Today's Feast brought a tidbit I never remember hearing before: On this day the Church prays in a special way for the intentions of cloistered religious. In his Sunday Angelus message last Sunday, Pope Benedict said this (thanks to zenit.org for the translation):
"The day after tomorrow, November 21, on the occasion of the liturgical memorial of the Presentation of Mary Most Holy in the Temple, we celebrate "pro Orantibus" Day, dedicated to remembering cloistered religious communities. It is a particularly appropriate occasion to thank the Lord for the gift of so many persons who, in monasteries and hermitages, are totally dedicated to God in prayer, silence and hiddenness.
Some wonder about the meaning and value of their presence in our time, in which many urgent situations of poverty and need must be addressed. Why "shut oneself" forever behind the walls of a monastery and deprive others of the contribution of one's talents and experiences? What efficacy can prayer have to resolve the numerous concrete problems that continue to afflict humanity?
In fact, also today numerous persons often surprise friends and acquaintances when they abandon professional careers, often promising careers, to embrace the austere rule of a cloistered monastery. What leads them to take such a committed step if not their having understood, as the Gospel teaches, that the Kingdom of heaven is "a treasure" for which it is worth abandoning everything (cf. Matthew 13:44)?
These brothers and sisters silently witness that in the midst of daily vicissitudes, at times extremely convulsive, God is the only support that never falters, the unbreakable rock of fidelity and love. "Todo se pasa, Dios no se muda" [Everything passes, God is unchanging], wrote the great spiritual teacher Teresa of Avila in her famous text. And, given the widespread need that many experience to leave the daily routine of the great urban agglomerations in search of appropriate spaces for silence and meditation, monasteries of contemplative life appear as "oases" in which man, a pilgrim on earth, can go to the sources of the Spirit and slake his thirst along the way.
These places, apparently useless, are, on the contrary, indispensable, like the green "lungs" of a city: They are beneficial for all, including for those who do not visit them or perhaps do not know that they exist.
Dear brothers and sisters: Let us thank the Lord, who in his providence, has willed that there be cloistered communities, masculine and feminine. May they not lack our spiritual and also material support so that they will be able to fulfill their mission of keeping alive in the Church the ardent expectation of Christ's return. Let us invoke, for this reason, the intercession of Mary, whom, in the memorial of the Presentation in the Temple, we will contemplate as mother and model of the Church, who unites in herself both vocations: to virginity and to marriage, to the contemplative and to the active life."
I've been blessed in my life to have some interaction with cloistered religious. In my first year of seminary, I was assigned to a food pantry/soup kitchen in Alexandria, Virginia. One day we loaded up trucks and brought food to a Monastery of Poor Clares. The sister who greeted us asked where I was from, and when I responded I was from New Jersey, her face lit up and she told me she was from Red Bank in the Garden State! This began a "pen pal" relationship which has continued since. That first day, my fellow Jerseyan gave me a book to read about cloistered life, written by a Poor Clare Abbess. I was so happy when I saw it appear in an Ignatius Press catalog, because it'll give anyone a deeper appreciation and understanding of the particularly unique vocation to cloistered life (as well as make you laugh out loud at times). Maybe you'll want to put the book on your Christmas list, just in case the cable goes out during a winter storm.
Here in my diocese we're blessed to have a cloistered community of Carmelites. Take some time to check out their website to get a good read on their vocation.