Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go

Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go

Last week, fifteen years ago, my sister entered a Carmelite cloister.

At the beginning of the school day, I sat for a couple minutes, looking at my calendar announcing March 19th and remembering what had transpired other years on the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Fifteen years ago, we embraced, believing it might be the final time here on earth. Five years ago, we embraced as she moved north to establish a new monastery. And every year in between, I have recalled with tenderly fond pain the life we have been called to enter into as the family of religious.

I spoke about my sister’s vocation with my sophomores at great length this year. While I didn’t intend to spend so much time on it, they asked question after question and I found myself desiring to share this story with them. They were particularly struck by the great physical sacrifice that is found in the life of a cloistered nun. While I have been able to embrace my sister since her entrance, each time is a gift and never expected or something I can claim as my due. I explained that it is because my sister loves us that it is a sacrifice for her to not embrace us or be present for some of the big moments of life.

“But you didn’t choose that life. Why do you have to make that sacrifice when God didn’t call you to be a cloistered sister?”

Perhaps without knowing it, they stumbled upon the question that must be answered for each family member of a religious brother or sister. Why must I make this sacrifice when I’m not the one with the call?

Continue reading “Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go”

The Date Was March 19th

The date was March 19, 2004.  I was a young teenager about to experience one of the greatest sacrifices of her life.  The sacrifice would begin on this day and continue for the rest of her life.  This was the day my sister entered a cloistered Carmelite monastery.  While I didn’t know exactly what to expect, I knew that it would be difficult and I knew that I didn’t want it to happen.  My family went to Mass in the morning and then out to eat at a restaurant.  We drove to the monastery, helped my sister into her postulant garb, and took some pictures.

I ruined the pictures.  I wanted to go last and so I let the others go first.  Each produced a lovely last picture with my sister.  When I got there, my dammed emotions overflowed in a torrent of tears.  My picture was terrible with both my sister and I having red eyes and trembling smiles.  We gave our last hugs and my sister entered the cloister.  To my knowledge, that would be the last hug I would ever bestow on her.  This was an incredibly difficult knowledge to accept.  I cried quite a bit and mourned the loss of the sister I loved so dearly.  I love each of my siblings for different reasons.  But this sister was the one who seemed to know me the best.  For my young melancholic self, that was a gold mine.  While six years older than me, she took the time to read me books with her delightful accents, build make-believe forts outside that I would imagine lavishly in my mind, and would eventually try to teach me Latin during one of our summer school sessions.  I loved her deeply and fiercely.

My mother will sometimes describe having a daughter enter religious life to losing a daughter to death.  One of the differences is that people will congratulate you on your sister’s vocation (or look at you curiously) but will never understand the internal mourning that is taking place.  I am a huge proponent of religious vocations but I try to be sensitive and understanding to the suffering that the family is certainly enduring.  While it is a great joy and blessing, it is also a sacrifice.  And the sacrifice is felt by all involved.

The date was March 19, 2014.  My sister had now been in the monastery for a decade.  In her mind I am still the young teen that I was instead of a young adult teaching high schoolers.  This is the day that she will move from the convent about an hour from our home to a new monastery being founded about six hours from home.  However, this day is one of rejoicing for me but still mixed with some sorrow.  My sister is saying goodbye, perhaps forever, to the religious sisters she has lived life with for the past decade.  I am saying goodbye to monthly visits at the monastery with my sister.

However, I am saying hello to wrapping my sister in a tender embrace.  My parents and I had the great privilege of helping the sisters move north and begin to set their monastery in order.  I rolled a cart outside of the convent and then I saw my sister.  This isn’t the first time I’ve hugged her since her entrance a decade ago, but each embrace is cherished and sweet because I know how rare they are.  I am near her and talking to her but she is the one who will initiate the hug first.

“Remember 10 years ago today?”  I’ve been thinking of this day so much as the day I will help my sister move that I had momentarily forgotten the significance of the day.  I briefly flash back to the young girl with tears streaming down her face as the convent door separates her from her sister.  I remember.

