Cloistered Silence

Father Brian Geary
January 25, 2020


Just miles from the hippy heaven of Woodstock in upstate New York, Cloistered Silence is an inside look into a secret life of prayer and holiness of a group of religious women who seek union with God in the wilderness. Escaping the dictatorship of noise that anesthetizes modern man in his unbelief, these religious sisters show the world that there is a way to love God with one's whole mind, heart, soul and strength in a radical vocation of solitude.

Listen to Cloistered Slience:


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Lord Jesus, You commanded us to love the Lord, our God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength. As we meditate on the cloistered vocation in the church, and the men and women who seek to love You in such a singular and powerful way, give us the Grace, like them, to be completely single-minded in our service to You, to give You the glory that is Your due, and that we may radiate the love of the Holy Spirit to the church and to the world. We ask this through the same Christ, our Lord. Amen. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of The Holy Spirit.

Tonight's presentation is, is fairly unique, I think, because we're speaking about a vocation in the church which is not readily visible to many people. One of the purposes of parish priests who go to a monastery on sabbatical, as I was privileged to do, is so that they could come out and tell the world about what goes on there.

Their whole life is a hidden, secluded life on purpose. They want to be hidden with Christ in God, and they're very protective of their hiddenness and their secrecy. It is only through guests who can attend a monastery, like I did, who can experience the life of these particular Sisters and the monastery, and is one of those forms of sustenance for them to keep their monastery going. So tonight, hopefully I can do them justice for the experience that I had and even shed some light on this beautiful vocation in the church. First, the community I visited is called, and this might be the longest name in religious history, their title, The Monastic Family of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin and of Saint Bruno.

So that is the full title of their community. But the reason why they have such a long title is because the community developed over time, which I'll go into briefly. And they brought in certain elements, especially from the Eastern church, through Saint Bruno, who they adopted as their kind of big brother in this community. As you may or may not know, Saint Bruno was the founder of the Carthusian Order. And the Carthusians take their name from the Grand Chartreuse, which is this place in France, in the Alps where this plot of land that was given through Bruno's intervention for this fledgling group of monks who wanted to, like the Eastern monks of old, leave the world and go into the desert to be alone with God.

So on November 1st, 1950, in Saint Peter Square, Pope Pius the 12th proclaimed the dogma of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven. And there was a small group of French pilgrims on hand in Saint Peter Square as well as the other multitude were there. And from that moment, this small band of pilgrims got the inspiration for this community right there during the proclamation of the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Their first chapter was in Bethlehem, in the Holy Land. So you see the names starting to come together a little: Monastic Family of Bethlehem, of the Assumption of the Virgin. And then: "of Saint Bruno". As they went on, their spirituality developed with the foundress, Sister Marie. And so as she lived, she began to form the community according to the inspiration she received, and the other group received. This community boasts of something unique in the church, and that is, they say that they do not have a human founder, but the Blessed Virgin Mary is the foundress of the community. And, this took some convincing of Vatican officials, because Vatican officials are very skeptical about new communities.

They want to make sure that they're on solid footing, and the constitutions are solid. They don't want to just give approval willy-nilly to anyone who comes and says, "somebody told me to start an order." And when they said that "the Blessed Mother is our foundress", they were justifiably skeptical at the beginning. But after getting to know the group of pilgrims who received this inspiration, they eventually received papal approval. Worldwide, there are 600 nuns and 70 monks in this community, and there are 30 monasteries of sisters and 4 of brother monks, in 15 different countries. The chapter or the community in the United States, the only one of this, a religious family, is in Livingston Manor, New York, which is about 13 miles from Woodstock. Yeah, that's right, the "Woodstock." So when I found out that I was close to Woodstock, I'm like, come out, hey, I was born before Woodstock went down, so I thought, I've got to go to Woodstock while I'm out here.

