In today’s Gospel, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Now, if someone asked me that question out of the blue, I would have countered with another question, “Who lives next door to you?” Or if some one asked me, “Who is your neighbor?”, I would answer, “The African-American family who lives across the road from our monastery.” Or, when I was living at home, I would have given the name of the lady who lived in the next apartment. In other words, for me, a neighbor is someone who lives close to me. I know the exegetes tell us that the term “neighbor” in first century Palestine had a much wider connotation, yet I think my homespun definition still has value as I interpret the Mass readings for today. Jesus answered the lawyer’s question by recounting the now familiar parable of the Good Samaritan who was able to transcend social and political prejudices to draw near and become neighbor to the robbers’ victim. And so at the end, the real question is, “How can I come close to those who suffer and who need my touch, my compassionate love?”
But now for me, there is another question: I am a cloistered nun, and so by definition I am physically separated from 99% of humanity. Even in the monastic church and parlor, the places where I do have contact with my fellow men, an iron-wrought enclosure grille divides us. I am, quite literally, out of reach, but by that very fact I am not out of touch.
It is one of the many paradoxes of the enclosed contemplative life that the cloister which limits our physical availability,actually allows us spiritual access to every human soul. By our union with Christ, we actually have the ability to touch, to love everyone He loves.
The Sisters’ own families are usually the ones to experience this mystery most poignantly. At first,the physical separation from their loved one is most painful, but gradually the grille becomes the occasion of a deeper dialogue, a more profound relationship,a spiritual closeness that no spatial distance can break. We all know the sad truth that two people can sit next to each other shoulder to shoulder and yet be miles apart in mind and heart. It works the other way as well. By her prayer, a cloistered nun is closer to you than your nearest friend.