An ancient melody fills the small stone chapel at Baltimore's Carmelite monastery as 18 cloistered nuns conclude their evening prayers with the haunting verse they chant 10 times a day:

As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.

The sisters genuflect before the altar, file silently down a narrow hall, enter a sparsely furnished recreation room and switch on the 7 o'clock news.

Television is one of the many changes that have come to the Carmelite Sisters of Baltimore, the oldest community of Roman Catholic nuns in the United States. Since they rarely venture outside the monastery walls, the sisters consider television important to their vocation.

"We need to learn what's happening in the world so we know what to pray for," says Sister Robin Stratton, who has been in the order 23 years. "We have faith that our prayers make a difference."

The following morning's mass reflects Dan Rather's rundown from the previous night. Seated in a large semicircle, wearing everything from simple skirts and blouses to the traditional long habit, the sisters offer up individual prayers.

"Bless us with clean air and end the acid rain," says Sister Constance Fitzgerald, 49, an audiovisual specialist who recently prepared a slide show about the order.

"God, please watch over the latch-key children," says Sister Mary Eileen McNamara, 63, the community's chief vegetable gardener.

"Help the victims of terrorism and oppression," says Annie Chozinski, 23, a sign-language interpreter and prospective Carmelite.

And as always, there is a string of prayers for peace--in the Middle East, in Central America and throughout the world.

The Baltimore Carmelites are among the nearly 4,000 nuns in America who have remained in the cloister while the vast majority of their sisters have increasingly ventured into the world. These cloistered groups--called contemplatives--have increased in membership in the past decade, while the active groups have declined.

In the 20 years since Vatican II directed religious orders to rejuvenate their communities, the Carmelites moved "from a 16th-century life to a 20th-century life," says Prioress Patricia Scanlan, 51, the head of the Baltimore community. "The major way we changed was to let the world in to us more--through television, telephone, visitors. Carmelites believe that each of us is called by Christ to search the depths of divine intimacy in solitary prayer."

In today's complex world this simple life has great appeal, says Sister Annamae Dannes, 42, a Cleveland Carmelite who is president of the Association of Contemplative Sisters. "Our numbers are increasing, I feel, because people today are seeking deeper meaning in their lives.

"The women coming to us now are much older than they were in the past, and most communities require them to have college or work experience, so they're making a well-informed choice. Those of us called to contemplative life feel that we touch millions of people through our prayer, which is quite different from the perception of helplessness so many people experience today."

Compared with most of the 66 other Carmelite communities in the United States, says Dannes, the Baltimore nuns are "pretty with it. They're one of the more renewed."

About a dozen women write or call each month to ask about joining the Baltimore community. Like many contemporary contemplatives, this community requires prospective members to take psychological tests.

"Many people think this life would be a great escape," says Scanlan. "But what you can't escape from here is yourself.

"We want to make sure people who come to us are not running away from the world, but moving towards the community."

Scanlan entered the community in 1950, when the monastery occupied one city block in downtown Baltimore--a single block that formed the boundaries of the nuns' lives. In those days each sister's hair was cut short and tucked inside a white linen toque, her body was hidden under yards of heavy brown serge and her feet slipped into woven hemp sandals--even in winter. Nuns could not visit their families, watch TV or read secular newspapers. Friends and relatives could visit monthly. Schedules were strictly followed, and one sister served as liaison with the outside world.

Changes "happened gradually by community consensus," says Scanlan, over the past 20 years. "We studied the life of our foundress," she says, "and tried to drop nonessentials that got in the way of our goal--which is following Christ through prayer."

The community's current monastery--where it moved in 1961--is nestled on 27 tree-lined acres in Towson. The nuns' rooms occupy one wing of the U-shaped stone structure and are generally off-limits to outsiders. Each cubicle contains a bed, desk and chair, and is decorated with holy pictures and a plain wooden cross. The sisters hang their few pieces of clothing on a rack in their rooms--jeans for gardening and housework, skirts and blouses for prayer, white robes for special services. Most are donated or purchased from thrift shops or inexpensive stores.

"Our foundresses wore the simple clothing of the poor women of their day," says the soft-spoken prioress, who studied nursing before entering the cloister. "Most of us do the same, although some of the older sisters choose to wear the habit."

Cloister doors are free of grilles or grates, and the sisters go out "whenever it's necessary," says Scanlan. "One sister does the shopping, we attend meetings and retreats, we vote. If a filling pops out, we go to the dentist." Sisters may visit their families about once a month, she says, "depending on need--like if a mother is sick--and how near the families are . . . We're flexible."

Each sister spends at least two hours a day in private prayer and the group gathers in the chapel four times daily to pray. During daylight hours they do the mundane work of running a residence--cooking, gardening, paying bills, maintenance, correspondence, sewing.

The day officially begins at 6:20 with lauds, the morning service of glory and praise. But many of the sisters have been awake for an hour or more of private prayer before the sharp buzzer calls them to the chapel for the first communal service. They take their assigned seats and pray silently until all have arrived. Individual sisters lead the group in prayer--most of which is sung or chanted. One sister plays the organ, several others accompany some songs on the guitar.