So on a break, we went to Woodstock. I blessed the land so I can say that I did that. But Livingston Manor, New York is in the Catskills mountain range, in New York state. If any of you have been there, it's a beautiful mountain range. And, they have 1,500 acres of land in the Catskills, which is sufficient to have a silent location. The Grand Chartreuse, if you want to look that up on the internet or if any of you have seen the movie, Into Great Silence. It's an over-three-hour movie about the Carthusians and the Carthusians take their name from "chartreuse." So that's the Anglicized version of it. But, the Carthusians live a monastic life of solitude. And they started in the French Alps. If you were to look that up, you'll see this grand expanse of Alps and this monastery carved into a niche within the mountains of the Alps.

And so The Monastic Family of Bethlehem tries, intentionally, to find remote locations, so that they can ensure silence, getting enough property so that you have enough quiet. It's not possible, especially in the Holy Land. There in Jerusalem, there's rockets going over, fighter pilots, there's ambulances constantly going on. But, even those who visit their house in the Holy Land speak of a serenity and a peace that is palpable, even there. But, thank God in our big country, especially up in the Northeast where it's mountainous and filled with forest and wilderness, there's plenty of room for them. Their mission is simple but profound: to live with the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she lives in the Three Divine Persons of the Trinity.

So when Mary was assumed into heaven, she was assumed into the Three Divine Persons. Their life, as religious women, is to live with her in the Trinity, as much as possible, on earth. It's a beautiful, sublime kind of vocation. And, because the foundress is the Blessed Mother, but the human operator, Sister Marie was from France, most of the religious women are French. Most of the chapters are in France. But, because of the French influence, which we'll talk about later, we'll see how their emphasis on divine beauty is affected powerfully and especially aided by the French culture. Many of us are not familiar with French culture, but just being around the nuns for a month, you do get a real feel of what it's like because you can transplant a person from a different, from France into another country, but you can't take that out of the out of the woman. So, the beauty of the grounds is only surpassed by the beauty and intelligence of the Sisters. One of the things that strikes a visitor there, to this monastery, is how beautiful and feminine these women are. It's striking.

It's powerful. And most people that I have spoken to or have written stories about their visits to their monasteries throughout the world, have the same impressions. These women are beautifully feminine and intelligent. They speak and sing and several different languages. Four or five or maybe six languages I heard them singing, in that month that I was there. One of them, I found out through a deacon, who is their caretaker of the community, of the grounds, said one of them was an executive in a Fortune 500 company, in Chicago. The other was an architect graduate from MIT.

They hail from several different countries. They're talented, intelligent, beautiful women who could have done anything they wanted in their life, but they chose the better part as our Lord said. When Martha and Mary were in the home, and Martha was busy about many things, and our Lord said, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. Only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part and it shall not be taken from her." These women have chosen the better part, and it's striking, in your first impression of the community. They live in silence and solitude. Like the Carthusians, they live in solitude. They observe grand silence all the time. They don't speak. In fact, the women speak at prayer. Well most of the prayer is sung, and I'll play a little bit for you just to give you a sense of what it was like.

But, they live in solitude in Hermitages. Now, the Hermitage is like a little log cabin house. It's not a hut or a teepee or lean-to. Okay, so it's fairly comfortable and spacious for one person, but each of them live in separate Hermitages, as they're called, that are aligned around this beautiful lake in the mountains, up in the top of where the chapel is. And those who are on retreat, and visit the monastery are about a half a mile away in their own secluded part, just to keep the cloister there. But each has their own Hermitage where they dwell with the Lord in silence. They come together twice a day for morning and evening prayer as well as for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, which they do on feast days and solemnities all night before the celebration of the feast and the morning prayer and Mass. And then also on every Thursday evening too, there is Adoration.

They do manual labor each day for a few hours. And one of my first impressions too, of these women, is that they're all in tremendous shape. I mean, they're all in a habit: a Carthusian habit, which is head to toe hooded and a white habit probably made of cotton or linen is something thick. But if you were to, you could have put a Olympic women athletes into these habits, and they would match up perfectly with the women who are there. Because of their strict diet and their manual labor, these women are in outstanding physical condition. And so that hit you. It hits you when you walk in there. There are no overweight sisters. And they range in age probably from about 25 until 80, maybe 85. Some might be fooling me. They might be 90, but they look so good. They look look younger to me.

