The beauty of holiness is in the face of a nun. Beauty untouched by any artificial, chemical, or cosmetic means can stun you, especially if costuming prevents you from viewing the rest of the body. When you are limited to the face you see with an intensity that eludes you if there is more to observe. It’s like being deprived of one of your senses, which accentuates and heightens and sensitizes the remaining senses. If you see a figure robed in black except for the oval of her face you see more than were she clothed in is called normal attire.
The beauty of holiness is evident in all ages. Age has not only its privilege but also its unique beauty. This is also true, then: the holiness of beauty may be seen in the face of a nun – and it is ageless.
Men have a particular appeal when they are robed in black, as well, but my most recent companions have been nuns and not monks.
This is not sexual curiosity; rather, an open intimacy draws you into the other’s world and allows you to speak freely and confidentially, and makes you feel as if only the two of you exist in this moment. This must be the reason why it feels natural and right and easy to engage in spiritual conversation with monastics. The accoutrements of ordinary life are swept away; that’s the gentle power of the habit she wears.
Orthodox monasticism is singular. Monks and nuns are not in orders as in western Catholicism or Anglicanism, with distinct garb pertaining to their order. Nuns and monks have no qualifying adjective like Carmelite or Benedictine. And they all wear the same black garb worldwide.
What purpose do these people serve? Many of us see them as useless and outmoded in the digital age. Not so. Bishop Alexander Golitzin, a contemporary Orthodox leader, reminds us that monks and nuns are scandalous, charismatic, and prophetic.
The nun is scandalous because she points toward a future not yet unfolded into the present; namely, the future of God. With no morbid touch, this unfolding future is what death holds: the promise of release from the cares of life, the promise of eternal rest –but in this life. The nun anticipates that end by shunning the material trappings and possessions that bog most of us down.
The nun is charismatic because she lives in the light of those gifts the Spirit promises to the faithful: love, joy, peace, patience, and wisdom. Beholden to none, she can be present and free for all. Her spirit is captive to no agenda, time, place, or conflicting commitments.
The nun is prophetic because she is a spokesman for God in her attitude, her demeanor, her thoughts, and her activities. The prophet is not an oracle or a fortuneteller. The prophet proposes by his or her speech, thought, and deeds that alternative spiritual path that leads to and proceeds from God.
Most of us don’t get it. These people pass by unnoticed or possibly as an irritant or challenge. In the old countries, however, they are sought out for counsel and companionship because people know the secret characteristics they show forth. They are sought because people know the beauty of holiness resides in their faces even as the holiness of beauty resides in their person. American monasticism took root. It is growing: half a century ago you would be hard-pressed to find a monastery. Today they are everywhere even if small, and they have begun to be a magnet not only for Orthodox Christians but also for many who seek honesty of spirit, natural humanity, and the beauty of holiness.