As Sister Fran Horner leafed through prayer requests at the Carmelite Sisters of Baltimore monastery, she noticed a recurring theme this holiday season: more people asking the nuns to pray for peace.
"I've seen more of them than I did during the war," said Horner, referring to President Bush's declaration of the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1.
Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ - a time of great celebration for Christians and a traditional time of prayer, especially for peace.
For the Carmelite Sisters, who pray up to seven hours a day, often on behalf of others, Christmas is the high season. Ordinarily they receive at least two dozen prayer requests a day through phone calls, mail, e-mail or in person, during services that are open to the public.
Around Christmas, the number of requests more than triples. "You should see our mail this time of year," said Sister Constance FitzGerald, the prioress. "If you piled it up, it would be at least a foot high."
The Carmelite Sisters of Baltimore are a contemplative community of 17 Roman Catholic nuns who live in a 27-acre compound in Towson, just north of the Beltway off Dulaney Valley Road. The Baltimore nuns, the first of their order in the original 13 states, not only pray for people but also provide spiritual guidance to those who call and visit.
"I don't want to sound schmaltzy about this, but we really can walk with them when they have had hard times and good times, and we can help them feel closer to God," said Sister Monika Bies.
With American soldiers and Iraqis dying daily and the U.S. military still engaged in Afghanistan, requests for peace prayers are more common these days.
Sister Colette Ackerman calls it a response to a sense of powerlessness that people feel in the face of war.
"In terms of peace, the only thing an ordinary person can do is pray for it," said Ackerman, 61, who has lived at the monastery for more than four decades.
In addition to prayers for peace, the nuns often get requests over the holidays to pray for lost loved ones and for the sick. Some also request prayers for peace in their own families as they head into a stressful holiday season.
The loss of a family member is frequently magnified at Christmas because it's a time of reflection, said Sister Leah Hargis. After a recent Sunday service at the monastery, for example, Hargis spoke with a woman who had lost her mother around Christmas a decade ago after a long bout with cancer.
"She asked for prayers to get her through the season," said Hargis, 47, who worked as a law librarian in Baltimore's federal court before coming to the monastery in 1998.
The Carmelites trace their roots to the 13th century and Mount Carmel in what is now Israel. The Baltimore community was established in 1790 in Port Tobacco, Charles County, and moved here in 1831. Today, there are more than 11,000 Carmelite nuns in 75 countries.
The Towson monastery is in a stone building, sheltered by trees at the end of a long driveway. But anyone expecting dour nuns in stiff habits will be disappointed.
The Carmelite Sisters lead what FitzGerald calls a "contemporary contemplative life." In practice, that means they pray in a relaxed environment, rooted in modernity.
The sisters, who range in age from 37 to 89, wear simple dresses and sweaters when meeting visitors, who sometimes drop by unannounced to talk about personal problems. During a current renovation project, the nuns wore sweat shirts and jeans to clean out their 9-by-10-foot rooms - or "cells," as they are called.
"In these times in which we live, we tried to let the mystique drop away," FitzGerald said.
The monastery is independent, relying on donations and a modest endowment. Currently, it's undergoing a $1.6 million renovation, for which the sisters still need $650,000.
The Baltimore Carmelites are a cloistered community, in which the nuns venture outside the compound only for necessities, such as dentist's appointments, grocery shopping and trips to see relatives. FitzGerald, who has been a member since 1961, said she left the monastery no more than 15 times last year.
Still, the nuns are more connected to the outside world than in decades past. Most have computers, and when the renovation is complete, the monastery will be networked. In the evenings, some watch cable television, including CNN and such dramas as West Wing and Law & Order.
Anyone can call or visit. The nuns take turns monitoring the front door and answering the phone, a spiritual hot line of sorts where people discuss personal problems and questions of faith.
Some years ago, the Carmelites acquired a dog one night when a man dying of AIDS tethered its leash to the front door and left a note asking the nuns to care for it. They named him Lucky.
"That's typical of what happens here," said FitzGerald, noting that callers and visitors range from Baltimore's poor to state political figures and Protestant ministers.
Days full of prayer
The nuns typically rise each day between 5:30 and 6 a.m. and spend about an hour and a half in private and collective prayer. Then comes Eucharist, or Communion, performed by a visiting priest.
The nuns devote much of the rest of the day to administrative work, study, more prayer and helping visitors with spiritual direction. At 5 p.m., wearing white, hooded robes, they gather for Vespers in a stark, modern chapel with a green slate floor and a small altar made of white oak.
After singing hymns and psalms, they offer prayers. At one recent service, FitzGerald asked God to raise up great political leaders and restore services to the Iraqi people, "so that they might live in peace, freedom and justice." Nuns also offered prayers for those in need, including a man who had relapsed just after finishing a year of drug rehabilitation.
Five of the monastery's nuns are in training to take permanent vows. They include a graduate of Harvard Law School, a nurse and Bies, a 37-year-old political economist from Germany.
Bies, who worked in the German Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, said she experienced a spiritual awakening after a Mass in Geneva in the mid-1990s.
"I would dare to say it was like an awareness, a presence," she said. "I knew I had to change my life."
Bies was originally interested in working with the Franciscan Sisters, and a priest at her church in Bonn encouraged her to move to Baltimore, where she volunteered with the Franciscan Youth Center on Greenmount Avenue.
Later, she joined the Carmelite monastery.
A placid woman who smiles frequently, Bies says she's convinced the nuns' efforts make a difference. She doesn't know exactly how prayer works, but she believes that ministering to and praying for people can help them deal with their problems.
"It's not visible, it's not tangible, it's not like economics," Bies said. But "I really, deeply believe we have an impact on other people's lives."