This day there will be no tears.  Those will come a couple days later when I must say goodbye to her again.  Today I am reveling in the joy of simple things.  Riding in a van with my sister driving and seeing her eyes in the rear view mirror as she looks back at me.  My sister stopping by the room I am working in and smiling briefly at me.  Going out for lunch at a restaurant and hearing her order her food.  Watching her fill the van’s tank with fuel as we stop briefly.  Meeting her eyes during supper conversation or seeing her appreciate one of my quieter inputs to the conversation.  The things that are so easy to take for granted, the things that I didn’t even realize were gifts until I experienced their deprivation.

As I was at the new monastery, moving boxes and unpacking various items, I would see my sister and think, “This is how it should be.”  This is what it would be like if my sister was like most sisters.  There was also the realization that everything I did was simply to put her once more outside of my grasp.  I was cutting open boxes and sorting through bubble wrap so that my sister could be enclosed in a cloister again.  Yet I was thankful for the grace of those few days.  For a short while I was able to be with my sister in a way that I hadn’t been for 10 years.  I could see her living joy, I could feel her arms embrace me in a hug, and I could be with her for this time.  I was not bitter or unaware of these manifest blessings.  Most families of sisters in cloistered orders can only dream of this privilege.

While I was helping for the few days, I was preparing myself for the end.  I was trying to soak up the experiences of the present so as to endure the remaining years ahead.  “Heaven will be amazing,”  I thought to myself on numerous occasions.  Of course it will be because we will be in communion with Our Lord, but also because I will be reunited with people I love so dearly.  I will see the joy that has been stored up while I sacrificed and cried on earth.

On the final day I felt unprepared to leave.  The sisters gathered to send us off and my sister was the first to give the hugs.  I wanted to save her for the end but it wasn’t to be.  Instead we embraced and it was far longer than usual.  Her arms were firmly around me and she kept them there when she would usually not.  I couldn’t stop the tears and soon I was shaking with tears.  I could feel her nod her head.  She understood.  She also suffered.  It is not as though the family only suffers.  The sister suffers, too.  She must give up all else to follow her Beloved.

“You are gaining great merits.”  I wasn’t certain how to respond to that as I looked at her through reddened eyes, tears coursing down my cheeks.  I know the reward will be great in Heaven.  “And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.”  (Mt. 19: 29)  So while she left me and it wasn’t my choice, I claim that verse for all who have offered siblings or children to the religious life.  It is a sorrow and a joy that is impossible to put into words.

I left the convent and drove most of the six hours home.  The first couple hours were marked by sobbing and then eventually silent conversation with the Lord.  Unlike a decade ago, I wasn’t accusing Him of taking my sister away unfairly.  I wasn’t even upset really.  My conversation went more like this, “It hurts, Lord.  My heart hurts and this sacrifice seems too much at times.”  The last decade has assured me that God provides and that God knows best.  I was able to view this time not as my right but as a grace that I did not expect.  “It is a privilege I think not of” kept coming to mind and I was certain it was a quote from something but I don’t know what.  It was the Lord’s gift to me and I was hesitant to let it run its natural course.

March 19th.  It is a day that is etched into my memory.  Each year the Church celebrates St. Joseph, the protector of the Church, the guardian of the Virgin, the terror of demons.  And each year I celebrate his life as well as my sister, Sr. Mary Joseph.  It is a day of gratitude.  It causes me to remember what the Lord has done in my life and the great graces that He has bestowed upon me.

All of this toil on earth will be worth it.  Someday, I pray, I will come to the Heavenly Banquet of the Lamb.  I will meet my Beloved face to face and be filled with such a joy that my earthly heart would burst if it hadn’t been widened.  He will lead me to a place at the table and I will look about at the faces there with eyes shining with tears of joy.  Among the glorious faces around me I will see hers, my beloved sister.  She will be radiant with joy, intoxicated at being in such intimate communion with Our Lord.  I will look at Jesus, sitting beside me and gazing at me with eyes of complete understanding.  And I will say, “My Lord, if I had known on earth the joy that suffering would produce, I would have gladly suffered more.”

This is what I must remember now.  I am allowing the Lord to prepare my heart for the joy that is to come.  Praised be Jesus Christ!  Now and forever!

