Meeting Cuba's Contemplatives

Interview With Dominican Sisters in Havana

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By Eduardo Quiñones García

HAVANA, Cuba, FEB. 11, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Dominican contemplative nuns have been praying for 320 years in Havana, and their vocation is a source of great joy, says the current prioress.

ZENIT visited the convent of St. Catherine of Siena in Nuevo Vedado, Cuba, founded in 1688. The first nuns were Cuban natives who wanted to be religious sisters, but could not be accommodated in the only existing monastery on the island. They founded their own convent, which remained in Havana until superiors decided the peace of nearby El Vedado would be more suited for their life. Since 1984, the sisters have been in the current building, in what is now the metropolitan area of Havana.

Seven nuns -- two Cubans, two Mexicans and three Colombians -- presently live in the convent, filling their days with prayer and embroidery.

The prioress of the monastery, Sister Ofelia of St. Joseph, is a native of Mexico but has lived in Cuba for 15 years. Sister Yolanda of the Child Jesus is a native Cuban, and already has celebrated 44 years behind the walls of the convent. Sister Ofelia and Sister Yolanda say they are happy in their vocation, which offers something new every day.

Q: Do young women who arrive to the convent aim to reach the heights of contemplation?

Sister Yolanda: Yes. But this is not like earning an academic degree. It is simply getting rid of everything in order to place oneself at the disposal of God, who gives, enlightens and transforms. He gives the strength and so it is like an emptying of everything so that the Lord can fill it.

St. Dominic did not bind us to any method. He proposed a very simple path of prayer. He said, first read the sacred Scriptures, the Divine Office or what you have. Go from reading to prayer; from prayer to meditation; and from meditation to contemplation. That was the only method he left us. So that's where a young woman begins -- she reads, goes deeper and makes her petitions, her prayers, which she reflects upon and thus the Lord is revealed to her. One does not acquire contemplation, but rather the Lord gives the light.

Q: When one of you feels the spontaneous call to prayer, to contemplation, doesn't it interrupt your work?

Sister Ofelia: It is not interrupted. When one lives in that union with God one can continue with work, but firmly united to him. And I can sew, clean, do whatever, but it does not take me from that union with God, which is lived in each moment ...

Sister Yolanda: One should live in an atmosphere of contemplation. And at times the Lord speaks more when we are working than when we are praying.

Q: Then we could say that you do not silence the call to recollection, but that you try to live a continual prayer?

Sister Ofelia: Quite so. A continual prayer that is lived in each moment, and in everything that is done, God is present. I can say this by experience, that I can be cleaning and cooking and feel the Lord there. Everything that is done is for love of God.

Q: We know words are insufficient for explaining what contemplation is. How would you describe it according to your own experience?

Sr. Ofelia: The experience of God is something so personal. That encounter that is between God and yourself, in which one is lost in that silence, in that time, we could say, when God enters into our soul, into our heart, so that he can do what he desires, and we leave ourselves in that divine love.

Nevertheless, this experience, this contemplation, I have always seen that ... it not only remains in me, but it brings others to participate, my own community, all the faithful, all the people whom I know, whom I love and whom I don't know; because I am conscious that the experience reaches every ear; because I have seen it, I have proven it in the moment in which one is allowed to be loved by God! And that divine love cannot be expressed with words.

Sister Yolanda: When one begins on the path of the life of prayer, the first thing we should realize is who we are: a sinner -- that by myself I can do nothing and one should be convinced of that. Because there are always very self sufficient people who fancy themselves capable of many things. And the Lord makes them see that one is nothing; that everything you have is because of him.

So, once one is in that surrender and seeking the Lord, he is the one who makes himself found! And he manifests himself to us in different ways. That is to say, God is love. And when one says God is good, this brings us to delight in the Lord without abusing with presumption the grace of God. I think that it is a character of the Dominican spirituality that one delights not only in God; that is, to enter into contact with God, we enter into contact also with humanity, and we feel that desire for everyone to love the Lord and we ask him: May everyone adore and praise you!

Q: You are in a cloister withdrawn from the world, but you are close to it and to humanity, to our pains and hopes. What is your experience of this?

Sister Yolanda: The Holy Father Paul VI, speaking of that union we nuns have spiritually with the world, said that in the convents, all the feelings, passions, desires and needs of humanity vibrate in their highest intensity. And I think that goes into our prayer: We vibrate [with these needs] as intensely as possible. Because of this we are generators of life and grace with the help of the Lord.

Q: What would you recommend to Christian youth without a vocation to contemplative life but who feel a desire to grow in the spiritual life and to love God deeply?

Sister Yolanda: Well, that they dedicate some time each day to their personal prayer. This will go introducing them to the life of virtue and makes them free and dignified persons. That, in reality, is the Christian vocation: supreme dignity in Christ.

Q: How would you define your cloistered lives and what keeps you here? Are you happy?

Sister Ofelia: I am happy in my vocation; it is as if it was the first time. For me life in the cloister is not routine. It is a different dawn since each day has its joys, sufferings and concerns, but even more happiness. When one gives oneself more to God and the years pass -- I say this by experience -- the cloister, contemplative life, it is a gift of God.

Sister Yolanda: I agree that contemplative life is a great gift of God, and that each day is something new. There is no place for routine as people think, because daily there are new things, from the encounter with the Lord to what might happen later. Also his presence is new, it is a work of his mercy and infinite love in the world and among us. Yes, I can say that I am also very happy.