Welcome to the most peaceful place on the internet, the Twitter feed of a Catholic nun from Ireland named Sister Michelle Miller:
Good morning from the wet abbey in the valley.
Praying for all hospital staff and medical researchers. pic.twitter.com/ejaiwiyeiS
— Sr. Michelle ocso (@SrMJMiller) June 2, 2021
Just now…..out my window. pic.twitter.com/G9EjrIWqFk
— Sr. Michelle ocso (@SrMJMiller) May 29, 2021
Church before Lauds.
I lit the altar candle for effect. pic.twitter.com/26mQyjCWoW
— Sr. Michelle ocso (@SrMJMiller) May 22, 2021
Scroll through the feed and you’ll find more beautiful photos of the grounds surrounding St. Mary’s Abbey in Glencairn, Ireland, perhaps with a bird or a horse or sheep. There are pictures of flowers arranged inside the monastery for holidays. The accompanying text is usually a short caption or prayer.
Sister Michelle’s feed stands out because it is so different in pace and tone than typical social media accounts, even other “religious” ones. Sister Michelle is not rushed. She does not dispense spiritual wisdom or offer commentary on anything. In fact, she hardly uses words at all. No tweets come close to approaching Twitter’s 280-character limit.
“I took to Twitter as one could post photographs and be brief — a characteristic I have always had,” she told me earlier this year via Twitter direct message. “My English teacher once [told] me to elaborate more, I was too brief.”
I respectfully disagree with Sister Michelle’s schoolteacher. She is not too brief. In fact, her brevity is the point — she’s inviting us to join her reflective gaze, rather than scroll for snarky comments. Through her Twitter account, Sister Michelle is showing us how to lovingly contemplate the world.
Prayer and work
To understand Sister Michelle’s approach to Twitter, you have to know a bit about her community of nuns. Sister Michelle is a Cistercian, which is an order of Catholic monks and sisters formed in the year 1098. Cistercians leave behind their friends, families, and outside lives when they enter a monastery and devote themselves to simple living, work, long periods of silence, and prayer.
Cistercians live according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, a sixth-century book of precepts that guides monastic life. In the spirit of Sister Michelle’s brevity, you can get to the heart of the Rule with the famous Benedictine motto ora et labora: prayer and work, in Latin.
The ora part of that formula is rigorous at St. Mary’s Abbey and other Cistercian monasteries: seven communal prayer periods a day, starting well before sunrise, in which the sisters gather in the chapel to chant the psalms.
St. Benedict said monastic communities should support themselves with the labor of their own hands — which is where labora comes in. At St. Mary’s, the sisters make and sell greeting cards and the sacramental bread churches use for Holy Communion. They also care for the communal grounds. When Sister Michelle first arrived at St. Mary’s in 1997, the community kept a milking herd of cows, so she had to learn how to use the milking machine.
Now, with the herd having been sold years ago, Sister Michelle has worked in both the cards and baking departments and helps cook dinner on occasion. “We are physical beings; therefore it is good to keep in touch with our physicality through work or creativity,” she told me. “Sometimes, if you are lucky, they are both.”
Ora et labora is all about balance, Sister Michelle says, which is a key value in the Rule of St. Benedict. A day might have distinct prayer and work periods, but they ought to infuse each other, creating an integrated whole. Ora et labora “allows our whole being to be engaged,” she says. “To balance the physical occupation, we have the heart/mind occupation. If possible, a repetitious work can leave the mind free to meditate/pray.” She explains further:
Or when focus is required, like cooking the dinner, a developed prayer life hopefully will never be far below the surface, ready to emerge when called upon — perhaps to prevent the bake from burning. Trivial, but also as worthy of a prayer as someone who is sick and needs prayers. Prayer, or calling on God, can become instinctual in any situation — a recognition of our inability to be in control.
It takes energy to balance ora et labora, so Sister Michelle intentionally looks for renewal in solitude by reading or wandering in nature. She captures some of these restorative moments with her posts.
“This balance … is a formula that keeps us fresh, keeps the spiritual momentum going,” she said. Practicing ora et labora gives her a way “to return and start again” when things get off track: “It … provides a way to combat the difficulties of temptations, and the struggles of trials, and the flatness of the ordinary, the disappointments of failing or falling.”
It’s in these periods of solitude when Sister Michelle can grab a smartphone and document elements of her life at St. Mary’s. She started tweeting last year, as the Covid lockdown prevented guests from visiting the monastery for prayer. The abbess — or head sister — at St. Mary’s thought social media could allow the community to offer a “positive presence” in a new context.
