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!