The Wedding Feast of the Lamb

The day was cool with a hint of coming winter in the breeze that ruffled my hair and made me grateful for tights and boots.  Winding roads meandered through the sylvan surroundings and we followed them at sometimes dizzying speeds.  Arriving at a church to which we had never been, we soon occupied a special pew reserved near the front.  It was the day of my sister’s wedding but there was none of the pre-wedding frenzy that accompanies the typical wedding.  Bows were fastened to the end of each pew, programs were passed out, and a video was rolling.  Other than that, very little would lead one to believe that a wedding would soon take place.

I glanced around hoping to see my sister, wondering if she would be tucked away or kneeling in a pew silently praying.  Music began to issue forth from a keyboard and the bridal procession began.  It was a lengthy procession, including guests from far and wide.  Nearly a dozen priests and a bishop were numbered in that group.  My sister was there, too.  Her veil was fastened securely on her head and her simple wedding gown did not quickly attract the eye, except perhaps as an oddity to the random stranger that would stumble upon this blessed affair.  For those of us present and invited, it was no surprise.  Her hands were secured around an unlit candle and her face was serious but serene. 

My sister’s veil was black and her gown was a simple brown dress fastened with a rough cord.  The cord was adorned with three knots.  Poverty.  Chastity.  Obedience.  A firm denial of all that the world offers as important and desirable.  She was armed with a wooden rosary, hanging from her cord.  They would not later produce flowers with which to ornament themselves.  Rather my sister prayed her vows and was then given her crown.  It was a crown of thorns.  And it was striking. 

Very little do weddings typically speak of the crosses that are to come in the marriage.  It may be alluded to, perhaps said outright, but often the joy and happiness of the day are the primary focus.  There is a definite goodness in that.  Here, though, the cross was very evident.  Yet they did not run from it.  Rather they embraced it and clung to it.

She laid on the floor and stretched her arms out in a cruciform.  It was the beauty of the marital embrace in a form that is seen too little.  Her Spouse bound her to Himself and asked her to become one with Him.  He beckoned her, called her name, and delighted in receiving the fullness of her heart.  The gift He gives is that of the cross but not without the hope of the resurrection and the nourishment of the Eucharist. 

The wedding unfolded in a beautiful way and before long we were watching them process out, priests, sisters, and bishop.  A typically long post-nuptial reception line was formed.  There was remarkable joy.  It was not women being oppressed or women surrendering their hope for marriage or women wondering what point life had.  Instead it was the picture of women who know who they are, women who know their purpose, and women aware of the radical love the Author of Life has for them.  There was peace and there was beauty.

At this unusual wedding I realized something that I want at my wedding.  Barring any dramatic revelations from the Lord, I intend to someday get married and raise a family.  Yet this wedding, in its very nature, pointed to the Person who should always be central in such a life transforming moment.  There was no conceivable way to misunderstand who was the central focus.  From beginning to end, God was being worshiped and praised.  It was His love that was being celebrated, along with the love my sister bears.  Many weddings often focus too much on the couple and not enough on the Lord.  At this wedding I realized that I want my guests to leave my wedding with the clear idea that God was the center of it all.  Yes, I want a gorgeous dress and I want to have beautiful pictures of the day.  Of course I want a well-executed reception and lovely music to delight our ears.  Primarily, though, I want the guests to leave the Mass thinking, “Our Lord came to us in the Eucharist…and this couple promised to strive to reflect the love of Christ and the Church.” 

I’ve been to weddings where I could sense something was lacking, a depth or a sincerity.  It was evident that they loved each other but perhaps a little less evident that they loved the Lord.  Yet I’ve also been to weddings where I was moved by the witness of the couple and grasped the beauty and gravity of the sacrament they were entering into.

She cut the cake, she posed for pictures, she laughed, and she cried.  It was a day of graces and a day of some sorrow.  My heart lurched and broke and healed.  This was the Wedding Feast of the Lamb being lived out on Earth.  I spoke rather few words to her, hugged her several times, and sometimes just watched her with love as she spoke.  There is an ache in my heart and perhaps there is this ache residing within every living person.  It is an intense longing, a feeling that there must be something far greater, far more lasting than this fragile life here.  An ache for union that can never be fully lived in this world and yet my little heart so greatly desires it.  It is an ache in me that desires this exact type of wedding yet also reminds me that I long for marriage and family with an earthly husband.  This is the longing for Heaven, for Our Lord, and for a life completely surrendered to Him.