They also study Catholic teaching and philosophy, especially Saint Thomas Aquinas. So their intellectual life is very rigorous, as well as their spiritual life and physical life. That makes for a very, very powerful combination as well as silence. It's a manifestation of femininity that most people don't get a chance to see. I think every young woman should see it or I mean any person or man for that matter should see these women and how they live. It's just to observe them is fascinating and transformative. They live the liturgical life of the church intensely, so their days and seasons are based on sacred time. How the church calculates time. It's based on the liturgical calendar. Solemnities and feast days are celebrated with much more celebration within the liturgy. They may even allow themselves a little extra food on those days. By the way, the food that they prepare for the retreatants, I was told, that we get every day is what they only eat on Solemnitiies, and Christmas, and Easter.

And after being there a month, I lost 13 pounds without trying based on the food they gave me. And those meals are the equivalent only on feast days and Solemnities. So, you can imagine what they eat otherwise. They live in intense, the Ascetical too. But their days and seasons are governed by sacred time. So they celebrate feast days intensely and liturgical seasons. Their entire day, their entire understanding of time is based on the liturgical calendar of the church. So they're very much in tune with approaching feast days: spiritually preparing for them, physically preparing for them. Their prayers reflect also what they're celebrating in a very intentional way. So it's very interesting and fascinating, constantly what they're preparing for, what they're praying about. You wouldn't consider it boring in any way.

And they're not concerned with what modern man is concerned about in the world: about urgency, anxiety, materiality, time constraints. They're under no, no such restrictions there. They just live the life of the church intensely the way we should live in faithfulness to Jesus, in contradiction to the world. So silence governs everything in the monastery, and they only communicate through notes and only through prayer. Once a week, they'll speak for an hour, during their walk on Sunday afternoon. And, once you're quiet all week, you make the most of that hour. And I think after the hours done, you've had enough talking for the week. After a while they get used to it. You can tell everything about a person and especially these women through their face, which is only visible through the habit, their hands and their voice. That's what I discovered. You can tell everything about a woman through her hands, her face, and her voice. Nothing else is necessary. You can say, you can tell it all right there. And so there's so much communication that goes on just in the daily life in silence, amongst them that you pick up on, even in the choir loft, just watching them even go through their prayers.

So silence keeps us from many, if not most sins. Most sins come out of our mouth. "It's not what you put into your mouth," Our Lord said, "that the defiles you, its what comes out of your mouth that defiles you." By eliminating speech, you eliminate probably 95% of your sins. So these women are very intelligent. They, saw the truth and how to live it intensely and they said, "that's for me. I'm going to use my intelligence to choose that life." They're very intelligent, not just on an IQ test, and they would probably be very high end, but they're very wise people. They figured it out. If you want to get Holy, you don't talk. Silence fosters a continual conversation with God. And the sisters that have chosen to lay at the feet of Jesus and listen to His words, rather than to be active.

Silence is indispensable for the spiritual life and a remedy for the dictatorship of noise. Among the many books I read (because that's all I could do in the Hermitage in complete silence, was pray and read), one of the books I read was The Dictatorship of Noise or The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, by Cardinal (Robert) Sarah. It's a wonderful book. So I recommend that book. But, he says that noise anesthetizes modern man in his atheism. That's kind of a mouthful, but God dwells, speaks, acts; He is found, discovered, worshiped, and heard in silence and only in silence. This is what Cardinal Sarah, the head of The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, in the Vatican, in his book, which I recommend too: The Power of Silence. So these women have figured that out and they live that intensely.

The night before the feast of Saint Bruno, which is probably one of their biggest feasts of the year, their chaplain left and went away for two weeks. So they said, "You're the only priest here. Can you celebrate the feast of Saint Bruno for us?" Wow. This is your big day. They also include Eastern elements into the ritual, including the icons and a lot of incense and other Eastern gestures. So needless to say, I was a little nervous about screwing it up for these beautiful women. I didn't want to mess it up. So I did a crash course on some of their liturgical movements that night before. But one of the most beautiful experience I had was participating in evening prayer, which is the night before, for the feast of Saint Bruno. And the Mother Prioress went through several scripture passages to remind the Sisters of the reason that they're there in the first place.

