Reaching The Secular World
By Lenore Yarger
ELDRIDGE, Iowa - Just north of the Quad-Cities, on old U.S. 61, a small sign points to a Carmelite Monastery nestled among the cornfields.
The 10 acres on which the monastery sits now are frozen by the winter cold, but in the lush green of high summer, the garden, fruit grove and tiny bird sancturary make this place reminiscent of Eden.
The monastery is home to 14 religious women who live secluded from life as most know it. The small cloistered community draws little attention from the outside world, but those who live here believe they make a difference in the world.
They spend their lives doing what, at first glance, may make little sense in today's tumultuous society - praying. They offer an alternative way of viewing life.
"We feel that the energy of our prayer goes out to the world," Sister Mary Jo Loebig said. "Consciously, people may not be aware of it , but it happens anyway. Blessings and strength may come to someone far away from here due to the fact that we are giving our lives for the good of the world."
Some people are consciously aware, however, and they have sought the spiritual companionship of the nuns. Although the monastery is physically isolated, these religious women have touched the lives of many who are hungering spiritually. "They come here to talk about things which are in their hearts. All of us were born with a hunger. It doesn't matter who you are, whether a nun, a mechanic or a farmer: The promptings of the human heart are the same. People don't have a place to talk about it. Here they can."
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The Carmelite Order traces its name back to a 13th century community that originally lived in caves on Mount Carmel in northwest Israel.
The Carmelite community in Eldridge moved to the Quad-Cities from Baltimore in 1911. The women first resided in Bettendorf overlooking the Mississippi River in the building that today houses the Abbey Hotel.
During the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council redefined Roman Catholicism and called for a renewal of religious life. In 1975, responding to that call and seeking a smaller space for their then dwindling numbers, the Carmelites moved to their current location.
After Vatican II, their monastic life changed visibly in other ways as well. Gone were the stringent rules that once kept cloistered nuns isolated from the outside world.
Today, the Carmelite Sisters greet male and female visitors to the monastery face-to-face, instead of behind a grille. They own a fax machine and computer. They are online and even contemplating creating a home page on the World Wide Web.
When necessary, the sisters leave the monastery grounds for grocery shopping, doctor appointments and meetings. They wear habits only on special occasions, like last week during a ceremony that began the initiation of a new sister into the Order.
The nuns who comprise the community have come to Iowa along diverse paths. One sister from Australia was a missionary in India for nine years before joining the Order. Another from Ireland, specializes in health and nutrition. Others have worked in prison ministry, the Peace Corps, New York's inner-city and with Native Americans in Arizona.
All of them have felt called to a life of contemplation that holds prayer as its central ministry.
"Many of us have come from active ministries," Sister Mary Jo said. "We know the needs of God's people. It is a real challenge to integrate this awareness with the deep call to prayer."
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The main focus of the monastery is the sisters' interest in the "new cosmology," the belief that all creation - including people, plants, animals and soil - are connected.
"We are all connected. Whatever one person does affects the world, even our own personal conversions," Sister Mary Jo said.
Prayer is an important part of honoring that connection.
"We pray for the needs of the world...but our life of prayer here is much more than that. It should bring us into union with God. It should affect union and harmony in the world."
Prayer at the monastery includes not only several hours of formal daily contemplation, but the total life of the nuns, Sister Mary Jo said.
In order to sustain themselves financially, the nuns earn income redistributing altar bread to area churches. They also receive unsolicited donations and mail inspirational prayers four times a year that they have written themselves.
As part of a commitment they make to living simply, the nuns grow much of their own food and can and freeze some of their winter stores. With a little help from friends, they keep up their property themselves. Some of the sisters know plumbing, others handle the phones, doorbells and general maintenance.
They do all of their own cooking and bread baking. One of the sisters composes music. Others publish articles and hold classes in theology and spirituality for the newer members.
Sister Mary Jo said she thinks many people are spiritually thirsty today.
"The truth is, there are things more important than having a good job, a car, having your family be successful, or your reputation, or making A's in school. They hunger for the divine, for what is spiritual.
...Spirituality hangs all over this place, so they feel they can knock on the door and talk about it."
That knock can make a difference in peoples' lives.
"When people see us, their minds and hearts turn toward deeper values," Sister Mary Jo said. "They are inspired to live out those deeper values."
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Monastery Offers associate program
- LAY PEOPLE CAN JOIN MONASTERY'S ASSOCIATE PROGRAM
The Carmelite sisters keep the old monastic tradition of offering spiritual direction to people living in the secular world.
Lay people from the Quad-Cities area and much farther away are drawn to the life and work of the monastery. They come for a quiet day of retreat or to meet with one of the sisters on a regular basis.
The monastery offers an associate program for those who wish to share in the monastic life while still living in the secular world.
After a discernment process, associates become affiliated with the order, meet regularly with his or her companion at the monastery or correspond by mail. They join the sisters in prayer whenever possible. The Carmelites have associates in places as far away as Alaska.
Barbara Grothe, a Bettendorf resident and mother of three, will be inducted as an associate this summer. She has been a spiritual companion with Sister Carol Strzynski for three years.
"I find it very nourishing," Grothe said. "It helps me focus and keeps me on my toes...We both share our hopes, our dreams, our troubles and our aspirations. I enjoy that connection. If I have a question, I can call her. If I have a difficult time, I can talk to her."
Grothe has helped organize a discussion group for other lay people that meets on Tuesdays during Lent at the monastery.
"All I have to do is mention it to people, and they're jumping at the chance," she said.
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