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How does Cloistering Serve God at the Highest Level?

June 3, 2013 by  
Filed under Cloister, Fr. Bartunek

Dear Father John, my question is “How does cloistering serve God at the highest level?” Let me explain the origin of my question. In college, I was introduced for the first time to Hasidic Jews. My initial impression was that I found it odd that they Nonne_im_Kreuzgang,_1930 Wikimedia Commons for post on cloisteringisolated themselves so much from others in their pursuit of faith-purity. Couldn’t it be considered odd to say one is devoted to God, creator of humanity, and then to separate oneself from 99% of humanity? Then, I was introduced to Buddhism and again, I wondered how God was served if I was sitting in the lotus position for hours on end. How do monks serve God by chanting in a mountain monastery of Tibet when people nearby might be starving or need a strapping young man to help them build a house? I can see how a cloistered life might serve ME and the deepening of MY faith, but if it is equated with a marriage, it would be like me never leaving my house because I was infatuated with my husband. In that case, who else profits from my being alive? And from my own perspective, since my family has stopped going to church mainly because of the sad state of homilies, Masses, and priests in American (in general), I can’t figure out why it wouldn’t make more sense to have more dedicated people take that route, rather than the cloister, in order to help with the most urgent needs of the Church.

Your broad inquiry includes more than one question. Let’s see if I can dissect and comment coherently.

First, what’s the use of a cloistered life? Or, to put the question in its starkest frame, a hermitical life? What a great question! There are at three basic uses for this kind of life. The first one is the most interesting.

The Mystical Body of Christ

As you know, the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ. Together, the members of the Church extend Christ’s incarnation into every corner of time of space. In a sense, the Church as a whole embodies and reprises Christ’s own experience; we unfold in every age, culture, situation, and place the fullness of the mystery of Christ. And that mystery is multifaceted. Jesus, as we know from the Gospels, spent much time living with his family and working 9-to-5 (so to speak) in Nazareth. He also experienced poverty, rejection, suffering, injustice, and death. He also went into the desert to pray and discern for an extended period of time. He also cured the sick, liberated the possessed, taught the ignorant, instructed the spiritually thirsty, fed the hungry. He often would go off alone to pray… And I could go on and on.

By his incarnation, Jesus sanctified all these human experiences. And the Church continues to show forth this sanctification in the many different vocations that the Holy Spirit calls forth within her. And each of the individual vocations, from Blessed Mother Teresa’s nuns, to Trappist monks, to families who live a normal working life, to priests who preach, to missionaries who build schools – all of these vocations together, as a whole, reflect the full mystery of Christ, while each one individually glorifies God and contributes to the saving mission of the Church in a particular way. And only the Holy Spirit can really see the whole picture. We only get glimpses every once in awhile of how the different pieces fit together.

Cloistered Missionaries

One of my favorite examples is St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She was a cloistered nun whom God called to offer her prayers and sacrifices up for missionary priests. She was given supernatural knowledge of how many missionaries her prayers and sacrifices were sustaining, spiritually – it was around 20,000. She was “Christ in the desert” praying and sacrificing in reparation for sin, and her missionary brothers and sons were “Christ among the crowds” preaching and teaching and healing.

But there are other examples too, less dramatic. Think about all the non-cloistered people who benefit, spiritually, from being able to make retreats to convents, under the direction of nuns and monks who have dedicated themselves to growing in spiritual wisdom. Think of all the amazing spiritual books that have benefited thousands and thousands and thousands of people through the centuries, books that contain spiritual wisdom that could only have come through the special experience of God granted to those who seek him in the blooming deserts of the cloister. Etc.

In It Together

God wants us to need each other, and learn from each other, and show forth the magnificent variety of God’s spiritual glory (the variety of love) in this way. One could equally ask, “Why did God create so many flowers? What’s the use of so many different flowers, even the ones in the wilderness that no one sees?” The variety and the varied spectacle of all the many different vocations being lived out in intimate fidelity to God’s wisdom are an explosion of spiritual beauty that will be one of the main sources of the eternal joy of heaven.

