Sr Lily Scullion, St Mary's Abbey, Glencairn



From my own point of view and my own experience


The concept of  listening is central to Cistercian spirituality. The start of all spiritual movement is found in the heart. "Learn the heart of God through the Word of God!', was a quotation given to me by Sr. Eleanor R.S.M. that stirred up the desire for God within my heart. I began listening to the inner voice and heard the question, "Am I doing what God is asking of me?". In seeking discernment with a Dominican Sister, I experienced a woman with a tremendous capacity to listen - a listening with one's heart. It was like being in the presence of God and so I was happy to follow her advice when she said;


"Lily apply for the Youth Leader post in Ballymurphy

 and if offered the Job, take it and stay there

 until God gives you a sign."


I got the job and worked and persevered there for almost three years. Ballymurphy is a Belfast ghetto area and an I.R.A stronghold in the seat of the 'Troubles' in the 'Six Counties' of Northern Ireland. It was a painful and difficult experience. Often as a form of escape, I would apply for other posts, but in the end remained working with the poor of the area.


In order to survive I turned to Jesus in the daily Eucharist who gave me the strength and courage to continue working and to cope with the pain and suffering that this entailed. One night, in the silence and solitude of my bedroom l had an experience that I can only liken to that of Jacob wrestling with God.[1]  I wrestled all night with God. I was physically helpless. I felt the closeness of His presence and I was afraid : afraid of what was going to be asked of me; afraid of losing my identity if I let Him take over my life; afraid of being alienated from my friends and from the 'normal' people of my everyday life. I was filled with a humbling fear when I thought of my sinfulness, the many times I had played hide and seek and the many times I had blocked Him out of my life. Now there was no escape. I felt surrounded, overcome, overwhelmed by His powerfulI presence. It was an experience of dying - face to face alone with God. Realising yes, I must let go and enter into this freely and accept the reality of the situation.


This letting go is not easy, it is a time of pain and of struggle. Is this not the persistent condition of our lives? The perspiration, the pain, the fear were  all very real as the wrestling, the bargaining went on. The night was dark and long. Dawn came and a gentle voice spoke these words.

 "Lily, it is enclosed life I want of you. "


I was shattered, confused, bewildered, and scared. What did this mean? I was reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah: 'I have called you by your name, you are mine'.[2] To be called by name is a very powerful, touching and moving experience.


It is impossible to describe what happened in that intimate encounter with the Lord. When I came to the point of being still and present to this experience, I realised it was the Lord who spoke to me and amidst tears of sorrow, joy and gratitude, I responded saying :



"Yes Lord, You have allowed me my way for all these years,

 so now, Lord, it is over to You, do with me what You will.

I don't have a clue what You are asking of me, but I give You all I have and trust You to lead me wherever you want me."


With this I experienced a great sense of inner freedom and peace. When morning came I was still shaken by the experience and I knew life was going to take on a new direction. I did not need to consult anyone. He had spoken clearly and 1 had yielded to the magnetic attraction of God. In my heart I felt an inner strength and courage to trust in his unfolding of the journey ahead of me. I could say that the Lord took possession of me. I was filled with a new confidence and openness to follow through the response and commitment I gave him in that very intense and intimate encounter.


On the 21st May 1980, I met Sister Agnes of Glencairn and through her I experienced the gentleness of Christ which aroused my curiosity as to the lifestyle behind such a disposition.


 I set out to visit Glencairn at the end of June to see how pressed flower cards were made. On the last two hours of the journey I could feel an inner conflict emerging. An inner dialogue started up. The reality that I was going to spend a weekend with nuns became overpowering. So much so, that on arrival at the Abbey entrance gate, I turned the car and began my journey home again. Aftrer an hour of retreating, I stopped, I knew 1 had to keep my appointment and turned around once more. Outside the Abbey doors I was confronted once again with the word 'Enclosed' which I hadn't given any thought to since my encounter with the Lord. The bargaining ended with my decision to stay the night if there were no grilles. There were no grilles. I was snared, I had to stay the night. In fact I stayed for the weekend and enjoyed seeing the making of the cards and working in the garden.


On my journey home I was caught by an inner peace which resulted in my handing in my notice at work that evening and writing a letter to Glencairn saying I was coming to join at the end of September.


From the beginning of my novitiate I was taught to focus on Christ and it has been my experience that when I take any focus off Christ, Cistercian life becomes difficult and to an extent meaningless.


I begin to follow my own desires, concentrating on the weaknesses of others and getting stuck in feelings of inferiority. All of this gives rise to conflict and pain.  For me, this focusing on Christ which demands discipline in order to live in and through the Spirit of Christ, has meant the daily carrying of the cross of my humanity.


