Christmas in the Redemptoristine monastery in Dublin is a thing of joy. “It’s a huge event in the community,” Sr Lucy, Superior at the monastery tells me and I can feel the sheer happiness oozing from her. “We are like an extended family, though only God could have put us together. It is a beautiful time of the year.”
The Offaly woman who worked for 15 years in the Bronx before entering the order as a late vocation, has been the Superior of the monastery for two years. There are 15 women religious in the enclosed contemplative community who live a life centred around the Liturgy of the Hours, the Eucharist, personal prayer and contemplation.
Much of their day is lived out in silence and from the time they enter the order, they remain within the grounds of the St Alphonsus Road monastery in Dublin. They support themselves financially by producing altar breads and candles.
So how different is Christmas in an enclosed cloister? At one level it is like the Christmas ordinary people live – exchanging presents, telling stories around the fire, savouring a turkey dinner, catching up on old friends – but at another it is completely different.
“We don’t get caught up in the commercial stuff,” says Sr Lucy. “We live the month of December soaking up the meaning of Advent so on Christmas Eve we are bursting with joy. Christmas begins on Christmas Eve night.”
The sisters moved into the modern monastery in May 2000 after selling off the old monastery and a parcel of land. The new building with the cloister and an enclosed garden at its centre, comprises of a reception area and parlour, a kitchen and refectory, a community room, bedrooms, offices, a scriptorium (like a library), the candle room and a beautiful circular chapel and sacristy. Down a corridor from the main building is the altar bread department where the sisters work each day producing, packing and dispatching the altar breads.
When the monastery was built, Sr Gabrielle, its former Superior, had the idea of putting a video camera in the chapel so that ill or infirm sisters could follow mass and the prayer services each day from their rooms.
Out of this came the live webcam which broadcasts the sisters’ prayers and masses 24/7 on the internet. (see www.churchservices.tv/redemptoristines or www.rednuns.com/webcam). Through the live stream which is always on, this enclosed community has become part of the lives of tens of thousands of people all over the world.
Does this not break the enclosure? “People join us for prayer from all over the world and it is not at all invasive and we are not even conscious of the camera. They pray with us and we pray for them…all united in one praying family,” says Sr Lucy. During their nine-day novena to our Lady of Perpetual Help in October, 21,000 people joined them from 46 countries, and they have webcam stats that an Irish company would be proud of. On December 7, for example, they had over 1,300 viewers.
Many requests come in each day for specific intentions on line and all are replied to, says Sr Lucy, and they receive many prayer intentions at their shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and “in other ways too”.
The sisters live December in joyful expectation and waiting, trying to hold onto the liturgical time of Advent – getting ready, waiting for Christ. Then a day and a half before Christmas, they “spring into action”.
The Christmas decorations go up on Christmas Eve – a Christmas tree in the reception and community room, and cribs “all over the place”. The largest crib is in the Cloister and has been in use since 1859.
Christmas really begins with the 8pm vigil Mass on Christmas Eve in the circular chapel which is packed to capacity and decorated with beautiful floral arrangements which are brought in just as the mass begins. Members of the public sit or stand behind a low wooden barrier, marking the enclosure. The sisters sit or kneel in front of it. A number of the sisters have formed an “ensemble mini orchestra”. Sr Maura is on flute, Sr Maria is on organ, Sr Gabrielle plays harp, Sr Ali plays violin, Sr Petra is on recorder and Sr Lucy on cello. “Nessun Dorma is our signature tune. We’ll probably play that this year. All our gifts are for the community,” says Sr Lucy.
They are not meant to go outside the enclosure but after the vigil and Christmas Day masses, they break the silence and the enclosure to greet all their local friends. “Charity comes first,” Sr Lucy explains. Many of their friends from the community give them gifts – things to eat, turf for the fire, maybe a bottle of wine.
By the time Mass is over and they have said all their goodbyes to their friends it is 9.30pm or 10pm. “We meet in the refectory and chat about the Mass, maybe over a cup of tea or hot chocolate.” Then it is time for bed. The great silence begins at 10pm and even with the excitement and joy of Christmas, they try to observe it.
On Christmas morning, probably like many a house in Ireland, there is no sleep in. The sisters rise at 6.30am and are in chapel for 6.55am meditation. “Is it different in any way on Christmas morning?” I ask. “It is different because Jesus Christ is born in the world, that is our focus,” says Sr Lucy. “You are just bursting with joy. There’s no other way you can be.”