This helps us understand the difference between Catholic cloistered spirituality and Buddhist monasticism or Hasidic Jewry. Ours is part of the Mystical Body, a response to a particular call from God, and plays into the bigger picture. It is not just a self-absorbed path to nirvana or a holy huddle used as a fortress against the big-bad-world. When it is used in that way, it is used wrongly, and causes problems.

Trouble at Sunday Mass

Then you vented about horrible homilies and ugly Masses. Well, I don’t have an easy answer for this one. (Though I did do a post on how to deal with these, on a personal level: But let me ask you to do a thought experiment.

Imagine that all the priests who were alive and working today were suddenly turned into saints – no more laziness, selfishness, irresponsibility; just wisdom, zeal, burning love… Things would be very different, right? The Church would still have a lot of work to do, but much of the venting you did in your question would be irrelevant. And many of the young men that God is surely calling the priesthood would have a better chance of hearing and heeding the call.

The Real Question

So, the real question is, why aren’t more priests holier? Why aren’t all priests saints? And if that’s the real question, then let’s pose another question. Why aren’t all Catholic moms and dads saints? Why aren’t all Catholic teenagers saints? After all, we have had holy priests through the ages, and holy moms and dads and teenagers, so we know it’s possible. So why do we have so many miserable sinners who make such a mediocre or downright counterproductive witness to the beauty and truth of the Catholic faith?

That’s the question you are really asking. At least, that’s how it seems to me. And there is no easy answer that I have been able to find. In the history of the Church, faithful Christians have been able to do a lot of good for a lot of people, but unfaithful Christians have impeded the Church’s work and even done horribly destructive things. This is the theme of the famous parable about the weeds and wheat (Matthew 13:24-30), though the parable of the sower is also relevant (Matthew 13:1-23). Why does God permit the weeds and the wheat to grow up side by side? Why does he allow his seed to fall on rocky ground? He has his reasons. His patience is, as St. Peter put it in 2 Peter 3:15, to be “considered as salvation.” God doesn’t fix everything right away; he patiently and mercifully puts up with our misery and somehow weaves it into his tapestry of redemption. In other words, he doesn’t approach salvation the way you and I would if we were all-powerful and all-knowing. And that, I truly believe, should give us a lot to meditate on.

I hope these thoughts are of some use. God bless you!

PS: If we have cloistered readers it would be great to get your perspective as well.


Art for this post on cloistering: Nonne Im Kreuzgang (Nun in Cloister), 1930, photographed by Doris Ulmann (1882-1934), PD-US author's life plus 70 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • RobinJeanne

    I love the example of the flowers in a field where no on see….. I have been
    asked the question about cloistered nuns and basically give the answer like what
    you said about the mystical body of Christ (not as eloquently as you) but now to
    add this flower part I think will help them understand… maybe….

    I think we need the weeds in our life. If everyone was good and holy and
    treated us Christ-like, how would we grow in holiness. We more than likely would
    stay as we are. We all need those particular challenges that help convert our
    weakness into strengths.

    My husband is my hair-shirt and daily he challenges me to be forgiving, to
    look more and more to God for the love I need that only He can provide and so in
    receiving, being more opened to God’s love and will, I grow in capacity the keep
    loving my husband, even when he treats me like a second class person.

    • abandon56

      While it is true that we need to love and be loved by God, you may want to consider whether your husband may need you to bring to his attention the times when you feel you are being treated as a second class person. This may be the more loving response because in doing so, you may be helping him to the holiness God intends for him. I don’t know your circumstances but encourage you to keep in mind that spouses are called to do what we can to help each other to heaven. Sometimes this means establishing healthy boundaries. I’ll keep you in prayer.

