02 July 2009

Revisiting Sister Nazarena

Back on 30 December 2008, I posted a story on Julia Crotta, also known in religious life as Sister Nazarena. She was a Camaldolese recluse. My post was based on a book I read titled, “Nazarena, an American Anchoress.” Time Magazine also did a story on her. Here’s a look back to that article from 13 April 1962.

In a coarse sackcloth robe worn over a hairshirt, she sits alone in her stone-floored cell. Her food is bread, water, an occasional cooked vegetable. Through a small grilled window she may look into a chapel, and down a narrow passageway there is another barred window where she takes her daily communion. In the cell is a straight chair, a table, a board that serves as her bed and a small washroom with a cold shower. Not since she closed the door behind her 16 years ago has she ever left this confined area.

This austere regime belongs to a 54-year-old American woman, one of the nuns in the Camaldolese Convent in the fashionable Aventine Hill section of Rome. Her name is Julia Crotta; to her sister nuns, who may now and then hear her cough or murmur but never see her, she is known as Sister Nazarena.

All the Camaldolese sisters rise at 4 for prayer, observe silence for most of the day, abstain entirely from meat during Lent and Advent. But Sister Nazarena practices a degree of asceticism that is extraordinary even for her order. She is one of the few nuns in the world with ecclesiastical permission to attempt the hermitlike life known as reclusion. Her only contacts with the outside world are with the priest who daily gives her communion and with the convent abbess who visits her from time to time. This week Sister Nazarena and her sister nuns are busy cutting palm leaves for the Vatican's Palm Sunday. It is a time of "extra strict silence."

Not even her family quite understands why Julia Crotta undertook so arduous a vocation. She was born and raised in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Julia, her family remembers, was a cheerful, fun-loving girl with an aptitude for music. She studied violin and theory at the Yale School of Music, but left to take a four-year liberal arts course at New Haven's Albertus Magnus College for women. "She loved life, dancing, good movies and good clothes," says a brother-in-law.

After college, Julia taught violin and piano, worked in Manhattan. She was briefly engaged to marry, but broke it off and joined a convent of Carmelite nuns in Newport, R.I. The Carmelites were not strict enough for her; she left the convent and went to Rome, where a priest advised her to try the Camaldolese. In 1945 her abbess gave Sister Nazarena permission to attempt reclusion.

Rome's Camaldolese sisters make ends meet by cooking and scrubbing for a local pensioner, and laundering altar linens for a nearby Benedictine seminary. Sister Nazarena shares in the convent work by sewing and cutting the palms; her materials are delivered to her cell by a nun who taps at her door, whispers "Deo gratias," waits long enough for Sister Nazarena to hide in a recess of her cell, then sets the cloth or fronds inside the door.

At night, long after the other nuns have retired, she stays awake to pray; in her cell she has a "discipline" with the tiny whip that certain religious use to scourge themselves in mortification. In her solitary life, Sister Nazarena prays, explains one nun, "for you, for me, for all of us." Solitude with her God seems to agree with her. "She is the most serene person I have ever known," says her abbess Mother Hildegarde. "She is a saint."