These questions are among those we are often asked by visitors to the monastery. We hope the answers will offer insight into our life as Benedictine women.
What does the word 'cloister' mean?
The term comes from the Latin ‘claustra,’ which means ‘enclosure.’ Its traditional religious meaning refers to the living space of a religious community whose members live their day-to-day lives within the walls of their convent or monastery. ‘Cloister’ can also refer to a portion of a monastery or convent that is closed to the public. At Sacred Heart, guests are welcome in some parts of the monastery, yet we do have cloistered living areas. These private spaces provide a place apart in which the monastic community can share deeply the commitments of their common life of prayer and work, and engage more readily in monastic practices such as silence and solitude.
What is the difference between a monastery and a convent?
A monastery is where a monastic community resides and practices its common life of work and prayer. The term is used specifically for religious communities that follow a monastic rule such as the Rule of St. Benedict. It is not, properly speaking, applied to non-monastic communities. The tem convent is related to the word convening, or coming together. It is the place in which a group of priests or religious, who may live and work apart, come together. In modern American usage, ‘convent’ usually refers to a community of women, but it can apply to either women’s or men’s communities. For communities that follow a monastic rule, such as Sacred Heart, ‘monastery’ is the more proper term, although the term ‘convent’ was used early in our history and is occasionally still used.
What is a monk?
In a Christian context, the term refers to one who dedicates his or her life to God alone and lives in community according to a monastic rule. It can also refer to a solitary religious. The term is understood to incorporate aspects of intentional asceticism such as celibacy, silence, or solitude, and some degree of separation from society. The degree of separation can range from fully cloistered communities to communities with cloistered elements of their common life coupled with external ministry. The Benedictine Sisters of Cullman fall into this latter category. Historically, the term ‘monk’ has typically referred to men; however the term can refer to either male or female monastics.
How is the leader of your community chosen?
Our elected leader is referred to as a Prioress. The current term of office is six years. As this period nears its end the community gathers for a period of discernment. The discernment focuses around the questions of what type of leader the community needs at a given time in its history and who might God be calling to fill this unique and challenging role. It is a prayerful and introspective time for the community. The period of discernment is followed by a canonical election. Only those members who have made final monastic profession are able to vote.
The election process is governed by canon law and the Constitution of the Federation of St. Scholastica, the organization of Benedictine women's communities of which we are a founding member. The discernment process and the election are facilitated and moderated by representatives of the Federation.
What vows do you take?
Because of our Benedictine heritage, we use the traditional terminology of monastic profession as prescribed by St. Benedict in his 6th-century Rule: stability, obedience, and fidelity to the monastic way of life. Fidelity to the monastic way of life includes and presumes poverty and celibacy. The specific vow formula of poverty, chastity, and obedience taken by members of most other religious communities did not come into existence until several hundred years after the time of St. Benedict.
How do you support yourselves?
We support ourselves through income earned from our public ministries and the generosity of donors. We are financially autonomous from other religious or secular institutions. As Benedictines, we embrace simplicity, wise stewardship, and sensitivity to the poor in the management of resources entrusted to us.
A traditional Benedictine motto - "ora et labora" ("pray and work") is inscribed in our chapel and is taken to heart by every Sister. All share in the responsibility for supporting and maintaining our common life as a monastic community.
How are you related to other Benedictine communities?
In 1922, we united with other communities of Benedictine women in the United States to form the Federation of St. Scholastica. The Federation exists to help its 21 member monasteries preserve and express their spiritual heritage and the Benedictine charism. The Federation has a Constitution which, together with the Rule of St. Benedict and each community's own norms, govern the Benedictine Sisters' way of life. The President of the Federation, elected from one of the member houses, is our official liaison with the Vatican.
The Federation of St. Scholastica is one of three Federations and one Congregation of Benedictine women in North America. The elected prioress from each member monastery of these four groups comprises the Conference of Benedictine Prioresses, an organization which collaborates on many endeavors to help support and sustain our Benedictine charism.
Our prioress is an active and involved member of the Conference of Benedictine Prioresses, and several of our Sisters are active in leadership roles within the Federation.
For answers to more questions about our life and community, including questions about how to become a Sister, click here.