I was at first surprised to see a cloistered nun tweeting so openly, but it makes sense: While Cistercians have always been set apart from the world, they are certainly not disconnected from the world. They are praying for the world around the clock.
In non-pandemic times, they welcome visitors for prayer and retreat. Thomas Merton, a famous American author and a member of a Cistercian (Trappist) community in Kentucky, wrote extremely popular books on faith and modern life for a wide audience. And in their ora et labora, I think Sister Michelle and her fellow Cistercians are modeling for the rest of us what an integrated, harmonious Christian life can look like.
I’m not moving into a monastery anytime soon — my wife and three kids would be confused and upset if I made that announcement — but the Cistercian witness challenges me to check my own life balance. Am I carving out time for prayer? Am I praying as I work, and completing whatever work I have in front of me without stopping every 30 seconds to check my phone? Am I remaining steady when my two younger kids are taking turns biting my arms? Do I ever see a bird with the care and attention that Sr. Michelle sees a bird?
‘A long, loving look at the real’
Regarding this last hypothetical question, about the bird: Sister Michelle’s Twitter feed calls to mind the late Jesuit Walter Burghardt’s definition of contemplation: “a long, loving look at the real.” That’s what her feed is: long, loving looks at the real. Twitter is often a place of quick, hating glances at the fake. It’s no wonder she stands out.
Moving through Father Burghardt’s formula, you can see how Sister Michelle models this form of contemplation:
What is the real? Burghardt writes that something happens when we encounter — and contemplate — what is most real, which is always concrete and specific, not “some far-off, abstract, intangible God-in-the-sky.” Reality is “the sun setting over the Swiss Alps, a gentle doe streaking through the forest; reality is a ruddy glass of Burgundy, Beethoven’s Mass in D, a child lapping a chocolate ice cream cone.” Sister Michelle is seeing and sharing real thing after real thing. She is not tweeting about “the beauty of nature” or other abstract ideas. She is tweeting this bit of lettuce in the garden and this particular horse named Guinness.
What does it mean to truly look? Burghardt writes that this encounter with the real means “I do not analyze or argue it, describe or define it; I am one with it. I do not move around it; I enter into it. Lounging by a stream, I do not exclaim, ‘Ah, H2O!’ I let the water trickle gently through my fingers.” Sister Michelle does not do commentary or analysis. She does not tell me how I should feel looking at this real thing. Instead, the power of her feed is that it invites me to look at the real with her. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the things we see every day are the things we never see at all.” That rings true for me. But Sister Michelle lives another way — and by documenting it publicly, we can try it, too.
How do we engage a long look? Burghardt explains that this “long” look is not measured in minutes or seconds, but by the internal disposition we bring to taking something in. A long look is “wonderfully unhurried, gloriously unhurried,” Burghardt writes. “To contemplate is to rest — to rest in the real.” He compares lines of tourists rushing past the “Mona Lisa” with someone at rest on a bench, riveted by the portrait — that’s the kind of lingering wonder he’s pointing at. Monastic life allows Sister Michelle to be unhurried. There’s no rush — the valley will be there tomorrow. And she shares the same valley over and over and over with the kind of attention one might spend in front of Da Vinci’s masterpiece. Sister Michelle’s long look is spread out over years, though, not just an hour or two. It’s disciplined looking, not haphazard. It takes a lot of practice.
How do we enter into a loving look? “Whatever or whoever the real, contemplation calls forth love, oneness with the other,” Burghardt writes. “For contemplation is not study, not cold examination, not a computer. To contemplate is to be in love.” Sister Michelle’s delight comes through in the meditative repetition of her photo subjects, which document slight changes in the same landscape throughout the year. She has the childlike wonder described in this second Chesterton quote:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.
According to Burghardt, this “long, loving look at the real” fills us in a way that the world was meant to — it inspires delight and wonder and joy because it allows us to see God’s handiwork, and be part of it ourselves. “From such contemplation comes communion,” Burghardt writes. “I mean the discovery of the Holy in deep, thoughtful encounters — with God’s creation, with God’s people, with God’s self.”
In general, my time on Twitter doesn’t lead me toward communion with creation, other people, or God. I’m constantly scrolling for jokes and “can you believe this politician did that” expressions of outrage. When I’m lucky, Sister Michelle gently interrupts my scrolling and slows me down. Her example speaks louder than any 280-character tweet could: