“Why on earth would you do that?” and “Oh, I can’t wait to read the blog post on that” were the two reactions I got when I told people no, I couldn’t attend that party, no, I wasn’t going to that event, no, I couldn’t travel to this amazing destination because I was going to spend four days at a nunnery.
My high school was run by nuns and since then, I have had a fondness for sisters. Already back then, after deciding at age 13 that I could not become a nun myself, I resolved that if I ever needed peace and quiet and a place to think, I would knock on the doors of a convent. So I emailed them and asked if I could do the “ora et labora” program, which means you work with the nuns and, if you want to, attend their prayers.
Today’s German nunneries are a bit like retirement homes plus lots of Jesus. Apart from four women, I only met ladies born in the 1930s or 1940s. You think that sounds awfully boring? Think again. These nuns entered the order before Vatican II – the great ecclesiastical council in the 1960s – and could tell me about what changed in their lives afterwards.
Did you know nuns were not allowed to choose their name but instead were given one? After Vatican II, they were allowed to change back to their maiden name, as they call their Christian name, and today, they get to propose their name themselves. I now know this because my “host nun” was even younger than me and told me.
I now know what a real attitude of gratitude is because there were the two sisters who sat with me during all meals. Over 80 and not able to walk well anymore, one of them unexpectedly sighed at lunch and said, “Isn’t life just beautiful?” and her sister replied, “It sure is.”
I now know nuns don’t just accept every teaching they are presented because there was the nun who, when we discussed the Scripture about God being the good shepherd, said, “Actually, I kind of mind being called a sheep in this metaphor!” And the nun who shook her head about the current quarrel among German bishops whether or not divorcees and protestants may join in communion, and agitatedly said, “Jesus would never have denied them that!”
Convents are transformative. From my normal life including getting up at the latest possible, surviving the commute-road-battle, working at a screen for hours, chores and a Netflix episode at night, I went to attending prayer at 6:15 a.m., commuting for 45 seconds in the corridor, cleaning the crypt, reading psalms, and watching the sun go down in the abbey garden, sitting next to the graves of sisters long gone. (“Say hi when you go to the graves!”, my table nun joked.)
Convents also have, I have always found, a particular peaceful atmosphere. Located on the top of a hill in the (surprisingly beautiful!) Sauerland region, one was safe from all bustle. No city noise, no crowds. Just nature and heavenly tranquility. I recommend it.
Proof that nothing could upset me when I just had left the convent:
The train arrived, lots of people boarded. I got on as the last person with my bike. When I turned around to pick up my baggage that was still on the platform, the automatic doors closed before me. (If you stick your arm in the door, it will crush your arm, not halt.) The train started moving, my suitcase stayed on the platform, my bike and I travelled. So I scrambled through the entire, very crowded train until I reached the train driver and politely with a serenity only the nunnery could’ve given me, explained my situation to him. “Would you please inform someone that my suitcase is not a bomb?” I asked. He told me the schedule was designed that he had 20 seconds (!) to stop at that station (making it nearly impossible for everyone to get onboard, especially for my luggage). Half an hour later, he informed me my suitcase would now travel after me. The little black thing had become an unaccompanied minor! I had to wait an hour longer than planned to secure our reunion but then a cheerful train driver hoisted my precious bag out of his window. Thank God!