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Where does "semi-contemplative" communities comes from ?


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I have seen various english-speaking communities described as "semi-contemplative". I'm perplexed because I have never seen communities described as such in French  right now, or in the past (I have studied a good number of community). In French, a community is either "apostolique" (wich in english your translate by "active"), "monastique" (so "monastic" such as osb, moniales op, etc), and "contemplative" is used for some communities wich are related to an active one (such as the contemplative Good Shepherds sisters) or some new communities who have contemplation at the heart of their vocation but have an active part of their life (Fraternité Monastique de Jérusalem). But I have never seen a "semi" something.


I was wondering if it was a word used in the Anglo-Saxon world for a long time, or is it recent ? If it's ancient, do you have any exemples (let's say predating Vatican 2) ?


Maybe our resident historian @Nunsuchhas an answer ? It makes me very curious.

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I don't remember hearing this term before the 80's. I think the term semi-contemplative here may be the same as your contemplative. Here, monastic and contemplative are often used as synonyms or near synonyms.

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I think this may be a shift from the older "semi-cloistered" which again would be close to 'monastic' in that the sisters' apostolate was on their own grounds but in which they interacted with the public.

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The term is a modern one, and. may well be cultural. I remember seeing it in the Lexau book, Convent Life (published in the 1960s), and I think also in the various McCarthy guides to women's religious communities. As Nada's post suggests, the term has no canonical or "official" standing. It was used to describe communities that tried to bridge the distinction between the purely contemplative and the apostolic by observing elements of each. A couple of examples are the Religious of the Sacred Heart, and the Daughters of St. Paul.

"Monastic" is a different matter. It is often used incorrectly, as a synonym for "contemplative," or "enclosed"--which it is not. Monastic religious life is distinct from other forms. Its most common rendering, the Benedictine, even has its members take different vows form what most communities do. There are "active" monastics; this would describe most groups in the US, both women's and men's, who carry out ministries such as teaching, pastoral care, and even (in some cases) health care). And there are more purely contemplative monastics--the Trappists being an example, but also groups like the nuns at St. Gertrude's Monastery.

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I have an aunt in the Religieuse de Sacre Coeur de Jesus (RSCJ, established 1800 in Amiens by St. Madeleine Sophie Barat), and in the pre-Vatican-II era they were classified as semi-cloistered. That's not the same terminology as 'semi-contemplative,' but the goal was the same. They taught in their own schools, with attached convents for the nuns and dormitories for boarding students; outsiders could visit the sisters (during limited times, such as Sunday afternoons); the sisters didn't leave the premises except for business purposes (so, for instance, my aunt could not attend the weddings of her sisters, nor could she visit them or their families in their homes). The point was that the sisters would have more time to pray, to stay silent & recollected, to avoid a hectic schedule and unnecessary distractions. 

However, I don't know if those practices have an official Church name, or if those were practices developed within the order - the kind of practice that would be specified in a "customary."

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I think that "semi-contemplative" and "semi-cloistered" were both used informally and do not have canonical or legal standing. Many "active" communities followed the same restrictions as the RSCJs.

Some women's communities modified their cloister restrictions when they came to the US, because it was impossible to observe them here. [Just as some modified their rules against teaching boys or taking care of male orphans.] Generally, they did not modify their constitutions, but they did modify their Customaries. I found a set of such modifications, for example, in the Customary for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, noted specifically as "exceptions for the American Provinces."

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@Nunsense, you've got a better grasp of this than I.  I just went through much of the 1917 code of canon law, and there is no "semi-cloistered". There is a growing sense in there, though, of papal and constitutional cloister being different.  In a work done on the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, the sisters definitely talk about being "semi-cloistered" which they seem to apply to the decades immediately before VII.  They link this with being more contemplative, but not because they were not able to follow their constitutions, but because that was what always was intended by their founder.  Becoming 'active' was a modification, though, although many of the sisters may have preferred it. 

But to Nada's question, and as JHFamily writes, 'semi-contemplative' seems to be a more modern thing.  Whereas women religious in the past knew people were more concerned with cloister, they adopted this language of 'semi-cloister'.  Whereas I think many discerners of more recent times may value solid time for prayer more (that isn't the community prayers - Mass, Divine Office), and so certain communities adopted this 'semi-contemplative' wording to signal this.

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I don't think this still is the case, but I knew some 'semi-cloistered' Sisters (such as a friend who was a Sister of the Good Shepherd) in the past. They did observe enclosure. They could have contact with students, but could not leave the premises without a special permission. If a Sister had to be rushed to the hospital, they had to cable Rome. The permissions to leave the cloister were very specific. For example, it would not be 'they may leave for medical treatment,' but 'permission for x-rays on the 22nd,' and further permissions if there were other appointments. Nor could they go anywhere else - if the x-rays were in a hospital next door to a church, the Sister could not stop in.

Those who were teachers could not go out to research libraries, give or attend presentations that weren't on their grounds, or even attend a parent's funeral.  In some cases, even having family visits (or meetings with parents, not students in class) meant being behind the grille. 

