Meet a Sister

Sister Harriet’s Story

I was fortunate to grow up in a home where both my parents were deeply faithful.  My brothers and I were surrounded by love, and for us, religion was natural and normal.  During high school, my inner focus was entirely directed at school work, friends, sports, preparing for college, and being a Christian was more of an “outer” thing, one thing I did among others.  It wasn’t until my early years in college that my own faith started to take root in my own character and decisions. 

During my freshman year, I had to read the Rule of St. Benedict for a class.  We read many things that semester, but that is the only one I remember.  It resonated with me.  I appreciated the order and balance of activities, but most of all I was struck by the idea of praying the psalms throughout the day.  It was somehow tied up with my “being” – I knew my life would involve praying the psalms like Benedict suggests. 

My sophomore year of college, I started to grow in a deeper sense of the Real Presence in the Eucharist.  I grew up Protestant, and was struggling with the idea of converting to Catholicism and injuring so many of my existing relationships.   In the midst of all this, I wanted to find a place to go on retreat, somewhere where I could join in a community praying the whole liturgy of the hours.  Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey was the only community I could find near me that prayed all 7 hours, and so I signed up for a retreat. 

The first full day I was there was a Sunday, and on Sundays at Mississippi Abbey there is a half-hour of Eucharistic adoration before vespers, and during that time I had the closest thing to a direct answer from Jesus that I have ever had.  I was pouring out my dilemma and was trying to convince Him that I could believe Catholic things and stay as I was.  I heard no words, but He communicated pretty clearly that believing in the Eucharist is not the point; but rather receiving the gift of Himself in the Eucharist.  And that required becoming Catholic.   It was like a switch had flipped and I knew that even though it would be hard, I would enter the Catholic Church. 

With that crisis cleared up, I spent the rest of the week singing loudly in the guest chapel at every office, helping the young sisters with work, meeting with the vocation director (the guest mistress had asked if I wanted to “talk to a sister”), and even celebrating a jubilee with the community.  I was certain that I could pray the psalms as a layperson, and that my relationship with Jesus was not dependent on externals such as job, place of living, or “vocation.”  However, during that week I had felt a similar inner resonance to when I first read the Rule of St. Benedict, and, so far as it was up to me, I knew I had found my home.

The following three years I spent continuing to move toward entering.  I entered the Church and began receiving the Eucharist.  I finished college.  I visited the Abbey every chance I had.   I worked as much as I could and applied for a grant to help cover my student loans.  When the grant finally came through, and I was able to enter, I almost couldn’t believe it.  To this day I still often sit in church in amazed gratitude that I am here, praying the psalms, part of this community.

Sr. Madeleine’s Story

Tiptoeing out into the dark to find my way to the monastery church, cool summer night’s air seeped in through my skin.  Mossy oak’s silhouette gently drew my eyes upward and, suddenly, I was a-gasp.  The sky was a star-sea, an unfathomable vastness of shining and aliveness and wonder!  And a longing for whatever it was that awakes these monks early, to pray in the night, awoke too, in me. 

Later, another visit, another monastery, I traipsed through thick knobby forest, thumbing Mama Mary’s beads, desperate for God’s will, for soil wherein I could finally lay down my whole life. But while I was a tangle of passions and fears, the monks were so simple.  They wore simple habits and simple smiles, chanting simple psalms in spaciousness of wood and stone and light.  Like the trees, they were there, unseen but breathing Spirit into the air1, holding place while pilgrims did their wandering. 

These Cistercian sojourns were significant but seldom, and they seemed like whispers of a secret that wasn’t yet mine to know.  What I did know was that I wanted to be low, unknown, and with people in their pain and need.  Perhaps because I’d known pain, as well.  So I was a Catholic Worker for a while, both receiving and extending shelter in a big yellow house of hospitality. 

But eventually that path and even its spur trails washed away.  A great river was rising, both within and without, and I needed somewhere to flee, to grieve, to be empty.  I retreated to a hilltop’s community of, this time, nuns.  It was winter, bluffs and woods and fields on fire with new snow.  In walking and weeping, stillness and silence, “Your tears, your love and your longing are all my work,”2 Jesus said.  And that was it.  It was the song-sound of love that I’d never heard but deeply, deeply knew. 

But wait… Here?  With these strangers?  Cloistered?  Making candy? 

But “God is a strange lover”3, and little by little, and finally with such power – healing and joy and not only willingness but desire to swim with the current of such rushing, unfaltering grace – Jesus said Go, learn the meaning of my mercy.  It was that old secret, unveiled. 

Now a simply professed member of Our Lady of the Mississippi Abbey, my heart ponders:  How is it that these strangers are becoming my sisters?  How has the enclosure opened unto solidarity?    How has the candy house transformed into holy ground, like the garden, like our choir stalls, like the alleyways and soup kitchens where my kindred sleep and eat? 

It’s mystery, and it’s true: The broken body of the poor on the street is the same as the broken body on the altar4.  And I am but one honeybee, called to one thing: to the wounded side of Jesus, wherein he is making all bitterness sweet and all the world anew. 

[1] Fr. Louis (Thomas) Merton

[2] 13th century monk

[3] Sr. Miriam of the Holy Spirit, OCD (Jessica Powers)

[4] Dorothy Day