Founding a Benedictine monastery near Nairobi

As mentioned in my last post, early October found me in Nairobi for a second time in three years, teaching monastic art as part of an educational program for cloistered nuns from all over Kenya and about five other African countries. During this time, Sr. Lucy Njeri invited me to visit Our Lady Queen of Angels, her new monastery in Kiambu, a town about forty-five minutes outside Nairobi. When I last saw her in 2015, she had just founded the new community, along with Sr. Scholastica. Now, just three years later, they are up to fourteen members.

View from the monastery to the main road

After various other adventures, we drove out of town into hills of tea and coffee plantations, which were lovely, soft in various green tones under a bright blue sky. As we came around a bend in the road, a large church rose up on a hill to our left, and I wanted to joke with Sr. Lucy that there was her monastery. I held my tongue, though, not wanting to be unkind; most likely, I thought, they probably were still living in a small dusty house of some sort. Imagine my surprise when we doubled back from taking pictures with the tea, and pulled off the road up a rocky drive toward that big church! “Here’s our monastery,” she said. I was floored: “You’re joking.” It was lovely, a large pale yellow building high on a hill overlooking the road curving below, with a big church still under construction, a tall bell banner still encompassed with wooden scaffolding. Astounding.

The monastery church, mostly built

 All the sisters came out to greet us, and no sooner did we enter the inner courtyard than they began this joyful dance to a Kiswahili song, welcoming me and praising God for all the blessings that rain down from above and those we offer back up. I was overwhelmed by so much joy and kindness in humanity. If you’ve ever seen The Mission, imagine the scene where the cardinal arrives at the mission and all the people dance and sing on his arrival. Truly I felt like a guest welcomed as Christ!

Greeted by the sisters

The sisters were probably happiest to see Sr. Lucy, who had been away for several weeks. She is full of good cheer and kindness, but also devoted to prayer. Over my two days with her she told me how she had been given the call to found this community when she was the only African sister living in a declining community in Rome. And while she has had to overcome obstacles and difficulties, God has provided at every step of the way. Her trust is just unshakable. Sometimes she doesn’t know where their next meal is going to come from, and she doesn’t tell the community how worried she is, but she prays to God, and somehow, the food shows up. While the new monastery is beautiful, they live very simply, with no hot water after a certain point in the day. (I now can imagine our own founding sisters going hungry while they hauled bricks up the hill for our beautiful church in Indiana.)

Sr. Scholastica shows the outbuilding where some cooking is still done over a fire between hot stones.

Each sister works a portion of the big garden, and they keep chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, and goats, in a little house at the edge of the property that once was their actual first monastery. They had to build a wall first, as people kept stealing building supplies. Once someone climbed over the wall and stole a goat, so they also have a watchman now. At one time, this stretch of road was a dangerous place where people regularly were attacked, robbed, raped, and sometimes killed. Sr. Lucy faced down those who threatened her, and now it is a place of peace. At one time there was no clean water source. She wrapped and buried a statue of Our Lady, and prayed for water for the monastery, and when the dowsing man came to look for water, he located four different excellent places to dig wells on the hill. Truly, it was almost like St. Bernadette being given the water of Lourdes. Our Lady continues to watch over the earth and the water, and a big statue of her stands in the middle of their main courtyard, Our Lady of Grace.

Our Lady of Grace, finding water and watching over the monastery

Praying with thsisters was powerful. They have a small chapel near the end of a hallway that eventually will open up to the main church. Normally they get up and pray around 4:00; I was there on a Sunday morning, so we rose and prayed at 6:00. By praying an extended Office of Readings and Matins before Lauds, they pray all 150 Psalms in a week, a remarkable feat most Benedictines simply hold up as a nice ideal, despite our founder’s instruction in the Rule. They regularly have a time of Eucharistic Adoration before the Office begins, and pray the Angelus together. Perhaps because they are so small, while the life is rigorous, it isn’t rigid. I get the impression it is demanding, yet simple, joyful and life-giving. They speak together of Jesus and the blessings they are receiving; sisters regularly give reflections on the readings for the coming day. Their love for God is so palpable, their joy so clear, they really make one want to be a better sister. My mind and heart were just overwhelmed with awe being with them.

The monastery chapel

The last time I was in Nairobi, during recreation times in the evening, I drew sketches of a lot of the sisters, but ran out of time before getting to Sr. Lucy. So this time, we talked about what I might draw while I was there, and she and Sr. Scholastica decided I should draw a big Saint Benedict on one of the main walls that people see when they come up the drive. I found a few pictures from a book in my room, and we settled on an image of a statue of Saint Benedict from Subiaco that looks like he is welcoming people. After a quick sketch on paper, I took a pencil to the wall and a couple hours later, we used a platter to make him a halo, adding a big inscription, “Holy Father Benedict, Pray for Us.” Sr. Scholastica and Sr. Lucy kept me company, and at the end they invited the rest of the community to come

With Sr. Scholastica

see, a surprise that made them smile. They took some pictures and sent them to the motherhouse in Rome, where apparently the sisters there were delighted. So at least they had a drawing that could be a foundation for a more permanent painting. Sr. Lucy’s nephew apparently is pretty artistic, and I was told he painted it a couple days after I left. Presently they have one beautiful statue of St. Benedict in their chapel, from Rome, and a nice icon or two, and several very roughly painted fiberglass statues that Sr. Lucy makes from molds. It will take time to

Interior of the monastery church, still under construction

beautify the space, but at this point, something is better than nothing. We talked about artistic schemes that might work in the main church when it is finished, but that project will take more thought.

In any case, I was delighted to spend time with them, and to see Sr. Scholastica again, my Benedictine soul sister on another continent. She is wise and intelligent, gentle and kind. I could see her as their next leader. 

With Sr. Lucy, a foundress of vision

My heart was so moved by the combination of their poverty and the greatness of their vision that I told Sr. Lucy I wanted to give them everything I had to give: I gave them my copy of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, my copy of the Rule, and the nice eraser I had brought with my sketching pencil. I promised next time to bring more things that would be useful. Sr. Lucy asked, “What about your whole self? You could help me found the second monastery!” While a part of me would love to do it, I had to remind her of her own words to the sisters, that she isn’t the one who calls people, but God. Yet who knows what lies ahead? She is an inspiring woman planting remarkable seeds of faith. May God bless her community’s efforts!

View down to the monastery gatehouse
A monastery workroom

 

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