Behind the scenes behind the wall

Finally (and many reading this will know how warranted “finally” actually is), finally, I’ve published my story on the Carmelites.

It’s a story that began… well, I first knocked on the monastery door early last year. You can read about the conception of the feature in this post.

I’ve met with the sisters many times, and kept in touch with Sister Cushla over the phone and via email.

The Carmelites are amazing women; having chosen to relinquish the outside world, forever, and dedicate their lives to praying for us. They’re full of laughter and light and love. They radiate happiness. It was a joy to work with them.

And there was always plenty to talk about. Sister Cushla loves reading, and I’m currently part way through one of her recommendations: The Ear of the Heart (it’s very good).

When I passed my camera through the turntable to her, I eyed her suspiciously and said: “I know where you live.” She gave the DSLR a once over and replied, “Oh you don’t need to worry, I’ve taken a vow of poverty.”

She turned out to be a talented photographer:

Upstairs corridor, taken by Sister Cushla
Upstairs corridor, taken by Sister Cushla
The quadrangle, taken by Sister Cushla
The quadrangle, taken by Sister Cushla
The machine that makes the bread used in Holy Communion, taken by Sister Cushla
The machine that makes the bread used in Holy Communion, taken by Sister Cushla

I saw on Twitter someone comparing the story to a project done by the New York Times. They said Stuff’s interactive must have been done “with a small team on a small budget”. I’m not sure if this person realised the truth in their statement — in that the content was completed largely outside work hours by me-myself-and-I, and of course our developer Andy Ball.

It’s a humble project, but hopefully it gets its message across.

I insist, it’s not just a story about religion. It’s a story about happiness.

Along a main road in Christchurch, 15 minutes from the city’s centre, a block of land is enclosed by a high stone wall.

Most passersby wouldn’t know this is the Carmelite Monastery, home to 10 women — nuns — who have committed their lives to contemplative prayer and a deep relationship with God.

Shut off from the world, they pray for us.

For this story, Carmelite Sister Cushla borrowed our reporter’s camera to document scenes of the nuns’ daily life, offering the world a glimpse behind the wall.

Mother Dorothea Mary of Jesus is sorry to hear the Captain Cook Tavern has closed.

The former Otago scarfie studied social work and education, hung out at “the Cook”, and didn’t believe in God.

“In fact, I couldn’t bear Christians!” she says.

Today, she speaks from behind an iron grille, at the Carmel of Christ the King Monastery in Christchurch. She is dressed in the traditional habit of Carmel: brown and white, with a black veil. The black veil represents service until death, the lifelong promise a woman can make, usually six years after entering the Order.

This is a story of happiness. An examination of the human experience of cloistered nuns, and of the power of The Contemplative Life.

Mother Dorothea is the Christchurch Carmel prioress, the elected leader of the sisters. She has been “behind bars” since 1981, residing within the stone walls of the 2.5 hectare block which constitutes the monastery in Halswell.

Her junior, Sister Cushla of Mary Immaculate, entered in 1999, and is one of the younger sisters at the monastery.

With a beatific smile, Sister Cushla says the habits are actually quite practical. “You can hook it up and deliver cattle in these!”

She describes their daily routine; a timetable which includes more than six hours of prayer and spiritual readings, five hours of work, and about two hours of recreation. She admits it can be hard to adjust to the Carmelite lifestyle.

“If you haven’t got up at 5.30am for most of your life… then it’s not easy.”

To read the rest of this story and view Sister Cushla’s images, click here.


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