Everyone, no matter what vocation they're in, has to be reminded: why am I doing this?

Everyone, no matter what vocation they're in, has to be reminded: why am I doing this? Why did God call me? What is this for? What is my purpose? And so the the Mother Prioress went through several scripture passages, which I'll share with you, that related to the nuns, and I found it very powerful. The first was from Lamentations, chapter 3, verses 21 to 29. These were read during the evening prayer, as the Sisters listened on, and myself, and maybe one other person was in the choir loft. We were privileged to be, to hear this. But the scripture passages moved me very much too. "But I call this to mind as my reason to have hope. The favors of the Lord are not exhausted. His mercies are not spent. They are renewed each morning, so great is His faithfulness. "My portion is the Lord," says my soul. "Therefore, while I hope in Him." Good is the Lord to one who waits for Him, to the soul that seeks Him. It is good to hope in silence, for the saving help of the Lord. It is good for a man to bear the yoke from his youth. Let him sit alone and in silence when it is laid upon him, let him put his mouth to the dust. There may yet be hope."

These women have put their face to the dust. They put their mouth into the dirt, because they hope in the Lord. Their solitude purifies their senses. Their hearing is purified by chanted prayer, not by the noise or cacophony of music or of the world. Their sight is purified by the beauty of nature. Their taste is purified by a plain, meager diet. Their smell is purified by nature and in incense. Their touch is purified by manual labor, kneeling on stone, veneration of icons, and their simple cotton habit.

These things are their lot and it facilitates their holiness. It makes holiness much easier because their hope is in the Lord and they have placed their mouth into the dirt, into the dust. In First Kings, when Elijah was on the run for his life, from the Evil Jezebel, he was directed by God into a cave. In First Kings, chapter 19, verses 9 to 13. So, First Kings 19, verses 9 to 13. And, she read this next: "There he came to a cave, where he took shelter. But the Word of the Lord came to him saying, "Why are you here, Elijah?" He answered, "I've been most zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts, but the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and put Your profits to the sword. I am alone, left and they seek to take my life." Then the Lord said, "Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord. The Lord will be passing by." A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave."

These sisters wait for that tiny whispering sound in their silence, and the Lord speaks to them that way in a tiny whispering sound.

"Also, the King desires your beauty." The Psalm 45 says. "Listen, my daughter, (and she read this next) and understand. Pay me careful heed. Forget your people and your father's house, that the King might desire your beauty. He is your Lord. Honor him, Daughter of Tyre"

These women are authentic and feminine. Their movements and posture are graceful. Maybe I'm just a cowboy American, but just watching the women walk and pray and genuflect and bow in a very feminine way. It's very French. It's something that we can appreciate in America. For those who had any exposure to French culture, they're very careful about fostering beauty. And these women showed that beauty, and the King desired their beauty, and they offered their beauty to him, especially as they, the last posture they do at the end of the night. And this is what I want to play for you briefly, if my battery holds up here, at the end of their last prayer at night prayer, before they retire to the Hermitage, the Sisters sing the Salve Regina. And after the Salve Regina, they use a gesture--a posture--that the Carthusians are known for. They literally fall over on the ground, dead out of love for God, is the last act they make in the day. It's so powerfully moving. It's something that the visitors don't want to miss, up in the choir loft. As we watched the nuns below us, literally give everything they can, that they have, to God, their beloved spouse.

Hosea said, "I will allure her into the desert and speak to her heart." This was the next passage that the Mother Prioress said. That's what these sisters have done. They've allowed the Lord to allure them, and to bring them into the desert where the Lord can speak to them. The prophet Hosea says, in Second Hosea 14 and following, "I will lay waste her vines and fig trees of which he said, these are the higher my lovers have given me. I will turn them into rank growth, and wild beasts shall devour them. I will punish her for the days of the bowels, for whom she burned incense while she decked herself out with her rings and her jewels and then going after her lover's forgotten, says the Lord.""

