It’s a Sunday afternoon, and when I eventually get through to the other end of the phone, a warm voice greets me. It belongs to Emma Brady, a German and Law Trinity graduate who is now pursuing the monastic life as a novice nun. Before I take the call with her, I sit at my desk, lost in thought about all the questions I have on what her life is like. I think about how different things must be for her in St. Mary’s Abbey, Glencairn, where she now lives and worships as a Cistercian sister.
Emma tells me that she has “always been in touch with her faith,” and that she had practised as a Catholic growing up. Over her teenage years, she became disinterested, and wasn’t always faithful. She didn’t think her faith would come to anything. She felt as if there was something that was always missing in her life, but anticipated that Trinity would fulfil whatever was causing that emptiness. When she finally realised that Trinity was not the fruition of her hopes, Emma discovered something deeper was calling her to search for her vocation. She needed to seek God.
“Her vocation has been a slowly unfurling realisation, something that she wanted to pursue and something that she felt that God was asking her to do”
I’ve heard countless tales of people who, having never been very faithful at all, become entirely committed to joining the priesthood or sisterhood. I ask her if she has ever had a eureka moment in the reawakening of her faith. Emma explains that she never did; her vocation has been a slowly unfurling realisation, something that she wanted to pursue and something that she felt that God was asking her to do. And, because she always felt an absence of fulfilment, she thought that her search for fulfilment and her vocation could be complete by living in a monastery.
There are thousands of religious orders all over the world, and I’m curious as to why Emma picked St. Mary’s Abbey, a Cistercian order. She explains that choosing to live as a Cistercian sister was a long, drawn-out decision. She always had an interest in religious life, and had always been open to it, but hadn’t really given much thought to monastic life. She became curious about it, and she got in touch with an apostolic order who do work outside of the community. She saw something very attractive about the life, and knew this inkling she had about “consecrated life and a life lived for God alone” needed to be explored further.
Emma recalls seeing a documentary about St. Mary’s Abbey on RTE during Easter Week, when she was doing her Leaving Certificate, and it had resonated with her, but she didn’t really know why. The thoughts of leading a monastic life, as she does now, hadn’t even crossed her mind. Nonetheless, that moment stayed with her, and it was for this reason that she decided to visit St. Mary’s Abbey on a weekend trip away. It was an opportunity to experience what monastic life could be like. At this point, she had no prior knowledge of the Cistercian way of life, but that monastic experience weekend was the beginning. There was something that kept attracting her back. Each time she left, she felt compelled to return immediately. She tells me that this feeling was a huge factor when she was deciding which religious order she wanted to join.
The Cistercian way, which emphasises the simplicity of life – silence, solitude and community life – attracted her to come back and investigate. The Cistercian order celebrates the liturgy seven times a day, from 4:10am for the first prayer to the last prayer at 7:45pm. In between those hours, they partake in community work and spiritual reading, more specifically, lectio divina, a particular type of monastic liturgy that focuses on immersive study of the Bible. She felt that the monastic way of life enabled her to be as close to God as she possibly could be, where God was most present to her. The constant emphasis on seeking union with Christ is so pertinent in the abbey, it was overwhelming for her in a way she had never experienced before. The Cistercian order is a worldwide order, which means they are very aware of societal problems. This paired well with what Emma’s interests already were when she started college.
“The Cisterians make a great effort to take care of the 200 acres of their environment. They tend to the woodlands, grow their own vegetables, and they are vegetarian.”
Emma explains that she had a very active student life. One of the reasons she picked Law and German in Trinity was because she has a deep interest in social justice. This leads me to ask her if she still engages with issues of social justice in the same way that she did in college. “It’s engagement in a different way to how I would have done it in college,” Emma replies. She tells me that leading a monastic life is about becoming more aware of the “frailties within humanity and coming to understand, in small ways, what we can do for others”. She calls my attention to the fact that the Cisterians make a great effort to take care of the 200 acres of their environment. They tend to the woodlands, grow their own vegetables, and they are vegetarian, which is part of the rule of St. Benedict.
We talk about the commitments involved in this unique vocation, and her doubts. The discernment she pursued while entering the monastery in the early stages of being a postulant still follow her through this journey to become a nun.
“At the end of the day, you need to weigh up whether or not the commitment is worth it, if it’s worth your time, or if you can reap great joy from the seeds you’ve sown”
“You’re still discovering and questioning along the way,” Emma explains. There’s a lot of guidance in the monastery: the vocations director before you enter, and a novice director when you initiate, which Emma declares are invaluable. “Of course, like nearly all commitments, there are moments of trepidation. But, at the end of the day, you need to weigh up whether or not the commitment is worth it, if it’s worth your time, or if you can reap great joy from the seeds you’ve sown. On the flipside, there’s the ‘what ifs’: if I can’t do it, I have to think of what the loss will be. Sometimes you just have to trust and hope that it will work out, whatever happens.”
I have a brother on the opposite side of the world, so I know what it’s like to have an empty seat that should be filled at times like Christmas, when the whole family is together. I question Emma about the ability to take time off, away from the commitment of praying seven times a day. Emma explains: “The thing with monastic life is that it’s a daily commitment; we are called to seek God every day in the monastery.” She admits that they only get one day off a month. On this day, their one day off, Cistercian sisters take part in hermit days in a log cabin which mainly consist of concentrated study of the Bible. “Celebrations with Christmas and Easter are spent in the Abbey,” Emma says. It’s celebratory and very familial in nature, and very beautiful. Meals are in silence. There’s an emphasis on silence. We talk when it’s necessary and when we’re working. I live with 27 other women, we need that discipline,” she concludes lightheartedly.
And if she goes cold turkey on her decision? “I haven’t had to cross that bridge yet! If this isn’t the place where God wants us to be, we have help to discover that. Nobody is going to keep us here against our will. There’s no stigma anymore about leaving the monastery, it’s not like what I hear from my parent’s generation or even before that, it’s different.”
If you’re interested in experiencing what life could be like living as a Cistercian, the abbey hosts monastic experience weekends a few times a year, the next of which will be in the end of this month, 25-27 October.