THIRA, Greece – Cruise ship tourists crowd souvenir shops and couples looking for the perfect sunset on Instagram crowd the alleyway outside Saint Catherine’s Monastery, a short walk from the famous cliffs volcanoes of Santorini.
Inside this convent on one of the trendiest islands in Greece, a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, 13 cloistered Catholic nuns dedicate their lives to praying for these visitors and for the world.
It is a crucial though often misunderstood mission within the church, where constant prayer is deemed necessary to support more committed outward ministries.
“In such a touristic island, the last thing you think about is praying – so we are the ones who do it,” Sister Lucía María de Fátima, the prioress, said recently.
She and other sisters were talking in the parlor of the convent, behind a widely spaced tin grating that delimits the cloistered space from the outside world. Ending more than two years of pandemic isolation, the sisters will once again welcome visitors to the public part of their church starting with a mass in early August for the convent’s 425th anniversary.
The rest of the convent is considered a sacred space, where the nuns live mostly in silence and contemplation, leaving only for medical reasons or government requirements.
“After passing the grille, you don’t miss anything. When God gave us the vocation to be cloistered, he gave us the complete package,” said Sister María Esclava, originally from Puerto Rico.
Reverend Felix del Valle, a Spanish priest, has led periodic spiritual exercises at the convent for more than 10 years, part of the sisters’ rigorous religious training that begins with nine years of preparation before entering cloistered life.
“In a world of consumerism, of misappropriation, they testify that only God suffices,” he said.
Many religious orders are active in teaching, health care and ministry to vulnerable groups such as migrants. But contemplative nuns carry on a tradition of complete devotion to prayer that has its origins in early desert hermits, who sought to draw closer to God by removing all earthly distractions.
“For these women, they find God in a life of prayer or contemplation,” said Margaret McGuinness, professor emeritus of religion at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
Sister María de la Iglesia spent nearly 40 years in Santorini before moving to Spain to lead the Federación Madre de Dios, or Mother of God Federation, which oversees the island’s convent and nine other Dominican Catholic convents on four continents.
“In today’s logic, our life is not understood or valued, but within the church it is,” she said. “We are the voice of the church that tirelessly praises and pleads on behalf of all of our humanity. It is an exciting mission.
When not praying or practicing music and hymns, the sisters – aged between 40 and 80 – do housework; take care of the garden, where they grow tomatoes, lemons and grapes; and make hosts for most Catholic parishes in Greece.
During two daily recreations, they break their silence to chat on the wide terraces, the Aegean Sea sparkling in the distance.
At dawn, a bell calls the first of approximately nine hours of prayer, most sung in Latin, Spanish and Greek.
“As the sun rises, creation and the human person unite in harmony of praise to God,” said Sister María Guadalupe, adding that with monasteries across time zones, someone maintains always active prayer. “We are not out of the world, but rather very involved in the world.”
In predominantly Orthodox Greece, the presence of the Catholic convent signals the desired unity with other Christians, the sisters say. They exchange holiday greetings with the island’s Orthodox monks and nuns and fondly recall a visit when they sang hymns together.
“Despite their cloister, nuns have always been an important element in the life of a place,” said Fermín Labarga, professor of church history at the University of Navarre in Spain.
It was in this country that the Dominican order of cloistered nuns was founded more than 800 years ago by Saint Dominic, to pray constantly in what Labarga called “the rearguard” while their fellow religious brought the gospel to the world.
This “missionary spirit in a contemplative space”, in the words of Sr. María de la Iglesia, continues to animate today’s nuns, who wear the historic Dominican black veil and enveloping white habit — representing penance. and innocence. They came to Santorini mainly from the Caribbean, as well as from Angola, Korea, Argentina, Greece and Spain.