"Therefore I will hedge in her way with thorns and erect a wall against her so that she cannot find her paths. So I will allure her. I will speak to her in the desert and speak to her heart. From there I will give her the vineyards she had and the Valley of the Achor is the door of hope. She shall respond there, as in the days of her youth when she came up from the land of Egypt. On that day, says the Lord. She shall call me, "my husband," and never again my Baal. Then I will remove from her mount the names of Baals so that they shall no longer be invoked. I will espouse thee to me forever, and I will espouse thee in right and in justice and love and in mercy. I will espouse thee in fidelity and thou shalt know that I am the Lord."

After that, then they sing this song, to sort of cap off this complete devotion to our Lord through the intercession of Saint Bruno. This is the Salve Regina. It's three and a half minutes. I'll just play a portion of it so you get a sense of what their chant sounded like on a daily basis as they prayed evening prayer, which takes me seven or eight minutes. It took them almost an hour. Just gives you some idea of how they pray.


That goes on for three more minutes. Just that's just one of the several hymns they sing. This was in Latin. They, sung in Aramaic, Greek, French. Arabic too, because the young lady from MIT was also Lebanese and she, it was a beautiful experience. We were there just a week and the Sister was making her final profession after probably six or seven years in the monastery. I was grateful to be uninvited to that final profession. I didn't rate, which I thought was a real compliment because it's such an intensely personal experience for the Sister. I didn't qualify. I'd only been there a couple of weeks. It wasn't enough time. But after her final profession, they have a tradition of her having a candle for the next five days, a lit candle as she has been espoused to her husband, our Lord Jesus Christ.

So there was a five day nuptual celebration of her new groom, as she was a new bride. So each time they came together for prayer or Mass, she had her beautiful long candle. The end of the five days she, and it was like the end of the reg of the marriage feast. The Mother Prioress took an icon of the Holy Cross, and in French they left the chapel singing in French chant, holding up the cross as the Mother walked out and the Sister, with her candle for the final time, walked behind the cross and the other nuns in procession sang her back into her Hermitage. I thought to myself, the scripture passage came to mind: "Many have longed to see what you see and have not seen it. Many have long to hear what you hear and have not heard it. Blessed are your eyes for they have seen, and blessed are your ears for they have heard.

I came back to my Hermitage that night and I wrote in a journal entry. Indeed, myself and another priest were in the choir loft, and blessed were our eyes and our ears for having seen and heard that which is hidden to the world but yet was so beautiful and significant and powerful that it's something I need to speak about, because their life was that powerfully transformative, and also to let the rest of the church know and the world know what kind of life they live and that there is a way to love God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength in a vocation such as this.

The last thing I wanted to say is in the Gospel of Saint Matthew, chapter 24. This scripture I've heard many times and preached about several times, but it had deep significance for me, in the community, and this was near the end of my time there, and so this scripture passage was read as it was the Gospel for the day. "Therefore stay awake, for you do not know which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this. If the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared for at an hour you do not expect the Son of Man will come."

These Sisters pray that the Lord comes. And, in the evening prayer, they sing Maranatha--come Lord Jesus--in Greek, and they finish evening prayer with this extended, chant of whether it's just com or in Greek, soliciting their divine spouse to return, to establish His reign finally, and to dispel evil and to come and consummate in time His promise to the church and to the world. So these women stand ready. They know the Divine Thief will come at an hour we did not expect. So for Him, they're up day and night, ready for Him to come. And so when the Lord comes, I know they'll be ready.

(answers to audience questions provided, in the recording.)

About the Speaker:

Father Geary was born in Evergreen Park, IL as one of nine children. He attended St. Bede the Venerable Parish and school. He next attended Quigley South High School, graduating in 1984.

Father was awarded a Chick Evans Scholarship to Marquette University where he majored in Philosophy and minored in Business Administration. After graduation from college in 1988 he entered Loyola University of Chicago School of Law earning a J.D. in 1993.

Father Geary began his studies toward the sacred priesthood at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois and completed his studies at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD. He was ordained for service as a priest for the Diocese of Rockford in May of 1998 by Bishop Doran.

His first assignment was as a parochial vicar of Holy Angels Parish in Aurora, IL . Father Geary’s first pastorate was at St. Patrick Church in Rockford, IL from 2002-2008. In July of 2008, Father was assigned pastor of St. James Catholic Church in Belvidere, IL.