There is a breaking within me that cannot be articulated and cannot be measured.  This is a place where sorrow and joy blend into a beautiful, ineffable disposition.  It is not mere emotion or a passing feeling.  Life is sorrow and joy and beauty and, eventually, eternal.  In these days before eternity there is searing pain that cuts through hearts and severely strains and changes relationships as we know them.  Yet in the midst of this sorrow there is an abiding peace and joy that reassures us that all of this is worth it.  It convinces us that tonight will pass and morning will spring eternally in our souls.  This temporary separation will give way to a communion that is beyond comprehension.  My heart must be re-created to endure this deep communion lest is burst of happiness.  That is the process it is undergoing now.  The chambers are being widened, the heart is being enlarged, and the desires are being purified.  Yet it will all be worth it.  We shall be gathered in from off the streets and ushered into the banquet of the Lamb.  He will rise, take us by the hand, slip a ring on our finger, place sandals on our feet and wrap a robe around us, and say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your master.”

Witnessing to Lived Faith

They were nearly in the palm of my hands.  Not all of them (that would be a miracle) but many of them.  For what seemed like the first time in the entire semester, this class seemed interested in what I had to say.  Gone were the faces etched with boredom.  They were replaced with genuine eye contact and interest.  I hadn’t intended to launch into the discussion for an earlier class, but I had and it had gone well.  Now I was facing a more difficult to please class and the transition I used before wasn’t clear.  I considered not even broaching the subject with them, but just continuing on with the class and ending early.

When I finally began to speak on it, it went better than expected.  I remember thinking at one time, “Lord, this is going great.  They are listening and the story is flowing well.”  This was the best they had listened all year.  I was thrilled.

It struck me later as very interesting that what they listened to the best was what was most personal to me.  I’ve been talking to them about faith and reason for the past few days.  This particular class day I had reviewed the introduction to Lumen Fidei and we had explored what faith is and what faith isn’t according to the encyclical.  I love theology.  But to them it is just another book, at times, that must be read and regurgitated.

I began to tell them that having faith doesn’t mean that it will all be easy.  Yet regardless of the trials, faith is worth it and God desires to be in relationship with us.  Then I told them more in depth about my older sisters who are religious sisters.  I didn’t try to white wash any difficulties or try to evoke pity in them.  Rather, I told them about how it was difficult for me to watch my sisters choose to leave me because they were following God.  My intention wasn’t to highlight any strictness of the orders.  I wanted them to see that I understand sacrifice, being angry with God, and feeling like what is being asked of me is just too much.

This second class seemed to grasp it most fully.  A couple seemed near to tears but just about everyone was alert and listening.  I think it helped them realize my humanity.  Do I love the Lord?  Yes!  But even with this love and this desire to love, I still find myself balking at the sacrifices that are to be made.  While I often paint this as a past sacrifice, it is still an ongoing sacrifice.  I do not always think of the sacrifices but there are moments when the emotions are sharpened, the scab reopened, and the ache felt again.

Perhaps today they forgot everything that I said yesterday.  What I hope remains somewhere within them is the knowledge that life will be filled with sacrifices.  Will I choose to make them with Christ or without Him?  A life of Christian sacrifice is not easy.  Yet I do not think a life running from Him would be easy, either.  Life will arrive and demand things and people of us that we are not prepared to surrender.  Faith is knowing that Someone else cries with you and that Someone desires you infinitely more than you desired your lost love.

That is what makes life bearable.

I’ll see you in the Eucharist

It was March 19th, 2004.  Emotions ran high as we prepared to watch my 19 year old sister enter a Carmelite cloister.  The morning hours were spent with the knowledge that these would be some of the last moments when we could have physical contact with her.  Postulant garb was laid out in one of the bedrooms and we helped my sister assemble her outfit.  There were no instructions and we weren’t extremely skilled in habits, but it did provide some amusement.  We gathered to take our final pictures together and we were doing so well until my emotions got in the way.  Each of my other sisters managed to smile and have beautiful pictures but with me, I just began to weep.  These emotions were re-echoed on the faces of everyone else in the room.  Even my dad returned with reddened eyes and I had only once seen him cry at this point.  Eventually I pulled it together for a terrible picture and we proceeded to the chapel. 

