The Trappistines: Powerhouse of prayer, lungs of the church

O Clarim Special Feature

The Capela de Nossa Senhora da Penha is a small church in Macau, located on the historic Penha Hill. The locals used to recall that it is a church built in the fort, which was used to pray for navigators in olden times. It used to be the Bishop’s Palace, the residence of the bishop of Macau. Today, the beautiful and tranquil scene of the Penha Hill provides a dwelling place to a community of nuns of the Monastery of Our Lady Star of Hope, who try to follow Jesus Christ through a life of prayer, silence, simplicity and ordinary work. The nuns belong to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as “Trappistines”. Together with the male branch of the order, the “Trappists”, they follow the Rule of St. Benedict, living consecrated lives as contemplative monastic religious.

The Trappistines nuns are cloistered. This means that they live inside the enclosure of the monastery, rarely venturing into the outside world so that they can dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to God in prayer and solitude. This life in the enclosure, characterized by sacrifice and contemplation seems strange to many in today’s world with its obsession with fame. But the deep life of prayer that these nuns immerse themselves in is for the benefit of that world.

As a spiritual writer wrote: “Monasteries of enclosed nuns have been likened to the rainforests; we rarely give them much thought, but in a mysterious way our survival is dependent upon these ‘lungs of the world.’ Trappistine nuns are like the ‘lungs of the Church,’ breathing in God’s living Spirit.” The Trappistine cloistered nuns of Macau are women who have discovered the absolute value of the Kingdom of God, and wish to realize this in their monastery, as a praying community at the service of the Catholic Diocese of Macau and the whole Church. They commit themselves to live in intimate union with Jesus, God and man, in order to make present today the plan God has for humankind.

In simplicity, silence and separation from dominant culture, the Trappistine nuns balance the practices of prayer, reading and work.

Their day consists of periods of work, prayer, and being together. The type of work varies between monasteries. The community in Macau support themselves through their monastery cookies, creating greetings cards or making other crafts. Much of the day they spend in silence, as specified by the community rules. The celebration of the Divine Office, the Eucharist and community life are the most important parts of the nuns’ life. Though it is common to speak of the monks or nuns in general as having “left the world,” in actual fact many monasteries are at the heart of their local communities.

The Trappistines of Macau are often visited by people with requests for prayer and friendly advice. Whilst the nuns are usually not in regular communication with the outside world (limited use of media), their vocation demands that they know the needs and hopes of the society in which they live, and so they are not cut off completely. They, however, maintain that: “There is indeed some degree of separation from the outside world — so that we may continually renew ourselves and the world through prayer. Our deep inner lives, distinct daily rhythms and shared spiritual journey become a continuous prayer of life — to God and for the world.”

The Trappistines of Macau seek to pray constantly, whatever they are doing, thus following wholeheartedly the centuries’ old Rule of St. Benedict.

Monastic life according to the Rule of St. Benedict rests on a tripod of three activities: prayer, holy reading (Lectio Divina), and work. The monastic day moves back and forth between these activities. The nuns fully affirm this: “We believe in the power of deep, contemplative prayer, and we pursue it wholeheartedly by following the centuries’ old Rule of St. Benedict. In simplicity, silence and separation from dominant culture, we balance the practices of prayer, reading and work.” The Trappistines of Macau seek to pray constantly, whatever they are doing. Stopping work periodically to pray helps them remember what they are about; and stopping prayer to work is necessary to support themselves, to help their prayer, and simply to participate in normal human life.

The Superior of the monastery, Sister Caterina, told us that just recently, on September 16, 2022, Pope Francis spoke to the assembled Trappists family superiors as part of the order’s General Chapter held in Assisi, Italy. Sister Caterina, herself, was in Rome to take part in this assembly. In the assembly, the Pope counseled the Abbots and Abbesses: “There are no charisms that are missionary and others that are not. All charisms, insofar as they are given to the Church, are for the evangelization of the people, that is, missionary; naturally in different, very different ways, according to God’s “fantasy”. A monk who prays in his monastery does his part in bringing the Gospel to that land, in teaching the people who live there that we have a Father who loves us, and, in this world, we are on our way to Heaven.”

Sister Caterina is happy to share with us that Dom Bernardus, the newly-elected abbot general of the Trappist Order, had opened this year’s General Chapter by inviting all the superiors of the order to share their dreams, four dreams: “a dream of communion, a dream of participation, a dream of mission, and a dream of formation.” As for these dreams, Pope Francis remarked: “I’d like to summarize them as a dream of holiness, renewing this invitation, ‘Let the grace of your Baptism bear fruit in a journey of holiness. Let everything be open to God and to this end choose Him, choose God again and again. Do not be discouraged, for you have the power of the Holy Spirit to make it possible, and holiness, after all, is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life.’”