A visit to the Church of prayer

Monday 4 March 2013

By Oliver Maksan
Aid to the Church in Need
AN enclosed contemplative convent in the midst of an Islamic country? Sister Maria Virtudes is quite used to the question. "I am often asked by other religious sisters in Europe what is the point of establishing a Carmelite convent in a country that is 99% Islamic", she says, and laughs. For three years now, this young Spanish nun has been a member of the Carmelite foundation in Tangiers. Prior to this she lived in the Carmel established by Pope John Paul II in the Vatican. "To be honest, I wonder a little at such questions. For we know that prayer has no frontiers. And if, by our mere presence here, we are also giving witness to our Islamic friends, then so much the better."
There are seven nuns, in fact, who today live in strict enclosure in the Convent of the Holy Family and Saint Therese, founded in 1934, here in this city and port on the northern coast of Morocco. They include the one and only Carmelite nun in the world from Liberia. Only in July of last year three new nuns came as reinforcements from convents in Spain and Italy. The archbishop himself came to collect them from the port. In the past, when Tangiers was still a Spanish protectorate, there were up to 20 sisters living here, most of them from Andalusia. "They did not need any dowry in order to be accepted here", says Sister Maria Isabella, who has been living and praying here for 40 years and who now heads the community as its Superior. She is a strong, yet cheerful woman. A life of prayer and silence has given her a certain aura, yet at the same time an entirely down-to-earth manner. In the chapel of the Heart of Jesus, the heart of the house, where the sisters hear Mass from behind an iron grille, she explains the spiritual mission of her community: "Our mission is one of peace. We pray for peace in Morocco and Spain and for the spread of the Kingdom of God."
However, in addition to these important intentions, the sisters also have other, smaller everyday concerns. The convent itself is in good structural shape. However, a whim on the part of the architect has made life hard for the nuns, some of whom are no longer in the first flush of youth. For there are stairs and steps distributed quite pointlessly, all over the house. "A small lift, or stair lift would make life very much easier for us here", says the Superior, who currently has to struggle painfully up the steps, with the help of a stick. The Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has promised help for this.
Asked if it is not difficult to live in a contemplative life in the midst of an Islamic environment, this Spanish sister, who is now in her 70s, shakes her head. "Our Islamic neighbours have great respect for us sisters", she says, adding, "Silence and a life of contemplation are highly regarded by the Muslims." Sister Maria Virtudes, the youngest of the nuns, nods in agreement. "It's true. We have no problems with our Islamic neighbours. On the contrary, during Ramadan, the month of fasting, they even come by and bring us food."
The harmonious relations between the enclosed nuns and their Islamic neighbours seems to be something that prevails not only here in Tangier. In Casablanca too, the Poor Clares can report an experience of good relations with their Islamic neighbours. In 1989 five sisters arrived here in this bustling city of millions on the Atlantic coast. Today nine Mexican sisters make up the convent of Our Lady of Guadalupe. "Saint Francis once came to Morocco, to talk to the Saracens, as they were known then. Why should we sisters not also do the same today?", says Sister Manuela. Their cheerful spirit is infectious. "There is really a warm-hearted understanding with the people in the quarter. We even get invited to go and eat couscous. The Moroccans are a very believing people, searching for God." Once a little boy came and knocked on the door. He wanted to see Jesus. At first I did not know quite what to do, but then I took him to the chapel and told him that Jesus lives in the Tabernacle. That impressed this boy, and he remained there a long time."
One day a Muslim came to her and said to her, "Now I understand your vocation. You are like the Virgin Mary in silence." "That impressed me greatly. One has to be aware that Mary has a very great importance in the Koran." Sister Maria agrees: "The Moroccans have great respect for priests and religious. They see them as men and women of God. Additionally, many of them have been to the Catholic schools. They know therefore that we are well disposed towards them."
Nonetheless, there are limits. When the sisters go into the town, they conceal the crucifix that hangs on their rosaries. "There are always some people who see it as a provocation. We do not want to give them any additional encouragement", says Sister Manuela. Nonetheless, she feels quite at ease in this teeming Islamic city. "The first time I stood here on our terrace and looked around, I knew: I feel at home here. When my bishop asked me why I wanted to go to Morocco, I told him I was seeking a religious adventure. I have found that here."