SHE SWOOSHES into the room, her hand guiding the folds of her long dark brown robe out of her path. She walks over to the thin screen and leans toward it, smiling. In a lilting, shy voice, she introduces herself.
That alone is a rare occurrence.
It is one of the few times in the past 28 years that she has talked to a stranger. Once a year she has no TV or radio, no subscription to the newspaper that her neighbors in Alexandar read regularly without a second thought.
Her name is Sister Clare, and she is a member of a Roman Catholic order of cloistered nuns called Poor Clares.
The order started 75o years ago, and this branch is the strictest in a strict field. There are roughly 1,000 Roman Catholic nuns in this country who have taken a vow to remain enclosed-within their monasteries-for their entire lives.
The newest group of Poor Clares from a conservative branch the Collitine Poor Clarest moved to Alexandria's over a year ago at the invitation of the Arlington diocese bishop. They recently moved out of a makeshift convent in a cmodest house and settled into a monastery built for them in Alexandria.
"If any life doesn't make a crumb of sense without God, it's our life," said Sister Mary Francis, the abbess of a convent of Poor Clares in Roswell, N.M. that spawned this new one. Sister Mary Francis (who is often addressed as Mother Francis) also is the head, or federal abbess, of one national group of Poor Clares.
"Once when we were trying to get a zoning change for the monastery," Arlington Bishop Thomas Welsh said, "Sister Francis jokingly suggested she call the authorities and tell them she was a federal abbess to see if that would get it done any quicker."
Sister francis appeared behind the screen with Sister Clare who heads the Alexandria convent Sister Francis explained her trip from Roswell. "Well, someone's got to keep the holy water fonts filled and the clocks running," she quipped, then looked up in mock horror. "Oh, don't you print that! People will believe it!"
Within minutes she is joined by other brown robed nuns who slip into the room behind the screen silently on bare feet. (They wear no shoes inside.) They look relatively young, in their late 20s and 30s. (The nuns do not want to reveal their ages. They say they do not think about ages. They say they do not think about age. "We probably look younger than we are ," one said later.) They look fresh-scrubbed. They smile easily and laugh with great relish at any of the abbess' jokes.
Sister Francis' face is soft-looking and gently lined. It is framed, almost sealed, by a long black veil. In her late 50s, she is attractive, smiles often and laughs easily.
She has written a widely read book about the order ("A Right to Be Merry") and does much of the talking for the other nuns. They occasionally join in. Still at one point Sister Francis turns to Sister Clare and asks her opinion of an aissue. Sister Clare defers softly, saying, "Oh, mother, you say it so well."
Indeed Sister Francis does speak articulately on the subject of the order as if she were a practiced lecturer, having long ago collected her thoughts on the subject, always expecting the most awkward of questions.
She answers them all with a reassuring smile that signals she understands how strange the order must seems to some. Or somethimes she nods and comments "That's a very good question."
She is never flustered, and only once-on the subject of whether a young woman deciding to enter the cloistered Poor Clares must always be a virgin-does her smile fade a bit and her answer with a polite request that that topic not be written about.
The nuns pray and sing hymbs seven times a day. They are up at midnight for these prayers (they sleep in their habits). Then finished at 2 a.m., they go back to sleep and rise at 5 a.m.
Birthdats are not celebrated, but name days (theanniversary of the profession of their vows) are.
They give up meat as a penance, but little treats like ice cream, given to them by well-wisheders, are saved for special days. Breakfast is bread and coffee. Dinner is soup, potato, and a vegetable. During dinner, someone reads out loud from the Bible or from biography.
What they know about the outside world comes from the clippings that friends bring them. They also get copies of the Arlington Catholic Herald and U.S. News and World Report.
"We read very little of it," says Sister Francis. "The sisters need to be infromed about world events.But we don't need to know every detail about every murder and crime."
Still, many have sought the contemplative life-if only for a few weeks here and there. Eugene McCarthy once spent time in a monastery. Author Thomas Merton was a cloistered Trappist priest. Psychiatrist Robert Coles, author of the five-volume "Children of Crisis," two volumes of which won the Pulitzer prize, occasionally retreats to a monastery for time alone.
In some Oriental religions it is simply expected that a person will spend a requisite year or two in a monastery.
"I'd recommend five years in a Trappist monastery for everyone," said one writer who did that after graduation from college. It was a very rich resource period in my life."
Yet, some cloistered nuns look to the writings of Vativan II (the caritatus Perfectae), which tell all religious orders to pursue education, as a sign to leave the walls of the cloister at least occasionally.
The Colletine branch of Poor Clares doesn't see it that way and the resulting difference of interpretation distresses everybody.
"They go up in smoke at the thought of being more liberal," said one nun of a liberal cloistered order in another part of the country. "They write to the vicar and everyone else trying to keep us all in line. They've caused an awful lot of trouble to the rest of the contemplatives."
But for conservative Poor Clares their lives must be roooted totally in enclosure.