In the chapel we prayed a prayer together as a family.  Then we said our goodbyes and it was a funeral of sorts.  With a twinkle in her eye, joy evidenced by the peace in her countenance, my sister glanced back at us and spoke her last words to us before entering the cloister:

I’ll see you in the Eucharist.

My sister was instructed to knock on the door with the strength of the banging on the door being equal to how long she desired to stay.  The door was lucky to remain unscathed.  Cloistered sisters with long veils lined the inside of the hallway once the door opened.  A small sister, the Reverend Mother, stepped forward and instructed my sister to kiss the cross and then kiss the floor.  All too soon, my sister was swept inside, the door closed, and the singing of the sisters faded and we were left only with aching hearts and wet faces. 

At that time, the words she spoke did not resonate in my heart or bring me any consolation.  Instead, I almost felt more of a sting from them.  What was that to me when what I wanted was my sister present to me in her humanity, in her voice a phone call away, in her embrace when I was crying, in her presence at Christmas?  I wanted her physical presence not simply a spiritual connection.

Over nine years have passed since this blessed day and the Lord has worked wonders in this heart of mine.  Yes, I do still desire the presence of my sister when I think of getting married or having children.  Of course I would want her to visit my house or hold my children.  But I have come to understand this mystery of the presence of the Church in the Eucharist.

This past semester I taught the New Testament and I realized the profound beauty that is found in the book of Acts.  We were covering the part where Saul encounters Christ on the road to Damascus.  Saul hears this Voice ask, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  One of my favorite lessons was talking to my students about how Christ associated Himself with His apostles and that to persecute the Church was to persecute Christ.  This lead to talking about how if the Church is the Body of Christ, then when we receive the Eucharist we receive Jesus and the universal Church.  Of course they began to wonder how we can be eating each other, but I stressed that when we receive the Eucharist we are united to the entire Church–the Church Triumphant, Suffering, and Militant.  And then I shared with them the story of my cloistered sister and how this beautiful mystery of the Eucharist is what helps me endure our separation.

The beauty of receiving the Eucharist is of course found in the reality of receiving Jesus’ Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.  Yet I think Our Lord reveals His deep goodness in that by receiving Jesus we are intimately linked to one another.  When I receive Our Lord I am connected with my sisters in religious life, with my friends scattered across the country, with my grandparents hopefully in Heaven, and with the saints who have gone before me.  I’ve come to understand this unifying aspect of the Eucharist through my travels to Europe as I encountered the beauty of Christ in basilicas, shrines, and places of martyrdom.  I deepened this understanding as I met the Church in Honduras and realized that we are one body, that though I may never see them again we are united through Christ, but tangibly through the Eucharist.

Each Catholic has their own special devotions but mine is to Our Lord in the Eucharist.  I love priests–because of their kindness and holiness but primarily because they make Our Lord present to me.  They make tangible Christ’s love by giving me the Body of Christ.  They make tangible Christ’s forgiveness as they absolve me from my sins through the ministry of the Church.  I remember sitting in Honduras with the pyx in my hands that held Our Lord and wanting to just rest forever.  I’ve heard stories of people being martyred for the Eucharist and I desire the same.  A group of sisters came and spoke at my college one time and they said their fourth vow was defense of the Eucharist with their lives.  I found that incredibly attractive.  At times I’ve thought that my love for the Eucharist should lead to me being an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion but I nearly shake when I think of holding Jesus and giving Him to others–I’m not certain I could remain calm throughout that.

On this Solemnity of Corpus Christi, I encourage you to renew again your love for Our Lord and to remember that each time you receive the Eucharist it is a personal encounter with the living God.  Yes, the consecrated host tastes the same as bread but He is truly present.  A student of mine argued with me that Jesus was spiritually present but not physically present.  Not so.  He is physically present albeit in a different way than the physical body we have.  It is a mystery of the Church.  Christ understands humanity through and through.  He knows that we need Him and that we desire a physical presence.  Deo gratias!  He gives us that presence by leaving His very self.

Wherever you are—regardless of the time difference, physical distance, or culture–we are united through the power of the Eucharist. 

I’ll see you in the Eucharist.

Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, take me into your very self and open my heart to the love that surpasses all understanding.