It seems like it has been a long time since I closed the Novitiate News, and indeed it has been a long time but when you find out how my first eight or so months went, I am sure you will understand.
For those of you who are familiar with Notes from the Novitiate, this site will be a continuation of personal reflections on my living here in this Visitation Monastery of Tyringham, Massachusetts.
These musings cannot in anyway be taken to mean that my experience is similar to everyone else’s. Indeed not, although the human experience which we all share has numerous similarities, probably more than we know.
Sister Alice Marie, who was my Novice Mistress (or Directress), frequently said that a true religious vocation did not really start until after Solemn Vows. She felt that until that definitive step was taken, there was always hidden away in our minds and hearts, an “escape plan”, an “out” if we really wanted to change our minds. Once we’ve got a black veil on our heads, that’s it, we’re in forever. Hence the addition to the original title of this newsletter. Just as a bride prepares for marriage with some idealistic and even romantic ideas of married life, so too did I prepare for a life as a Solemnly Professed nun. I can’t help it; it’s just the way I am.
I remember that throughout nursing school, I stubbornly hung on to the romantic notions of nursing. I didn’t realize it until shortly after I graduated and was working on busy surgical floor in a community hospital. I was caring for a patient with bone cancer who was hemorrhaging. I had just changed her bedding and was carrying an armload of bloody sheets to the soiled linen room. I remember thinking, “Okay. This is not romantic. Not at all.” A few episodes of being swung at, spit at, scratched, threatened, and vomited upon and I was well on my way to reality.
Reality is fine. I have actually come to prefer reality. And so reality reasserted itself in the months from June to November of 2006.
While it is a fact that over the six years I spent here in formation before Solemn Vows I learned that the life of a contemplative nun is not about staying in the chapel all day and praying endlessly in transports of ecstasy, I did still harbor a few romantic notions about being a “black veil”. It’s true. My Superiors will read this before it goes on the web site, so I am found out now. The Good Lord soon relieved me of these unnecessary fantasies.
Six days before I was to give my Solemn Vows to Jesus Christ through the hands of our Superior, Mother Marie Joan, in the middle of my retreat, Mother Marie Joan died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack. I was in the thick of the activity.
We were all stunned. It was a devastating day for all of us. Dramatic, yes. Romantic, no. Still, we went on as everyone must and does under unacceptable circumstances and somehow we do accept the circumstances.
Two days after my profession, we buried our “Mother”.
Twenty days after my profession, the Chapter Sisters (of which I was now a member) convened to vote for a new Superior. In the interim I studied the Constitutions to refresh what I had read about voting and what to look for in a Superior and I spoke with the Assistant to the Community who holds the reigns of leadership during a time such as this.
The day, June 20th, arrived and so did the Bishop to preside over the proceedings. We voted in the chapel under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Our new Superior was elected: Mother Mary Emmanuel Dominguez.
By early July, my family in Florida had phoned to tell me that Mom as finding it increasingly difficult to care for Dad though the night and then be on her toes all day as well. Additionally, she herself was feeling poorly. On the advice of their lovely and kind family doctor, Hospice was called in to help with Dad, and my Mom and sisters were astonished at all they were able to accomplish in the space of a week.
As July was fading away so were Mom and Dad, for different reasons. Dad was asked to temporarily go to the Hospice Respite House for five days so Mom could rest and regain her strength. All these news bulletins I received by phone were alarming to me, if I may make such a gross understatement.
By now, Mother Mary Emmanuel had been Superior for about one month and was still getting used to being addressed as “Mother”. After this phone call that Dad was being transferred to the Respite House, I found Mother in her office. She looked at my face and at once sat me down on a chair while she was on one knee in front of me (a complete reversal of how one speaks with the Superior, by the way). I was barely able to relate this latest bit of news while she listened attentively and sympathetically.
When I had finished, she said, “You must go home at once.” I opened my mouth to respond and she continued. “The Council and I have already discussed it and we feel you should. Call your sister Suzy and tell her and we’ll arrange everything.”
I was due to arrive in Florida on the day after Dad’s planned discharge home. I flew south after having been in the monastery for six years and not having seen Daddy for three years at the time of my First Profession in 2003. The plan was that I would stay with Dad and Mom for seven days and visit with “the girls” (as my sisters are referred to as a group), as they were able to come.
Ah, plans. Well it was a good plan. What really happened was that I spent my time divided between visiting Dad in the Hospice and Mom in the hospital. Two days after I arrived, Mom was admitted to the hospital for a pacemaker. When the week came to its conclusion, Mom was still in the hospital and Dad was still at the Respite House. Mom was scheduled to go home two days after I left.
So I left. Need I say how heart-breakingly difficult that was for me to do?
When I returned home to the monastery, I stepped in from the garage and stood at the crosswalk of the two cloisters—one leads to the Refectory and the other to the central stairs. It was almost three o’clock in the afternoon and all was quiet and still. The sunshine streamed through the windows and set the wood floors glowing, as though there were windows on the floors. Everything, everything was so beautiful: the uncluttered halls, the light, the peace, the sacred silence. I resisted the urge to drop to my knees and kiss the floor in thanksgiving. I was home! Overpowering confirmation of my vocation washed over me, as well as immense gratitude.
The words of Psalm 27 came to me:
“One thing I ask of the Lord, this I seek:
to dwell in the Lord’s house
all the days of my life.”
Although I’ve always interpreted this psalm to be referring to heaven as the location of God’s house, I do in fact fulfill this psalm here and now on earth.