"We want to create a controlled environment for the sake of the contemplative life," said Sister Margaret Mary of the Poop Clares in Alexandria. "That doesn't mean we have nothing coming in from the outside. But we want to sift through the ideas about theology and religion coming in. It's not necessary to our way of life to go out to get ongoing education. It's even harmful to go out to a university. If someone else wants to do it differently, that's fine-as long as they make it clear it's not the official way of all Poor Clares. That's what we object to ."
"They're not waiting for someone to liberate them," said Bishop Welsh. "The dorrs are locked from within, not without."
"Physically we step back," Sister Francis says. "The more you're totally for God, the more you're totally for the world. And if we have a girl who wants to give only to God and not to people-if we ever let her in-I hope we get her out real fast.
"We want the right kind of introvert," she says. "You know how often two women cannot live under the same roof," she says. "Here, there are no blood ties, no hobby group; they don't have the same interests at all. It's a comminity of faith, a spiritual community.
"Some people would think it's the kind of life for loners," she says. "This is no place for loners. It's a life committed to solitude. But our founders, St. Francis and St. Clare, were real-people persons."
Every young woman who wants to join the Poor Clares is sent to a psychologist first for test.
"We don't send them because we hear a screw loose in her head," Sister Francis says, "And we don't ever receive people becasuse the psychologist says this is the person for you. We want to know about areas of strengths and weaknesses."
Weaknesses uncontrollable temper,clinically introspective, not oreinted toward people having unhealthy ideas about sex and marriage.
"Sometimes people think you would have to be disattracted to marriage to join our order," said Sister Francis. "I would never receive a woman loke that, Marriage is the vocation God made most women for. If there is not that understanding of the beauty and the sacredness of marriage, how can one sublimate it for God?"
Sister Clare says later about Sister Francis' remark, "I think what mother was saying was that we'renormal women. Some people think we don't know anything9"
There were no visions or strange voices that made Sister Francis want to join the Poor Clares. "I had read about St. Francis and St. Clare," she remembers. "They were my kind of people as saints. They just ran away in the night I loved the high romance of it."
Indeed, Clare, a young (18), rich, beautiful woman did run off into the night on March 19, 1212, dressed in her best clothes and jewelrym to be the first member of the Second Franciscan Order, started by St. Francis of Assis. She met him and his followers in a small chapel that night, changed her clothes for a plain gray gown and became the first Poor Lady, later called the Poor Clare nuns. Her parents were furuous. Despite their efforts to stop her, the order has flourished for some 767 years.
"I canht tell what it was that made me join," said Sister Francis.
All she knew was that it was urgent. She left St. Louis University just a semester before she would have gotten her degree in English. "People throught that was the apex of craziness," she said . "I was sure."
There was nothing strange or very contemplative about her girlhood. She dated, loved to dance, loved to sing.
"How could I leave my mother in tears?" she asked rhetorically. "How could I do this give up all the things, I love-studying and dancing and singing?"
But she did it, and she still can't tell you why. "There's a certain parallel in marriage," she said. "How does a girl know when she's in love?"
The Poor Clares have no problems getting recruits. Two young woman, both college graduates, both in their early 20s, are planning to enter the convert in New Mexico. Another two have come recently to talk with Sister Francis about entering.
Sister Francis says, "I like to say to people, 'Hey, haven't you heard? There's a vocation crisis.'"
A ballerina once entered the order to prepare for her final vows as a Poor Clare. (The entire process takes about seven years.) She left eventually, not taking her final vows; but before she left, she taught the nuns in Roswell a ballet, which she filmed. The nuns danced in their habits.
"When we danced the Passion Dance [commemorating the Passion of Christ during his last days on earth], the dancer showed the film to her class," says Sister Teresita. "They all wanted to dance in clothes like out habits."
"She thought the headdress was a frame for our faces," says another, running her fingers along the outlines of her face. "She said, 'If only women could realize how nice these make their faces face look.'"
"I could say earing our habits is penitential," says Sister Miriam, who once attended Berkeley University, a subject of teasing from her fellow sisters, "but they're so beautiful. The habit is our ideal. It's very adaptable."
Many nuns in other orders have chosen now to wear street clothes instead of habits. "We figure thaths their business," says one Poor Clare, "but we're sorry they put it aside so quickly."
When they pray, it is for the people who have requested prayers. During times when Prisident Carter met with Israel prime Minister Menachem Begin and Eygptian President Anwar Sadat, the Poor Clares prayed for them. They also pray for members of Congress. "Physiacal propinquity is monor" says one nun. "People on the subway are physical very close, but they don't know each other. We don't have to be at Camp David to be verh close to government leaders. I shall very likely never see Pope John Paul II, but he's very close to us."
"We can't explain our lives," says Sister Clare. "They are supposed to be hidden. If no one knew what we were doing, we'd still be doing it. We'd keep doing if for another 700 years."* CAPTION: Picture, Sister Francis, front center, and Sister Clare, standing center, with other members of their order, standing behind the screen at the Alexanderia monastery of the Poor Clares. Photo by Harry Naltchayan-The Washington Post*