The Carmelite nuns living deep in the heart of Shoreline are nine women committed to contemplation.
We don’t expect that high-tech, caffeinated, secular Seattle would be home to a religious order of cloistered nuns who date their origins back to the 12th century.
But deep in the heart of Shoreline are nine women committed to contemplation. They live apart in a 4.5-acre Carmelite monastery and work to affect, through prayer, a world they are very much aware of through newspapers and TV.
Even their families visit only through a broad window opened by a wooden screen. In a world of “the new, new thing,” these women seek the eternal.
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“We realize that there is more to life than distraction,” says Prioress Sister Sean, 63, (Patricia Ann Hennessy) who joined the life of reclusion in 2000 after an earlier career as a nun active in the community. “We’re looking for something deeper, more challenging.”
Mother Teresa O’Brian lived 71 years in monasteries before passing away in 2005 at the age of 105. Sister Michael-Marie, 85, helped plan the present monastery when the group moved from Capitol Hill — where they’d been since 1909 — to Shoreline in 1965.
The sisters now range in age from 42 to 87, and come from Seattle, San Francisco, Iowa, Boston, Rhode Island, Germany, Kenya and the Philippines. They are of the Discalced or Barefoot Carmelites, an offshoot of the order established in 1593. The original order started on Israel’s Mount Carmel about 1190.
Today, the Carmelites have about 800 nuns. The life is rigorous, with a regimen of prayer, Mass and chores from 6 a.m. to early evening. Trips outside are mostly limited to necessary shopping and medical appointments. Their rooms are called cells and have the same bareness. Reading is the main recreation.
Accordingly, it’s not easy to become a Carmelite nun. There are interviews, plus psychological testing and years spent in stages leading to a Solemn Profession lifetime commitment in the brown habit of humility.
Very few who begin the process make it all the way. Those who do find joy in the discipline, peace in reflection and companionship with each other — though talk is discouraged at times and the closeness can occasionally seem claustrophobic.
Then there is prayer to the Almighty. “It’s like an old married couple on the porch, rocking,” Sister Sean describes. The sisters pray for specific requests and live on donations. They are content.
Says Sister Sean: “I’d do it all over again.”