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Mystery of the monastic life

As an altar boy who helped serve Carmelite nuns communion in the early 1940s, I read with interest The Sun's recent article about the present-day Carmelite Monastery ("All work and all prayer at Baltimore Carmel," July 14).

As I remember, their home was around Oliver and Caroline streets near Biddle. The chapel was built into a nondescript building adjacent to a hospital.

I would arrive around 6 a.m. The door was unlocked so I merely rang the bell to show I was there and walked in. Most times there were two of us. No one greeted us. Our "vestments" were laid out. When a priest appeared, we moved into the chapel.

A dark curtain separated us from the congregation, which consisted only of nuns who had entered the sanctuary from the rear. There were always just two of us and a priest.

When it came time for communion, the nuns moved to the rail.

I held a golden plate by its handle. The nun would raise her veil to just under her nose and open her mouth. I would situate the plate under her chin, presumably to capture any flake from the Eucharist, and the priest would place the wafer on her tongue.

At no time was I to make contact. Even eye contact was to be avoided — which was easy because the black curtain made any contact nearly impossible.

Throughout the half-hour service not a word was spoken beyond prayers, which were in Latin. Neither of us knew what we were saying, we just uttered the rote Latin we were told. There was no reading of the Bible nor any "message" from the priest. Just the Celebration of the Mass.

Even at the age of 12, I wondered what would cause any person to subject themselves to the life those ladies had chosen. We were told that they never left the convent.

To the question of why I subjected myself to having to get up at such an ungodly our to walk the mile or so to church and back before breakfast: the priest tipped each of us a dollar for the week.

The high calling to "share contemplation with the people" was not a consideration. Simply put, the nuns worked at the hospital to which the church was attached.

To this day I still wonder why anyone would choose such a life. But we should thank God that there still are such people among us.

Lee Rudolph

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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