The life of silence
of the cloistered nuns
who chant for St. Agatha

Sister Maria Cecilia La Mela, who belongs to a Benedictine seclusion order, dispels the myths surrounding her lifestyle and sheds some light on the old tradition of chanting for Catania’s patron Saint

The first thing that is likely to come to mind when we think about cloistered religious orders is something resembling living behind bars, in dimly lit places shrouded in a deafening silence. Some of this may be true, but let’s not fall for oversimplifications. During the celebrations for Saint Agatha we had the chance to speak to Sister Maria Cecilia La Mela, who told us what life is really like inside the Saint Benedict monastery of Catania. «First of all we are not “Clarisse of Saint Benedict”, even though most people call us that. Our order is not inspired, as that name suggests, by Saint Clare (Chiara), but by Saint Benedict himself, so that we are just Benedictine nuns».

A QUIET OPENNESS. «Living inside a convent – she continues – is very much unlike how people make it out to be. Our order, unlike many others who are governed by the Holy See, has its own constitution by our Mother Superior and reports to the bishop, who can grant special leaves». This has led some people to suggest that, in fact, they are semi-cloistered, which Sister Maria believes to be a misunderstanding of the peculiar nature of her order. «Our choice to live behind walls is a treasure to us, and not a desire to separate ourselves from the rest of the world: I can be entirely free while living in seclusion, just as I can feel trapped and alien. Also, our rules enable us to be truly open to the world: we welcome a number of people broken by the outside world who come to us crying and looking for someone to support them. On the outside everyone runs and nobody listens».

THE POWER OF PRAYER. «Despite not being like a magic spell – Sister Maria explains – prayer does really alleviate the burden most people carry». Naturally, the nuns themselves have their own worries and praying helps them too. «Just like ordinary people charge their phones – she says – we draw our energy from worshipping God. He gives us strength to help others. Knowing how to listen is a big part of that».

A DIFFERENT OUTLOOK. «Sometimes, one needs to take a step back to have a proper look at something: stay too close and you might just notice the fine details of a painting, missing the whole thing. Likewise, our distance from the world helps us see it better. The cloister is a space for your soul, not a cage for your body. It is a matter of heart». A while back, someone pointed to Mother Superior Giovanna how bars might scare some people. Sister Maria recalls her answer: «It all comes down to perspective. From her point of view it might as well been the journalist who asked the question to be the one behind bars». She felt the need to make a few remarks on the condition of women: «A cloistered life, in spite of what many might think, does not take away from our femininity. Desires and impulses are far from gone: if anything, they are enhanced».

THE CHANT FOR SAINT AGATHA. We got the chance to ask Sister Maria a few questions about the traditional choir her sister and she perform every year for Agatha, the patron Saint of Catania. «The lyrics try to evoke the last words of the martyr. After her breast were severed, Agatha was brought to jail nearly dead. Saint Peter came to save her life, leaving the proconsul Quinziano in disbelief». It was not just her body to have been wounded, but her pride and dignity as a woman too. «This is precisely the point – she continues – her womanhood had been hurt. Imagine a young woman, as she was, saying to her captor: “Aren’t you ashamed to disfigure that part from which you once drew nourishment?”. It is a powerful message of respect and sanctity of the human body, women’s in particular».

A RECENT TRADITION. Even though it is now regarded as an integral part of the celebration, the traditional chant of the nuns has taking place for only thirty years. «Despite the fact that our order kept passing on this chant for years, it wasn’t until the 80s when the Archbishop asked us to actually perform it. It is a tribute to the Saint and a way of sanctifying the whole celebration. The fact that we perform it in its closing moments, makes it all the more memorable».

Translated by Franesco Raciti

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