Local cloistered Carmelites offer example of holy quarantine during unusual Lent

A Discalced Carmelite nun prays before a crucifix on the grounds of the Monastery of St. Therese in Clinton Township. The cloistered nuns, who live a life of contemplation and community in solitude throughout the year, say Catholics suddenly faced with quarantine should use the opportunity to grow closer to the Lord. (Photos courtesy of the Discalced Carmelite Nuns)

Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Clinton Township say Catholics can find God in the silence of their homes during Lenten isolation

CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Few might be aware that the word “quarantine” comes from the Italian for “forty days” (quaranta). The word was first used in Venice in 1377 to refer to the 40 days ships had to remain in harbor to prevent the spread of illness.

For Catholics today, the quarantine imposed by the COVID-19 crisis also happens to correspond to the 40 days of Lent. 

By coincidence or by providence, Catholics during Lent also read in the Scriptures (Mt 4:1–11, Lk 4:1–11, Mk 1:12) about how Jesus went out into the desert for 40 days of fasting and prayer before beginning his ministry. The first hermits imitated Christ by withdrawing to the deserts of Syria to contemplate God in silence and solitude. Monasteries in the Middle Ages formed peaceful communities in which men and women set themselves apart from the world to live for God alone. The example of Jesus and these holy men and women throughout the ages points to an important truth: God is found in silence.

The cloistered Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Monastery of St. Therese in Clinton Township live under a sort of “stay-at-home” ordinance at all times. Their life of prayer and sacrifice behind the grille offers an admirable example of being set apart for God alone. 

Mother Mary Elizabeth, OCD, says Christians can use their time in quarantine to draw closer to God by minimizing distractions and setting aside extra time for prayer.

“For us, that’s our life all the time; the separation from the world is to be with God,” Mother Mary Elizabeth told Detroit Catholic. “God is our rock and our joy, and we’re very happy with living this kind of life. It’s hard for people not called to be cloistered nuns, but God brings grace out of all, and this could be an opportunity for people to concentrate on their relationship with the Lord.”

The cloistered Carmelites of the Monastery of St. Therese spend their days in quiet prayer, community life and study, offering a model for Catholics suddenly faced with a Lent much more sacrificial than they’d imagined.

In the Old Testament (1 Kings 19:11–13), God spoke to Elijah not in the thunder, nor the loud earthquake, nor in the flashing fire, but in a “still, small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12). During the season of Lent — especially one spent within the four walls of one’s home — Catholics are called to withdraw into the desert to accompany Christ more closely on their spiritual journey, Mother Mary Elizabeth said.

“When living a cloistered life is not your normal habitat, this crisis is an occasion to draw closer to God when you suddenly don’t have all these other things to pay attention to,” Mother Mary Elizabeth said.  

On Ash Wednesday, Catholics heard the words from the beginning of the Gospel of St. Mark, just as Christ started his ministry among the people: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15)

But what is the good news, the gospel, that Jesus wants to share with this Lent? The heart of the Gospel is the radical love that God extends, to lift mankind up to an abundant life he can’t attain on his own. Despite the turmoil, confusion, and doubt during this trying time, God remains a silent yet ever-close companion.

“Very early on, some priests mentioned how it’s providential that this crisis occurred during Lent,” Mother Mary Elizabeth said. “It makes our ordinary Lenten sacrifices look piddly. Instead of giving up coffee or something, we’re giving up huge things.”

Even the sisters are unable to have a priest celebrate Mass for them. Yet, by watching livestreamed Masses, the sisters are still able to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice that is the source and summit of the faith.

“A TV Mass is still something you’re part of, something you’re participating in,” she said. “We are fortunately still able to receive Communion, as our chaplain left us a ciborium of consecrated hosts.”

The nuns have also received support from their friends in the local community, who continue to minister to the sisters even in this time of crisis. The willingness of these volunteers to support this powerhouse of prayer offers an example of the charity that can grow even in challenging times.

It’s easy to get caught up in trying to get everything right: making sure one drives the right kind of car, has the right kind of job, socializes with the right kinds of people. This Lent, with the extra penances imposed by quarantine, offers an invitation to remember that He created man for something more, something even better than all the activities he normally enjoys. As St. Augustine wrote, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

“We’re praying that God will have mercy on us and deliver us from this pestilence,” Mother Mary Elizabeth said. “But we pray also that this can bring people back to God and help them remember what’s really important. God is a God who loves us, and He doesn’t make us suffer needlessly. He plans to bring good out of this.”

Riley Damitz is a senior at Christendom College and writes this column as a special feature for Detroit Catholic.