      • RobinJeanne

        I have shared with him that part of being married is to help each other get
        to heaven…. in his mind he is a great husband. Since he put me second after
        his mother 4 yrs ago, he did begin us praying together before going to bed (I
        was so tickled) but at the same time he said he felt the Lord say to him “Take
        care of your mama” We had build he a small apt behind our house and had been
        watching over her for 2 yrs by then. That’s when I got the back seat…
        everything was about mama. I would tell him that if you hear the voice of God,
        see if it is in line with Scripture and Church teachings. If it’s not then it’s
        not a message from God but the evil one. Yes his mom is old, going to be 88 but
        she is healthy, still drives all over, does laundry and cooks….. Since he
        changed his focus to her, we fight a lot and can’t seem to talk about anything,
        especially religion (we are both catholic).

        So I pray for his soul and keep loving him and doing loving things for him.
        The more I do that… I’m starting to see some of the old him I used to know. I
        do appreciate your prays, I need much grace to persevere. His mom will die one
        day and he will have no one but me to love him and I want to have a heart full
        of love for him and not resentment as…. “oh now you want to love on me? Now
        you want a relationship with me?” Maybe that’s why God brought us together, so
        he can see that he is lovable, worthy of being loved( he’s an extreme low self
        esteem person who exaggerates self confidence to hide the truth.)

        I work from home so like with the cloistered nuns and monks, I have many
        opportunities to be in a quiet place and pray for souls. Way to many Catholics
        and Christians don’t see the necessity of going away to a quiet place to be with
        the Lord. They throw a quick pray here and there, offer their day and feel that
        is a good prayer life…. so we too with the cloistered pray for those who

        • LizEst

          Wow, RobinJeanne! You sound so frustrated. I assume you have a spiritual director. Have you brought all these comments to him/her? If not, I strongly suggest you do so. There seem to be issues here just below the surface of what you write because most folks don’t write everything publicly on these posts. And, to have written as much as you have indicates there is more here than meets the eye. It is good that you have a healthy prayer life. How is the rest of your spiritual life? If you do not have a spiritual director, please find one. And, in the meantime, at least see a priest for some one-on-one time about the things you wrote here. God bless you RobinJeanne! I will pray for you and your family.

          ps. Would you do all of us here a favor, please? Please type directly into the combox. This will help keep your comments from having so much open space in between words. It will make it easier for others to follow. Thanks so much!

          • RobinJeanne

            Thanks LizEst, interestingly I have been thinking it; maybe time to bring this up to my spiritual director. I had a spiritual director one time that turned into a night mere. I know I’m being slow and cautious with him as protection or something but I do think he could help guide me through some of these issues so I am not just holding in my emotions and frustrated too much but truly giving this all to God.

            I am truly a blessed soul, though it may not seem like it by what I wrote. My husband lets me stay home to pursue my love of sewing and art so I make religious garbs and banners for the church and church groups. He lets me teach CCD and go to prayer gatherings, bible so I have to deal with this mother thing, every marriage has it’s issues…. what more could I want… sure it would be nice to have him as my partner on this faith journey, and I never know, he may have a conversion and join me… all things are possible through Christ.
            This situation has helped me to grow in authentic love (still have a long way to go though) learning and living that love is, a decision, a sacrifice and to stay the course and persevere and then I look at Jesus on the cross… how blessed a life He has given me. 10 years ago I would have left him as I did the other 2 husbands… I had no faith, no relationship with the Lord. As the song goes”I was looking for love in all the wrong places”… I was looking to be loved but as I’ve learned first I have to give love, Christ-like love and love will be given to me, though not as I was thinking but in a way God intended it to be.
            As far as the typing in the box. I usually do but for some reason the spell check was not working and I am horrible about spelling. some times so bad even spell check has know idea what I’m trying to write. It’s working today. 🙂

          • LizEst

            I am happy to learn you are thinking about bringing your situation up in spiritual direction. A marriage impacts our spirituality just like a vocation to religious life impacts those who follow the path. Our vocations are part and parcel of how we come to Christ. I feel for you for that “nightmare” of a spiritual director in the past. We know they are not all like that. The evil one uses many tricks to get us to stop our pursuit of God and his kingdom. He knows that not only this will be given to us…but everything else besides.

            Thanks for explaining about the typing. Don’t worry so much about the spelling. If we can’t understand, we will ask you to clarify for us. God bless you, RobinJeanne!

