst of life’s transitions. I now live in a cottage on a goat pasture, less than an hour’s drive from that new monastery.
I am forever grateful that these women sent me back into the world with one of their founder’s blessings, a blessing I now offer others. “May God be with you at all times and may you always be found in God.”
Karen Luke Jackson draws upon contemplative practices, oral history, and nature for inspiration. Author of two poetry collections, The View Ever Changing and GRIT, and co-editor with Dr. Sally Z. Hare of The Story Mandala: Finding Wholeness in a Divided World, Karen companions people on their spiritual journeys. Visit her at KarenLukeJackson.com