11/21/2008, 00.00
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Contemplatives in Korea, players in inter-faith dialogue

by Theresa Kim Hwa-young
The country’s first cloistered convent was founded in 1939 by Carmelite sisters. Since then the presence of contemplatives has grown. Today they are around 300. Monks and nuns have also left the peninsula to set up monasteries in other Asian countries. Buddhist culture’s high esteem for people who pray makes contemplatives’ life easy to understand to the local population. It also favours inter-faith dialogue between Catholic and Zen Buddhist monks.
Seoul (AsiaNews) – About half of the population of South Korea is atheist but the silent presence of contemplative orders is growing.

The first cloistered monastery was founded in 1939 when a group of Carmelite nuns came from Paris, France, to Suyuri, Seoul.

They were followed by Teresian Carmelites from a variety of countries who established other convents in the peninsula and beyond.

Faithful to the missionary spirit of their order, cloistered Carmelites opened convents elsewhere in Asia, the latest being the one in Phnom Penh (Cambodia) in 2005.

In Korea contemplative orders became important for inter-faith dialogue.

In a society marked by Buddhist tradition monks living apart form society in prayer are viewed with respect and esteem.

Catholic contemplatives entertain special relations with Zen Buddhist monks, contributing to mutual understanding of their respective religions.

Steeped in secularism and unable to educate its younger generations to the value of life and the meaning of existence, Korean society is receptive to a life devoted to God based on the three evangelical precepts of poverty, chastity and obedience.

The various convents try to be economically self-sufficient. Monasteries that belong to religious families that can count on the third order get help from their lay brethren, but cloistered places also get support by ordinary worshippers.

There currently are 113 contemplative Carmelites, but more vocations for the cloistered life are on their way, especially among the young.

Carmelite monks also operate in the country. They came in 1974 and now have 46 members divided between six monasteries.

Along with the charism of the Teresian Carmel, other cloistered orders exist in South Korea, namely the Carthusians, the Contemplative Missionary Fraternity, Dominicans, Clarissian sisters and the Cistercians.

Altogether, almost 140 monks and nuns lead a life dedicated to prayer and contemplation.

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