All is as it was for centuries--with a major difference. Throughout the prayerbooks, words or verses have been crossed out and replaced with penciled-in phrases agreed upon by community members. "He dealt mercifully with our fathers" has been changed to "He dealt mercifully with those who came before us." "Watch over your sons" has become "Watch over your children." "Man is dust" is now "We are dust."

Later, over a lunch of tuna casserole and vegetables from the garden, Sister Nancy Miller, 33, explains: "As a contemplative, you spend countless hours striving to grow in a prayer relationship with God, to find the God within. So after a while, reading language that always says 'he' and 'man' when it talks about God, hits you in your gut. All of a sudden you realize, 'I am made in God's image, and I'm a woman--so why is it always he, he, he?'

"What that's saying is there's someone who's superior and someone who's inferior, but that's not the way I understand Jesus Christ is towards people. Catholic means universal--we are all brothers and sisters. What happens when you begin to make the language universal is you begin to see the loving, nurturing, more feminine side of God."

Like several nuns in this community, Miller calls herself a feminist. "There's no way that you can get into religious life as a woman and not be touched by the issue," asserts Miller, who was in a teaching order for seven years before joining the Carmelites in 1981. "We're a self-determining community of women who deal with a male hierarchy just as women do outside. The church, like everything else, has been fashioned by its history and culture. As more and more people work towards justice that will change."

After lauds there is a brief break, then five buzzes signal a priest's arrival for 6:45 mass. Jesuits from nearby Loyola High School take turns celebrating the Eucharist with the Carmelites, and a handful of lay people pray in the rear of the chapel.

After prayers, each sister eats a quick breakfast and sets about her day's work. Today, Sister Barbara Jean LaRochester hangs sheets to dry in the sun. She joined the contemplative group in 1972 after 17 years in an active order working as an X-ray technician, a civil rights worker and a teacher's aide at an inner-city school in Philadelphia.

"There comes a point," she says, taking a clothes pin from her mouth to speak, "when you have to get off the merry-go-round. I could only do so much with my two hands. Through prayer I feel I can touch the world."

In the kitchen Sister Marie Therese Brosseau, 54, bakes bread. Upstairs Sister Mary Magdalen Brunck, 85, pays bills. "I've never regretted my decision," says Brunck, who left her job as a bookkeeper 62 years ago to join the community. "I love to be close to Christ and live with him every day."

Next door in the infirmary Sister Beatrice Oswald, 89, gazes out the window at two sisters digging in the garden. Once married to a European concert pianist who felt called to become a Catholic brother, Oswald and her husband received special dispensations to enter religious orders in the mid-1930s. Today she is smiling graciously, as usual, but will speak only in German.

At noon the monastery bell rings for lunch; then the sisters go back to work or prayer for the afternoon. Vespers begins at 4:45, and is followed by a light supper. Most sisters end their day in solitary prayer.

"The basic tension for all of us in contemplative life," says Sister Colette Ackerman, 41, over her meal of macaroni and cheese, is the pull between the desire to seek God's assistance through prayer and to pitch in and assist humanity personally.

"I think we all occasionally want to go out and do something about the problems of the world," she says. "Like everyone, we have good days and bad, times when you just go through the motions of prayer. But it all comes back to faith."

"Sometimes you wonder what it would be like to be a wife and a mother," says Sister Robin Stratton, 43. "But every choice means leaving something behind, and had I chosen the married state I would not have experienced this life. I fought the call for a while. Who of us didn't? But I know that something in me answers to building a relationship with God and these people.

"To be a Carmelite is to become the prayer I pray--it is to allow Christ to be formed in me until it is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me . . . We live in a world that is overwhelmingly desperate for power, prestige, success . . . We are to be counted among the anawim, the poor of the earth who rely on Yahweh."

While the nuns don't go outside to help people, she says, "we do get actively involved with the people who come to us." Sisters answer the phone around the clock--most calls are from people seeking the nuns' prayers. "People will call at 3 in the morning, in terror and despair, asking us to pray for their son who is having surgery. They may not even leave their name. But it's an existential act of faith for them to call; to reach out for help beyond what medical science, what technology can do.

"We get lots of calls whenever there's a crisis--both for our prayers and to make sure we know about it. When the World Series came, we were flooded with calls. One of our sisters had a real dilemma during the playoffs over whether to pray for the White Sox or the Orioles."

In addition to calling, some people visit the sisters to seek spiritual guidance. "They often repeat a similar theme," says Sister Anita Schuman, 60, "that there's got to be more to life than the rat race of job and friends and apartment and jewelry. A woman came here once who said she'd achieved everything she'd set out to achieve. But . . . she wondered, 'What does it mean? What am I doing with my life?'

"Part of our life is to be a witness, to demonstrate that living together in peace like this, totally dedicated to prayer, is possible. The energy that goes out from any group--for good or ill--affects the world at large. We will do more than pray for people. We will pray with them. We are always here. And we care."

Tomorrow: The Oblate Sisters of Providence