What are the contents of a nun’s cell in Carmel today? In one monastery that I know of, they are as follows:
A bed consisting of three trestles, a board laid over the trestles, a straw mattress on top of the board, and bedding on the mattress, including a heavy, rather flat straw pillow and, perhaps, another more normal pillow. Each morning when the bed is made, all is covered over with a brown spread. If one has a small crucifix (I have that belonging to my maternal grandmother)this may be laid on the pillow or bed.
There is no closet or wardrobe and there are no hooks on the walls. Nothig is hung. Everything is folded. There are no drawers so night clothes and any little “extras” are folded and stored under the bed pillow during the day. At night the habit is folded and placed on the stool which has been moved to the foot of the bed.
The stool is moved about the cell for different purposes. It is placed near the door of the cell on days when the delivery of clean laundry is expected. It is moved to the desk for working or writing or reading there. At night, it is put at the foot of the bed to receive the habit. When not in use, it is moved to a neutral place against the wall.
The desk is a petite table, of moderate length but rather shallow and without a drawer. It is placed (and in some cells built) under the window to take the benefit of the daylight. A box fixed to the wall near the desk serves as a bookshelf. It may be kept filled and can hold about seven books. A “carton” sits on the floor, also near the desk, and is the closest thing one has to a desk drawer. Of heavy black cardboard with a ribbon to tie it closed at the top, it is made by the Sisters in their bookbindery on the upper floor. It contains a Sister’s writing materials – stationery, pens and pencils, etc.
Under the bed is a basin for washing in the cell in the morning and at night. During the day it is a storage place for our towel and other materials related to personal hygiene. Also kept under the bed is a commode, a plastic bucket with a handle and lid which is used at night in the cell and emptied in the morning.
In a corner is a tiny triangular shelf just big enough to hold two jugs, one larger than the other. We fill both jugs with water at night upon retiring to our cells. The larger jug is for hot water and the smaller for cold. The hot water we use to wash with at night and the cold in the morning.
The lighting in the cell is from a naked bulb either hanging from the ceiling or fixed to the wall, put on or off by pulling a string. The heating is from large round pipes running along the base of two of the walls which, in winter, are kept on from about 3:00 in the afternoon until 9:00 or 10:00 at night.
On the wall, normally near or over the bed, is a large black cross (not a crucifix, as there is no corpus). Near the bed or the door hangs a plain brown ceramic holy water font which we may drape with a rosary we have brought with us (my paternal grandmother’s rosary hangs over the font in our cell). Elsewhere on the walls there are two or three religious prints. These are already hanging when the postulant arrives. With the permission of her Prioress, she may exchange these for images she has brought with her. (I brought a holy card of our Lady of Mount Carmel in an inlaid frame, both brought back from Paris during World War I by my paternal grandfather as a gift to my grandmother.
(I also brought a photograph of St. Therese which I had had for many years, the size of a large postcard, behind glass, perhaps the most popular image of her, gazing directly into the camera. It is cropped so that it is mostly face with some veil and laid over a red background (now faded) for martyrdom. At the bottom of it, is an image of her signature, Therese de l’Enfant-Jesus et la Ste Face, and her words, “Le bonne Dieu ne peut pas inspirer des desires irrealisables.”)
This is the basic inventory of a Carmelite’s cell. As one settles in, other things start to appear. For example, I was given a bit of artwork to do and received some supplies for this purpose. At one point, the Novice Mistress and I were sorting out music to sing for Christmas recreations and so for several weeks I had more books than could be contained in our little shelf. As I had a bit of difficulty getting used to moving about in the darkness of the cell at night I was also given a “torch” to use until I no longer needed it. Apart from incidentals like these, the cell remains simple and bare.
Why is it important for a Carmelite to live in such material simplicity? Why does she have the attraction and the will to live this way? Because the richness and beauty and glory she longs for she seeks in God Alone. His Triune beauty and glory are ever indwelling within the enclosure of her own heart and it is this richness that becomes all her treasure in Carmel.