Sister cecilia: A simple life

Story by Victoria Caswell

Cagli, Italy, is a city of contrasts. Old and new. Young and old. Ancient and modern.

The world outside of the Monestario di San Pietro in Cagli, Italy, is modern on top of ancient. Cars and motorcycles buzz down the cobblestone streets, pushing pedestrians to the side. But inside the monastery exists a hidden world full of prayerful women who live the same simple life of poverty, obedience, and chastity that has been practiced since San Pietro was founded in 1300. While it once was home to up to 60 women, more than 700 years later it houses only eight. Three are about 40 years old, and five are more than 80.

Sister Cecilia Tarzi, who is 83, has fully embraced simplicity as a way of life. She is dressed in a pure white veil, black habit and Saint Francis-style sandals. Her softly wrinkled face peeks through the veil. She rarely leaves the convent. Instead, she stands behind a tall, wooden, stall-like door to talk to visitors.

Thick, wire-rimmed glasses cover nearly half her face, and her eyes glimmer like a forgotten jewel when she talks about joining the convent at 19.

“I read a book about the cloistered nuns,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I love their lives.’”

Sister Cecilia grew up in a small town outside Cagli. At the time, girls in small villages weren’t respected so entering the convent was the logical choice, she says. She adds that the convent allowed her to educate herself because she was never given a formal education. She says she has learned a lot living in the cloister because she has access to a library filled with books. However, she says the most important lessons she’s learned are to strive for peace and not compete. While she thinks people are naturally competitive, she says the sisters at the convent live, pray and serve each other.

Her days follow the same routine. She wakes everyday at 5:30 a.m., and then says morning prayers, known as lodi, with the other nuns at 6 a.m. She goes to Mass in the convent church at 8:30. The church is connected to the convent, so she never has to leave. The time after Mass until pausa is reserved for work. The nuns garden, wash laundry, iron, and clean the convent. Two of the older nuns are sick, so the sisters take turns caring for them. There is absolute silence until the 3 p.m. prayer.

After prayer, the sisters continue to take care of their house until 5:30 when they take turns reading about the spiritual lives of the saints. They say the rosary, and then everyone talks about their days. They watch television and read until final prayers and bedtime at 9:30 p.m. Even if Sister Cecilia doesn’t fall asleep at 9:30, complete silence is imposed until the routine starts again the next morning.
Sometimes the nuns enjoy a concert at the convent, but they rarely leave. They depend completely on the Cagli Providence to provide food; the doctor makes house calls.

Sister Cecilia says not everyone is suited for a religious vocation, but it was perfect for her. She prays every day for young girls to join the convent, especially since there are so few left in the monastery.

“If someone wants to join a cloister, tell them to come here,” she says. “You can study for a year to try it out.”

A portrait of Sister Cecilia

Sister Cecilia talks about her life.

[Click image for slideshow]