They have morning prayer at 7.25am and then at 8am, tuck into the first feast of the day – a breakfast prepared by the Slovak, German and Czech sisters featuring samples of their national cheeses and sausages. Meals are normally eaten in silence. “On Christmas morning we wish each other a happy Christmas before breakfast and embrace each other. Everybody is in festive mood, and then we eat our breakfast in silence,” says Sr Lucy.
At 9.10am they retire to the chapel for ‘The Little Hour’ (part of the divine office) followed by Mass at 9.30am. Fr Pat O’Donoghue, “a gorgeous, praying priest”, says the Mass. He is much loved by the nuns. “God sent him to us,” comments Sr Lucy.
After Mass once again there is the exchange of greetings with members of the public.
“People bring us gifts. We try to hear what they are feeling out in the midst of the madness of the world. We try to listen to their pleas. It is not easy in the world,” says Sr Lucy.
At 11am they watch the Pope’s message to the Christians of the world – Urbe et Orbe – on TV and then await their traditional visitors –confreres from the Order – the Provincial of the Redemptorist priests, Fr Dan Baragry CSsR with a couple of brother Redemptorists. Sipping coffee and eating mince pies, the entire community sits around the fire in the community room catching up on the news and work of the Redemptorist men – who is back from the missions, how the Fathers living abroad are doing.
After the departure of their priest friends, the sisters have a light lunch – usually something given to them as a gift. “We might have quiche – a dish we consider a luxury, and then we scatter”. The sisters from abroad Skype their families. Sr Lucy checks the turkey which she put in the oven at 6am to “cook slowly”. Some sisters take care of the older or infirm nuns who need “a lot of care”.
By 2pm nearly all the women are back in the kitchen. Each has her own task. Sr Margaret makes the soup. Sr Gabrielle prepares the starter. Sr Mura whips the cream. Others peel potatoes or vegetables. They work in silence, except for the odd “Will you check on that gravy?” Sr Jacinta, now aged 90, carves the turkey. She has lots of experience – she has been doing it 70 years!
“Do you ever fight in the kitchen?” I ask. I mean there are a lot of cooks – plenty of potential to “spoil the broth”. What if the turkey gets burnt or the potatoes overcooked? I put the questions to Sr Lucy and she remains adamant and serene. “No. There is an absolutely wonderful atmosphere. It is not sheer silence. We’ll ask things like ‘How is it going? Is that hot enough? It’s great!”
At 4.30pm, the Redemptoristine nuns return to the chapel for Solemn Evening Prayer which lasts thirty minutes, after which they adjourn to the refectory for Christmas dinner. The youngest member of the community, Máire Bríd, a novice of 28, reads the Gospel of the day.
I ask Sr Gabrielle, former Superior of the monastery, if they ‘take a drink’ with Christmas dinner? Yes, some do, she replies. Christmas dinner is eaten slowly and while there is great merriment, it is also a solemn time. They savour the meal, taking time to chat between courses. “This is a table of fellowship,” explains Sr Gabrielle. “It is an extension of the Eucharist.”
After Christmas dinner they open their presents.
“Do you buy presents for each other?” I ask. An emphatic “NO” is the rejoinder from Sr Lucy, but they do exchange gifts. Sr Maura, for example, is “great at making things”. Last year she moulded two-inch-high figurines which she painted in the Redemptoristine habit colours.
On the face of each figurine she stuck a picture of the face of the sister for whom it was destined. Meanwhile, Sr Gabrielle made gifts of candles, one for each member of the community. Some gave theirs away to family members. They receive gifts too from the staff who work with them in the altar bread department.
After dinner comes the big wash up and then they move into the community room next door to sing carols around the open turf fire.
There are 40 Redemp-toristine monasteries around the world and it is customary at Christmastime for each monastery to write a letter updating the other communities on the life of that particular monastery. As the nuns, sated after their wonderful meal, sit around the open fire, Sr Lucy or one of the others, reads out some of these letters and like in an extended family, they enjoy hearing news of the order – the deaths, illnesses, novices, projects, joys and sufferings.
After recreation, usually around 8.30pm, though it could be later, the sisters pray the Solemn Night Prayer in the chapel. Afterwards some of the sisters might go to bed, others might stay up. “Sometimes people give us a DVD and we might look at that.”
“Charity comes before anything else.”