Giving time and space to be with Christ in silence, prayer and solitude did not come naturally to me. Before coming to the monastery, I lived a very active life as a full time youth worker, amidst the bombs, the bullets, the relentless noise of army helicopters overhead and the screaming of armoured cars, tanks and guns and the sufferings that resulted from this. Coming to terms with the silence and peace of the monastic environment was my first hurdle, as you can well imagine. It all demanded patience with myself and others with me.


I slowly grew to appreciate the value of silence and solitude, and to realise that what at first seemed a waste of time e.g. lectio and prayer, were all a means to enable the spirit of Christ to transform and shape me.



            The experience of the human dimension of community living can be life giving or death dealing depending on how we perceive various situations. As a Catholic growing up in the 'Six Counties' of Northern Ireland, in order to have a sense of identity, I learnt at a very young age to hold my ground and to be direct and frank about my feelings on issues important to me. These traits gave rise to a lot of misunderstanding with others in the Glencairn community. Sometimes I was perceived as being aggressive, while I perceived myself as honest and straight forward. Arising from this, I experienced alienation and felt alone. This caused much pain and suffering. Reflecting back on this I realise that the root cause of this conflict came from a cultural difference. This resulted in an experience of deep darkness for me. It was like being in a deep and bottomless dry well. Nobody seemed to understand what I was going through. When I shared this experience with a confessor, his response was "It is rather early to be going through the Dark Night." So I was left to stay with it. During this time I identified strongly with the passion of Christ.


I gradually emerged out of this darkness into light by being accompanied by my Novice Mistress who journeyed through it with me. I experienced her patience, gentleness and respect which was mediating for me the patient, gentle respectful presence of Christ. This was the dawn for me.


The Rule of Benedict is Christocentric : Benedict tells us again and again "To prefer nothing to the love of Christ",[3] "To hold nothing dearer than the love of Christ".[4] Benedict encourages us to be constantly aware of God's Presence in our daily lives and this for me is manifested in relationships with others, in the beauty of nature, in manual work and in the Liturgy. The living out of this is what I think our Abbot General, Dom Bernado, is inviting all of us to, when he speaks of the mystical dimension of our Cistercian charism in his recent Circular Letter :


So at this hour of human history, at this moment of cultural transition we monks and nuns must turn our lives with a new decisiveness towards the Mystery, so as to be mystically transformed by it. Our Christian Mystical experience is in the last analysis an experience of being reformed and conformed to Christ.[5]


Part of this reforming and conforming to Christ begins in the Novitiate. We do not always respond to the call of Christ in our everyday setting, so we stumble, retreat and fall into darkness in our effort to come into the light. From time to time we are ambitious, full of pride and our wills are stubborn and require a lot of melting through the steps of humility. St. Benedict points out in our Rule that "The first step of humility is unhesitating obedience which comes naturally to those who cherish Christ above all".[6] I think this obedience is the core of 'Conformity to Christ' in Cistercian life. Obedience and love cannot be separated. Christ loved and because he loved, 'He made himself obedient, even to accepting death, death on a cross".[7]




St. Benedict opens his Rule with the words,


"Listen carefully my child to my instructions

  and attend to them with the ear of your heart".[8]


Thus the importance of listening to this Rule and its insights into life, with feeling, i.e.  'with the ear of the heart'. In this way we learn to hear what God wants in any given situation and with the grace of the Holy Spirit we make ourselves ready to open our hearts in loving response to this call. This is obedience, the willingness to listen for the voice of God in our daily lives which will wrench us out of our own little worlds. As human beings we often fail to listen and hear the voice of Christ. At times some of us may experience the absence of Christ more than His Presence, as we move along our journey.


In the following ways I experience His presence in my life. For example in my nineteen years as a Cistercian Sister, I am constantly uplifted when I see the Sisters happy and fulfilled in Glencairn. I think of the late Mother Imelda Power R.I.P who inspired me greatly by the warmth and joy she exuded and her very real faith amidst the ups and downs of daily life.


My community is composed of forty Sisters, some of whom are elderly and infirm.  Despite this they are in the Church ready to sing praise to God at four a.m. on a cold winter's morning. Because of these qualities of commitment to prayer, joy and faith which are incarnated in the lives of the Sisters, the wider Church is constantly beeing drawn to Glencairn to unburden their anxieties and worries to a kind and listening ear, to request prayers and often  to participate personally in the Liturgy of the Hours.


The younger people too, are inspirational, as they bring with them vitality, freshness and enthusiasm for the life. They also show a lot of compassion towards our elderly Sisters which in turn reminds me to ask myself if I am taking my Sisters for granted.


