And so, in part, it was.
But the battle in the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites, which sits secluded along state Route 24, is also a deeper clash - a clash between liberals and conservatives: Between differing concepts of religious life, and between differing concepts of obedience.
On one side of this quarrel stand the Mount Carmel prioress and Bishop Frank J. Rodimer of the Paterson Diocese, both of whom think that the world has been too far removed from the 13 sisters who live within the monastery - and who want to reacquaint them with the world they surrendered once, when they entered the cloister, with the paradoxical spiritual purpose of helping the world by prayer and contemplation.
Siding with the bishop and prioress, apparently, are seven other sisters who have silently accepted the relaxed rules around which the convent turns.
On the other side - locked behind the convent's infirmary door, actually, talking on the telephone, pouring over newspaper stories about their efforts - are the five insurgent nuns who, really, just want the world to stay away, so that they may pray in peace.
"I felt I was being called here. . . . It's a sacrifice to come here. It does hurt. But you do it willingly," said Sister John of the Cross, who, at 28, is the youngest of the rebellious sisters and has yet to profess her final vows.
"I didn't know I was walking into this," she added.
She was talking softly. She said that two of the nuns with her are in their 30s, a third is in her 40s and that Mother Philomena, a former prioress at the convent, is 71.
"I think we're making history. History for the order of Mount Carmel, and history for the church," she said.
Actually, the history of the Discalced Carmelite nuns - discalced means barefoot because the sisters once wore no shoes as a form of penance - extends back to the 16th century, to the great reformer and inspiration of the order, St. Theresa of Avila. There are currently about 60 Carmelite convents in the United States.
But spiritual life throughout the Catholic Church began changing in the mid-20th century, with the Second Vatican Council, and for at least a decade the cloister has been percolating with discussions about the need to bring the world closer, somehow, to the women who live prayerful lives within the convent walls while the world's traffic streams steadily past them.
SUMMER OF 1987
The battle outright over those changes did not begin in Mount Carmel until the summer of 1987, when Bishop Rodimer asked a nun from the Terre Haute, Ind., Carmelite convent to take up residence there.
In a news release yesterday, Bishop Rodimer said that he sent for Mother Theresa Hewitt to oversee changes at Mount Carmel - an unusually direct decision regarding the inner workings of a cloistered convent - because "the sisters (had been) of two different minds about life at the Carmel . . ."
"Like families, (religious orders) sometimes need the help of outside parties," Bishop Rodimer said yesterday. "It is my responsibility as the diocesan bishop . . . to offer that assistance."
Mother Theresa of the Trinity Hewitt came to live in the convent, then.
And the former, conservative mother superior, Mother Marie-Terese, who had lived all her convent life in the Morristown monastery, finished her three- year stint as prioress and went to France to translate a book.
"Within the first two weeks," according to Sister John, Mother Theresa Hewitt began relaxing the rules of the convent: A television, which had formerly been turned on only as an infrequent treat for the sisters, was installed in the recreation room. Then Mother Theresa brought in a VCR.
"The younger ones suffered dreadfully, because we've been so exposed to television," Sister John said.
The older ones . . . since they want this liberalization, they went for this," she added.
DISNEY AND POITIER
The nuns watched Disney's Babes in Toyland, and Lilies of the Field with Sidney Poitier, as well as news broadcasts of the papal visit to the United States, documentaries and inspirational films about the lives of the saints.
They also got to see some comedians, Sister John said: "Imagine my surprise, looking at Rich Little . . ."
"I think the impression is they are watching soap operas every day," said Tim Manning, a spokesman for the diocese. But, he said, "Babes in Toyland was available in celebration of one of their feast days."
The younger, conservative sisters balked. They retained a priest in Portland, Ore., to help them. Father Milan Mikulich, Sister John giggled, over the telephone line, is nicknamed "the dragon killer."
Then further complications set in last summer. The insurgent sisters feared that they would be evicted from the convent, after a discussion - complete with a hidden tape recorder - with their superior.
Bishop Rodimer said, however, that the insurgents had agreed to go to other Carmelite convents.
Mother Theresa, who would not comment yesterday, was quoted in an article by Maura Rossi in the diocesan newspaper, the Beacon, as stating that the battle has been a "heartbreaking, dreadful experience" that resulted from the younger nuns' "lack of willingness to obey their prioress . . ."
"Being a cloistered nun," Mother Theresa is further quoted, is "not a selfish retirement, not just doing your own thing."
"When we professed our vows, we professed our vows to the rule and constitution, and the superior is expected to uphold the rules and the constitution," Sister John countered yesterday.
"Saint Theresa of Avila said that her biggest boast was that she was a daughter of the church. That's (also) my biggest boast," she said.
Yesterday, the bishop said he had called in the assistance of the Sacred Congregation for Religious in Rome - Father Kevin Culligan, a Carmelite priest
from Arlington, Texas, will interview all the sisters and make his report to the congregation, which will then make its recommendation to the bishop.
"I love all the sisters at the Carmel regardless of what has happened during the past week," Bishop Rodimer said. "I am prepared to set aside anything rash which any sister may have said in anger or in fear during this week. . . . I ask the sisters to do the same toward each other."
Above a door at the front of convent, over the entrance to the chapel, are inscribed words from the Old Testament.
"I will bring them into my holy mount," the words state, "and will make them joyful in my house of prayer. Alleluia."