Enclosure at St. Mary’s Abbey, Colwich

 

If the porter needs help, let him be given a young brother. So far as is possible, the monastery ought to be so planned that all requirements, such as water, mill, garden and the various crafts, are all available inside the enclosure, so that there may be no need for the monks to go out abroad, for this is not at all good for their souls.

 

Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 66

 

 

 

 

The physical signs of enclosure were very strict when the community was founded in the seventeenth century, with a grille (bars) and a curtain in the church. This was an expression of renewal after the great reforming Council of Trent.

 

 

In the nineteenth century, the first English Bishop to have charge of the community would not allow the nuns to put up a grille in the church and parlour, because he said English people, even Catholics, then had no experience of nuns and they would be shocked.

Strict outward forms of enclosure were adopted again in the early twentieth century, with grilles in the church and parlours at Colwich. This Papal Enclosure was seen by the nuns as an outward expression of their Solemn Vows to God. At that time, the separation of nuns from the world was emphasised by the Church.

 

 

The Parlour is so called because it is a room in which nuns can talk to visitors. In the past, there was a counter and a grille. Photo from the 1950s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The grille was taken down in 1967, and the counter was removed in 1994. Today, Mother Abbess Gertrude with a friend in the same parlour.

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Since the Second Vatican Council, in stages, the physical signs of enclosure have been removed. People can now come into the church to join the nuns for Mass, Divine Office and Benediction.

 

 

There was a grille in the Abbey Church, cuttting off the outer part, including the Sanctuary, from the nuns' Choir. Photo from the1950s.

 

 

 

 

The Sanctuary today:
there is no grille or altar rail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Today, things are more welcoming for visitors. But a large part of the house and garden is still reserved for the nuns, and there are rules about who may enter, and for what reasons the nuns may go out.

The part of the house and garden that is private to the community is called The Enclosure. Visiting nuns can come in, also people who come to do a job, like engineers or doctors.


Here at Colwich the physical setting could hardly be improved, with its spacious enclosure, magnificent trees and the Abbey facing the attractive and varied upland of Cannock Chase. The sunlight and spaciousness are specially noticeable in the sanctuary and choir which are the centre of any monastery. An enclosed nun has given up many good things for the sake of her vocation but God has still reserved for her the simple yet profound joys of the glories of nature, as well as the encouragement of her sisters who share the same aspirations. Peace and charity in a community are a great aid to a nun in her search for God. There have been many changes since Vatican II, but the principles underlying the contemplative life have not been changed but approved and encouraged by the Church.

From The Benedictine Spirit, by Dame Cecilia Thorp

 


For more information about the meaning and value of the enclosure of nuns, see selections from Church Documents


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Meaning and Value of the Enclosure of Nuns
According to Church Documents

 

 

From an Instruction on the Contemplative Life and on the Enclosure of Nuns

 

by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life 1999

 

 

The ancient spiritual tradition of the Church, taken up by the Second Vatican Council, explicitly connects the contemplative life to the prayer of Jesus on the mountain, or solitary place not accessible to all but only to those whom he calls to be with him, apart from the others.

 

The enclosure, even in its physical form, is a special way of being with the Lord, of sharing in Christ's emptying of himself by means of a radical poverty, expressed in renunciation not only of things but also of "space", of contacts, of so many benefits of creation.

 

The monastery is intended to create a space of separation, solitude and silence, where God can be sought more freely in a life not only for him and with him but also in him alone.

 

This would be pointless if the individual let her mind fly out of the enclosure:

 


Therefore it is necessary that the person, free from all attachment, disquiet or distraction, interior and exterior, may gather her faculties and turn to God to welcome his presence in the joy of adoration and praise.

 

 

In the words of Pope John Paul II to nuns:

 

In the monastery everything is directed to the search for the face of God, everything is reduced to the essential, because the only thing that matters is what leads to him. Monastic recollection is attention to the presence of God: if it is dissipated by many things, the journey slows down and the final destination disappears from view.

 

 

If nuns go on the Internet, are they breaking enclosure?

 

Contemplative silence can in fact be undermined when noise, news and talk fill the enclosure. With prudent discernment and for everyone's benefit, the use of modern means of communication, such as fax machines, cellular telephones or the Internet, may be permitted in the monastery, for the exchange of information or for reasons of work.

 

 

Nuns on the Net


Colwich first had a computer in 1991 for the Accounts.Then in 1999 the Sisters working on Accounts were equipped with e-mail and Internet connection, and launched the website. Since 2002, all members of the community are offered access to computers, including e-mail and Internet. The first thing they did was to switch off the speakers! No one will spend much time surfing, but e-mail can be very useful for keeping in touch with family.

 

 

 

 

SIGNS

 

Your enclosure
Is a sign of contradiction.

A place of dependence
on the majesty of God
A place of poverty
where richness is experienced
A place of solitude
which is a taste of the desert
A place of silence
in the midst of tumult
A place of order
where bells call to serve
A place of peace
in times of confusion
A place of certainty
in days of doubt
A place of hospitality
that welcomes the caller
A place of flame
to lighten the darkness
A place of prayer
which is the essence of being

In this place we each find God
and know that when for a while we lose him
He is there waiting for our return.

 

Chris McDonnell