My family and my personal friends visit the Abbey and are energised by participating in our Liturgy and I in turn benefit from the constancy of their faithful  friendship which both challenges and supports my call to monastic life. While the richness of this Liturgy has the power to energise and comfort me, it also calls for commitment, selflessness, selfgiving, discipline and fidelity from me and from each member of my community.


I am also blessed by the geographical setting of Glencairn situated in the picturesque countryside of rolling hills and bordered by the River Blackwater (The Irish Rhine).  I am sure many of you will associate with me when I say God speaks very forcefully through nature, as I marvel at the wonder of His creation.


My early formative years were at times spent with "Garden of Gethsemane experiences". One specific area of suffering was centred around a clash of personality with my Superior and obedience in this situation did not come easy. My prayer was that of Dom Marmion :


"Lord you have brought me here. If you want me to stay it is up to you".[9]

Often when I was going through this darkness, my novice mistress's words,


"To have Christ is everything.... Thank God to be in Glencairn."


gave me food for thought and helped me through the struggle and to realise, yes my calling is greater than my suffering. This suffering was rewarded on my Solemn Profession day with a tremendous sense of peace and the grace of being able to commit myself totally to Christ in the way of Cistercian life. A few years later, I experienced the joy and freedom of a reconciliation between the Superior and myself.


The spiritual climate of our day is characterised by the struggle for authenticity in human living. The quality of our relationships with one another is a measure of our relationship with God. As monks and nuns in community we are called to be an epiphany of "Church"/ecclesia. In the ceremony of Profession the community acknowledge the importance of supportive prayer. Sharing with others is an essential aspect of our vows. The Constitutions speaking on participation in the common life, calls us to 'mutual care, mutual co-operation and mutual obedience'[10] and states, 'The Abbess is to govern the Sisters with reverence for the human person created in God's image ..."[11] I see this as calling us into a deeper communion with each other through dialogue where we listen to each other's truth. Sometimes when it comes to assessing situations, decision-making, drawing up House reports etc., a community may find itself in the dynamic of conflict where members become defensive, displaying their anger, ego-tripping, criticising and judging others. Unity is lost unless centred on a higher good. This requires mutual obedience where each person renounces his/her own will in service to the other. Where we open ourselves to the promptings of the Spirit, we are enabled to conform to Christ's will for us.


A group of Cistercians who were able to conform to the point of martyrdom were the Atlas Brothers. Theirs is a prophetic message for our generation. Reflecting on their lives as presented in 'A Heritage Too Big For Us', what strikes me is the extent of their unanimity. This group of monks who over a period of a few years, had continuously dialogued together in the face of imminent death, reached a common belief about what conformity to Christ meant in their given life situation. In their dialogue they had listened to and heard each other, and eventually became one effective member of the Mystical Body of Christ inviting their Algerian Brothers and Sisters to the Table of Love and Reconciliation. To become capable of being obedient even unto death, death on a cross is the highest form of freedom for a Christian. Just two thousand years ago Jesus did exactly that and opened up the way for us in and through the Paschal Mystery. Our Brothers of Atlas through their love, fidelity, humility and obedience arrived at that level of freedom and unity in the Spirit and thus were snatched up into the loving embrace of Our Eternal Father.


Yes, the Atlas community were an ordinary group of monks living out Cistercian Life in an extraordinary way, a way which radically conforms to Christ. Here is a description of the community in Fr Christian"s own words:

"Our life as monks binds us to God"s will for us, which

 is a life of prayer and simplicity,manual labor,

 hospitality and sharing with all, especially the poorest.

 These reasons for living are a free choice of each of us.

 They engage us unto death..."[12]        

We, the first Cistercians to stand on the threshold of a Millennium have witnessed and shared in the grace of these lives given to 'God and Algeria'. With humble hearts, let us thank God for their lives, for our own lives. I pray that each of us will respond to that same reforming and conforming to Christ, that in moments of crisis and change, we may embrace the spirit of these words in Fr. Christian's Testament :


'I should like when the time comes,

 to have the moment of lucidity

which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God

and of my fellow human beings

and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one

who would strike me down."[13]


One with you in Christ

           Sr Lily Scullion Ocso

       St Mary's Abbey, Glencairn









[1] Genesis 32: 26-32

[2] Isaiah 43:1

[3] R.B. Ch.4

[4] Ibid. Ch.5

[5] 1999 Circular Letter, Dom Bernardo;  R.B. Ch.5

[6] R.B. Ch.5

[7] Phil. 2:8

[8] R.B. Prologue

[9] Christ the Soul of the Monk, Dom Marmion

[10] Constitutions 16:2

[11] Ibid. 16:3

[12] A Heritage too big for us, Dom Donald Glynn, Nunraw

[13] Fr. Christian"s Testament as quoted in A Heritage too big for us