          • RobinJeanne

            God bless you Liz…. I enjoy your insight here and on Marshal’s.

          • LizEst

            Thank you, RobinJeanne…and thanks be to Holy Spirit’s inspiration. To God be the glory.

  • LizEst

    Those who live cloistered lives are great treasures for the Church. For, God hears very favorably the prayers of those who live according to His will and decrees. As I read this, I was thinking about them being part of the Body of Christ. Then, as I kept reading, there it was in Father John’s post! When we look at a human body, there are many, many parts that are so hidden to us, parts that function in ways we could not be without. So, too, does cloistering serve the Body of Christ. We may not see them or their prayers or their great penitential life, but they serve an essential function in the Church. We could not be without them! God bless them… and also their families, who sacrifice their presence in day to day activities and events. Blessed be the Lord!

  • Elizabeth Segleau

    Very interesting topic and a very important one at that. As we know, “there are many gifts but one Body”. We all must do our best to follow the Call. Each and every one of us has been called by Christ to respond to the Church’s needs. But we all can’t be called to respond in the same way.

    I am a Catholic Sister. I’m from an international, apostolic community. We are contemplative and active. I live separate from society in order to quiet my mind from the business of every day, to open my heart wide, to allow Christ to grow in me. I take time out to read, pray and deepen my understanding of God, my own faith, the faith of others and the endless needs of the world. As I grow spiritually, I bring that strength forward to a world in need through my own gifts, a clinical social worker, a spiritual director at other times and perhaps, just being with my Sisters at home and supporting them in their daily call.
    There is a time and a place for every gift.

    Sometimes I need my cloistered Sisters to pray for me. Sometimes they need me to support and pray for them. We need each other, we truly do. I don’t have the gift or the call to be cloistered 100% of the time. I do love the silence and the gift to slow down, pray, recharge and then go forth to serve. But I know my Sisters don’t have the strength to be 100% active, they have a deep need for silence in order to rise up critical prayers and sacrifices for each of us.

    Those who are cloistered value the active life, they admire what many of us do out here, but it is not their gift to engage in such business. It is their gift to remain “awake and pray” beside our Lord and Savior. Their extra time in prayer and quiet, supports what I do out in the streets with those in need, my time of service, gives meaning to my cloistered Sisters lives, they have a deep reason to pray for me and you. We are one in what we do, but there is one Lord who calls us by name to respond to different gifts needed in the Church.

    What is your calling?

    Sr. Elizabeth Segleau, SDS

    • abandon56

      Thank you for this, Sister Elizabeth, and for your service of love. Very beautiful!

  • patricia

    Thank you for explaining the need for cloistered and the many different flowers in Gods garden. We are called each according to our status to holiness. Thank you father for pointing this out.

  • marygannon

    My sense is that God knows how best to situate each of us here and now so we can best serve Him and His Kingdom…what our greatest fruitfulness looks like. For those of us in the World as active lay people, we are called to generate spiritual fruit for others and live from our “inner cloister.” For others, called to religious consecration, they best find this inner silence and spiritual fruitfulness by living in a physical cloister. Those in a physical cloister are called to be outward focused as Fr. John writes about.

    • Thank you for this comment! My law classes start tomorrow and I’ve been anxious. I know I am where God wants me to be. But sometimes the world is so messed up that I just want to run away. I know that’s wrong. Thank you for reminding to trust Him!

      • LizEst

        You are in my prayers, Mary. God bless you!

  • Patti Day

    Today is a quiet day for me, nothing on my calendar except the heating and air conditioning man, who is now two hours late. The morning has been one of prayer and spiritual reading, praying the hours, daily Mass readings, this blog (always), a chapter of Fr. Thomas DuBay’s “The Fire Within”, and time to meditate and contemplate what I’ve learned today. Thank you God for days like this to recharge my soul. Tomorrow is a worldly day, starting early and ending late, but I’ll be refreshed and ready. Thank you Father and may God continue to bless you in your wonderful apostolate.