IIRC, Rome did eventually remove enclosure for Sisters who engaged in active works - but, again, bear in mind how restrictive that was. For reasons of which I've no idea, some of the semi-cloistered communities took this to mean they had to give up wearing the habit and having such practises as adoration. 

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Posted (edited)

So, this is not a canonical term but a cultural one, ok ! And it seems we went from semi-cloistered to semi-contemplative. I find that how sisters talk about themselves is a very interesting topic to explore : the community I'm close with has exactly the same prayer life than a community who, on the internet, market itself as "semi-contemplative". But we see ourselves as a 100% active order, from the foundation in 1800. So, with the same prayer life, there's two different ways in wich a community can see itself.

Edited by NadaTeTurbe
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There were a few orders in the UK described as semi contemplative. This mostly meant a lot of the work they did was retreat work and running a guest house. They weren't enclosed but didnt usually do much work outside their convent.  

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5 hours ago, truthfinder said:

@Nunsense, you've got a better grasp of this than I.  I just went through much of the 1917 code of canon law, and there is no "semi-cloistered". There is a growing sense in there, though, of papal and constitutional cloister being different.  In a work done on the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, the sisters definitely talk about being "semi-cloistered" which they seem to apply to the decades immediately before VII.  They link this with being more contemplative, but not because they were not able to follow their constitutions, but because that was what always was intended by their founder.  Becoming 'active' was a modification, though, although many of the sisters may have preferred it. 

 

I think you mean me (@Nunsuch). Anyway, while most of my research focuses on the period prior to the 1917 Code in the US, I have published a bit on the last century. Prior to 1900, there really was only one form of canonical religious life for women--the enclosed, cloistered kind--with everything else (by then by far encompassing most sisters) seen as "exceptional. In 1900, the papal document Conditae a Christo finally recognized active, uncloistered religious life for women as an official thing. The Normae to codify this were issued in 1901, and were incorporated into the 1917 Code of Canon Law.

How strictly apostolic communities (and, later, contemplative ones) observed cloister and enclosure varied widely--and still does. I've stayed as a guest in some Carmelite "enclosures," while a few active communities (as late as the late 20th century) would not permit seculars to even eat with vowed members. 

It's all pretty much a "deep weeds" thing. But what it does mean is that what many people regard as "traditional" religious life, especially the non-contemplative type, really relates only to about half a century--from 1917 (in some cases, 1901) to Vatican II. The communities that experiment are much more like those of the 19th century and before. A good place to start, if you want to learn more about the roots of this, is the work of Elizabeth Rapley, especially her book, The Devotes (but also her Social History of the Cloister). 

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@Nunsuch

It was indeed you I meant to tag. 

My work on teaching nuns is focused on the 17th and 18th centuries, and so again, there's basically only one definition of cloister, although plenty attempts to create new understandings.  (I think some historians are sometimes at fault in seeing cloister as much more absolute than it was in some occasions - that is, the community will be cloistered, but the customaries are very clear that workmen, confessors, domestics, etc can all enter, sometimes with the bishop's permission, and under certain circumstances not.  It was not a breach of cloister for these people to be in the cloister, despite what some historians have implied).  I'm extremely familiar with Rapley's work.

My main archival work occurs in a community which, although the sisters go out freely and most do not wear habits, I must be escorted because the building itself still has its cloister.  Most people would probably consider these nuns to be 'active', and I'm sure by the standards here, 'liberal,' and yet.

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Sister Leticia

Good evening! 

Thank you @Nunsuch and @Luigifor referring to my order, the Society of the Sacred Heart. Since our foundation in 1800 we have always been wholly contemplative AND wholly apostolic. A shorthand for this might be to say that we are active/apostolic contemplatives.

But we would never call ourselves semi anything!!

The contemplative aspect of our vocation isn't specifically linked to enclosure. When we were founded women's orders were expected to observe some form of enclosure, as Nunsuch has already explained, so this was something our foundress had to accept. (There are some notable exceptions, like the Daughters of Charity who got around this by only taking annual vows)

So, from 1800-1967 our sisters ran schools and colleges on their own campus, which they only left for medical or business reasons, or to travel to another community. In 1929 we started a community in Oxford for those who needed to study for degrees, and they had special permission to go out to lectures. The lifestyle within these communities was somewhat monastic, with a lot of silence (except while teaching or doing other work, obviously). This ended after Vatican II - but I would say that although there's no rule of silence, our strong contemplative core means we still cherish and create interior and [a certain level of] exterior silence. 

Just to add to the mix: there are some congregations of active Carmelite sisters, who basically live the sort of enclosure we used to have. So, they will run a school or hostel, attached to the convent, and only go out for specific reasons. We also have an order, founded in the UK in the 1950s to care for the elderly, which is part of the Benedictine family, so I imagine they too have this type of enclosure. But all these sisters probably wouldn't call themselves semi-contemplatives. 

@GraceUk I'd be interested to know which UK orders you're thinking of when you said there are few described as "semi contemplative" - and whether this is how they describe themselves, or how others have described them? I can't think of any.

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