At an unassuming, modern church at 7 Cambridge Street, West Launceston, nine nuns live in complete separation from the rest of the world. The women have lived an enclosed life for up to 71 years.
About 24 people are inside the church above the Cataract Gorge on this Saturday morning. There are neat older ladies wearing bright scarves; middle-aged, hewn men in flannelette; and diminutive Brazilian missionaries – all tilting their heads towards the Priest standing at the side of the pulpit.
They can not see the source of the clear, reedy singing coming from behind a pale yellow grille. None of them ever have.
The nuns who are leading this hymn, from just beyond the public sanctuary of the church, live a cloistered life: completely cut off from the rest of the world. They interact with the congregation at daily mass from their monastic home on other side of the metal lattice. They read from the Bible and voice Gregorian chants: an unmistakable presence, but always unseen.
This is the West Launceston church of the Order of the Discalced Carmelites, home to nine nuns.
The Order of the Discalced Carmelites was founded in 1562 by the Spanish nun St Teresa of Avila, to imitate the lifestyle led by hermits living on the slopes of Mount Carmel, Israel, in the 13th century.
Devotees live in such a way as to approximate the silence and solitude of the desert. But they are placed near towns, with populaces that require intensive prayer on their behalf.
Since its humble 16th century beginnings, the order has seeded into every corner of the globe, from Madagascar to India to Seattle. There are seven Carmelite monasteries in Australia; the only one in Tasmania is this one, a modern, airy little church, begun in 1948 at Longford, now perched above the Gorge.
In an email interview, the Prioress – head nun – of the monastery, Mother Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, said that living as a enclosed nun was a “radical choice for God”.
“It stakes everything not only on the fact that He exists, but that a personal and intimate relationship with Him is possible and the ultimate way to reach fulfillment as a person,” she said.
“From the earliest centuries of Christianity, some have felt called by God to live a life of greater solitude and silence for the sake of deeper prayer.
“Originally this involved quite literally going out into the desert and living as hermits. Now the ‘desert’ is created in the midst of towns and cities by creating a space for those called to this life.”
The Carmelite nuns at West Launceston are aged between 33 and 90. The newest sister joined the monastery only two years ago; the longest-serving has been with the order since 1948. Before taking their vows, the women worked or studied in law, medicine, pharmacy, nursing, economics, and fine art. Now, they are entirely occupied with their relationship with God. Selected laypeople deliver groceries and other necessities; they will only leave the monastery in the case of medical need.
In the small shop adjacent to the church and monastery, a man browsing the selection of religious texts and items of devotion explained that the monastery is a “powerhouse of prayer”.
“People think that the walls are there to keep the sisters in,” he said. “But they’re there to keep us out.”
The nun’s presence is an incredible favour on Launceston, said another woman in the monastery shop. By communing with God on behalf of the whole populace – generating so much spiritual energy between the nine of them – the Carmelite nuns lift all of us up, she said.
The monastery is, in the words of Mother Teresa Benedicta, the “hidden praying heart of our city”.
Mother Teresa Benedicta, now 43, was 21 when she elected to enter the monastery.
Teresa Benedicta is not her birth name: each sister selects a new moniker after entering the order. She chose to be named after St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, an early-twentieth century Discalced Carmelite, whose writing the present Teresa Benedicta felt guided her through her journey.
She grew up in Central Victoria, and lived a “very normal” life, with her parents and younger sister. She played netball, tennis, and cricket. Her favourite hobbies, she said, were reading, listening to music and spending time with her friends.
The young woman initially enrolled in a science degree after completing Year 12, but changed to theology after taking a break from study for health reasons.
The first time she visited the Carmel in Launceston, “I knew that was where the Lord wanted me to be,” she said.
When she returned to Victoria and told her community of her decision, the reactions varied from supportive, to disbelieving and openly hostile.
But she has never regretted her decision.
“Ours is a life of great peace, fulfillment and joy,” she said.
‘[There is a] misconception that people enter a monastery because they have no other options or better prospects – either in terms of career or relationships. That is far from the reality. Joining a monastery is a positive choice, not a last resort.
“We have been blessed with new members in recent years, all of whom are intelligent, capable young women who could have easily had a fulfilling life and career in the world. But they have found peace by giving themselves totally to God.”
Daily life in the monastery, while centreing on the contemplative action of prayer, is frequently a “hive of activity”.
Each nun wakes at 5.25am, and starts prayer at 5.40am. Public mass is held daily in the church at 7.30am (except for Saturdays, when it is held at 9am). From then until 10pm, the day is a mixture of prayer, work, and recreation.
Work covers household tasks like cooking, cleaning, sewing, and gardening: ornamental as well as an orchard and vegetable garden. The sisters also make various items which are sold through the shop, and attend to administrative activities.
Recreation happens twice a day and involves the nine women coming together to chat and relax, with “much laughter and enjoyment”. They also write letters to their families living in the outside world; periodically speaking with them on the monastery’s phone.
Each sister has their own bedroom, called a cell, and they wear a brown nun’s habit. It’s a democratic power structure within the order: they vote every three years on which one will be the Prioress, and on other key decisions. And it is no simple matter to become a fully-fledged nun: it is a process of at least ten years between ‘aspirancy’ and taking lifelong vows.
The sisters keep up to date with current events – they read The Examiner, Mother Teresa Benedicta said – in order to know what specific issues are affecting people, that they then place in their prayers. People also write, email, or phone the monastery with prayer requests.
On a sunny Thursday afternoon the Carmelite church is empty, save for one man with a tanned face and a loose, wavy ponytail, his lips moving silently in prayer. He said he has a pen-pal relationship with the nuns: he credits their prayers with keeping him spiritually secure during a book-tour trip to Las Vegas. He credits the sisters, in fact, for the spiritual security of Launceston.
“They do a lot of work with the behind-the-scenes spiritual atmosphere,” he said. “You know what I mean? It’s like they’re pumping clean water into a dirty swamp.”
For Mother Teresa Benedicta, the gift of prayer is it’s own reward.
“I can’t imagine anything more profound or beautiful,” she said, “more intimate or transforming, than to be drawn deeper into the mystery of divine love.”
“We do not choose this life for ourselves, but rather respond to God’s choice of us, for the Carmelite life.”