  • Tammy

    If it wasn’t for the prayers of a group of cloistered Franciscan nuns near me, I think I would still be lost in a sea of sin. When I finally began to awaken to the very bad situation my life was in, I turned to them and asked them for prayer (their monastery was located near my work) Almost immediately, things began to turn around. A person who had been a very bad influence on me (and who I couldn’t seem to shake myself free from) suddenly moved away and stopped contacting me. My personal circumstances abruptly changed (I was laid off from work) and I was able to withdraw for a couple weeks to reflect on my sins and find a priest who agreed to hear a long, overdue confession, which turned into a general life confession through his encouragement. After my confession, I found it easier to pray, and I began a daily prayer habit, which eventually included daily Mass at the monastery and regular confession. This all happened many years ago, but I can date my real conversion back to this time period. The prayers offered ceaselessly from cloisters in praise, adoration, thanksgiving, and petition to God draw grace down upon those of us “in the world” who are struggling in so many different ways, and God richly bless them all for their prayers and sacrifices!

    • LizEst

      Thank you for this beautiful witness, Tammy. God bless you!

    • KAACD

      Yes, how wonderful your life changed with the help of prayer. God bless all those who pray for us… from the cloistered to the individuals who pray for us. Thank you

  • Carolyn Plant

    May I suggest to the questioner who no longer attends Mass that she and her family search for another parish. I attend two parishes which are both good but very different. There is a great variety out there and I hope she will find one that satisfies her family’s spiritual needs.

  • Teresa

    Fr. John ends his discussion on the cloistered life by asking why there are not more holy Catholics in all walks of life today. Perhaps it is because there are not enough cloistered contemplative religious people praying for them! I have heard contemplatives described as the ‘backbone of the church.’ God forbid we ever become ‘spineless!’

    • LizEst

      Great observation…and when we pray for vocations, we should be praying for holy vocations, holy vocations to religious life and holy vocations to all walks of life. God bless you, Teresa…you certainly have a way with words!

    • Alexandra Arias


  • kcthomas

    Great and meaningful answer by Fr. Bartunek. However about “horrible homilies” the expression of dissatisfaction by the laity is natural. As one who experienced it for many decades , I only pray every Sunday that God may bestow His blessings on them to consider preparation and planning before undertaking the sermon.

  • Maryellen Malack

    Father John,
    Your explanation of what a cloistered life is was really good. Thank you for being one of the many holy Priests we have to direct our footsteps ever closer to Jesus Our Lord.
    May The Love, The Peace and The Joy of Christ
    Fill Every Heart, Every Mind and Every Soul.

  • abandon56

    Wow, what a great response, Fr. John. Especially the exhortation to consider that God’s ways of saving us often don’t really make sense to us because we are mere mortals whose ways are not the ways of our merciful, omniscient God.

  • Alexandra Arias

    I thank God for the beautiful cloistered Carmelites in my neighborhood. They have very generously prayed for my family during some very rough times. They have been a great comfort to me and their prayers are an immense gift to the Church!
    Does anyone know where I could read more about St. Therese’s supernatural knowledge, where she was told that she was supporting 20,00 missionaries spiritually with her prayer and sacrifice – this is amazing, and it goes to show you the great power of prayer! Instead of complaining about the priests, dry homilies, etc., let pray for them!

  • Thank you, Father. Your response to this rather complex question is helpful to us all.

  • Jeanette

    I have always been comforted by the fact that our cloistered brothers and sisters pray and sacrifice for the world. I’m sure they bring us many blessings! Thank you Fr. Bartunek for answering this question so thoroughly.

  • top8305

    Fr. Bartunek, thank you for a cogent and compelling explanation of cloistered life. I never doubted its merit, but now I can convey the basis to others.

    (24) The Lord bless thee, and keep thee.
    benedicat tibi Dominus et custodiat te
    (25) The Lord shew his face to thee, and have mercy on thee.
    ostendat Dominus faciem suam tibi et misereatur tui
    (26) The Lord turn his countenance to thee, and give thee peace.
    convertat Dominus vultum suum ad te et det tibi pacem
    Numbers 6

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