Thursday, November 26, 2009

Vocations, Vocations, Vocations Part II

And Then Comes Joy

Not all comments concerning posts on this blog appear here. The posts are fed directly to my page on Facebook. Yes, I have a page on Facebook - lovely for networking with family and friends but also part of vocation outreach. When these posts appear on FB, readers can enter a comment immediately. One responder to my last post concerning the realities of monastic contemplative life said, "It sounds like being a nun is hard work." Yes, indeed. But I would not be providing a total picture if I did not speak of the other end of the spectrum.

I am not accustomed to publically sharing moments of surpassing contentment or joy. Generally, I tend to be a bit suspicious of those who would seem to float perennially on a cloud of sweet marshmallow fluff and describe every detail of the experience. But is it fair, or healthy for that matter, to offer a reflection on life's realities without speaking of joy? The human desire and capacity for joy is stubborn in survival. In the wisdom of unspoiled youth, Anne Frank, reduced to hiding in an Amsterdam attic as a persecuted Jew, could write of joy in contemplative viewing of the landscape. She wrote ecstatically of shinning sun and greening trees. From this was born resilent hope for a better future.

The joys of my religious vocation flash in memory, illuminating generalized sensations and specific experiences. On Christmas Eve, 1999 I received a phone call informing  me that I had been accepted for entrance into this community. As a school librarian I could not enter until the academic year was over. I simply did not know how I would make it through that busy time. I was so eager. On the day of my entrance, July 22 (Feast of St. Mary Magdalene), I had to wait until 5pm to knock at the door of the monastery for the entrance ritual. The day stretched long and anxious. It was so good to finally be here. Days later, I remember resting during the afternoon's silent time and thinking, with a Cheshire Cat smile on my face, "I was made for this." It was pure joy, however influenced it may have been by beginner's enthusiasm. 

As a working mother, retreat presenter, parish minister, library board member, etc., etc. it was hard to find time alone, quite time for sustained contemplation, for the journey to which I was being called. In the monastery those very things are the priority. It is entirely normal to stop, to put whatever is at hand aside, to move away from it all to chapel or one's room to just 'be', to be with God. Everything is ordered to that pursuit. And that is joy.

Advent was always such a hectic time out there. I remember dreaming once that instead of it being Advent it was Lent and I was so relieved because it didn't come with all those pre-Christmas demands - shopping, gifts to buy, food to cook, and social obligations. In contrast, Advent in the monastery IS a time of silent expectation, of waiting for the great mystery of the Incarnation to be revealed; for Jesus to be born again in my heart where I can welcome him extravagently. There is pure joy in the Christmas Novena tradition. After Vepsers, in a chapel illlumined only by Advent wreath candles, I hear each sister, one by one, and then my own voice speak, "Adore, O my soul, in the bosom of Mary, the only begotten Son of God, who became man for love of you." Together we trod, in joyful expectation, the path to Bethlehem.

Our foundress, Maria Celeste Crostarosa, was a woman of her time; an effusive Neapolitan of the Baroque period. She wrote a great deal, much still not translated into modern English. Some find her reflections just too saccharine, like that of her friend St. Alphonsus Liguori. However, I found joy in her spirituality, its tremendous communication of affect, its unique insight into theology in tune with the Gospel of John. To her, Jesus declared, "If they ask you who I am, tell them I am pure love." I chose two other quotations from Mother Celeste's Dialogues for my solemn profession card seen to the left. "Consecrate yourself to the silence of pure love." and "I want you to espouse yourself to all souls and to experience the same delight which I experience in them." Indeed, for Celeste, her Beloved, her Jesus, is pure love. This is a spirituality of the loving Savior that brings joy to my heart. These writings are, for me, a treasure trove, the depths of which I will never be able to fully explore.

And community life - it is challenge and joy. Community life keeps you honest. It does not allow you to stay on the marshmallow cloud. It is the place where 'the rubber hits the road'; where you must 'put your money where your mouth is." It is the gift that keeps giving by demanding constant application to the process of one's own conversion. To be called to religous life is to be called to conversion. Conscious living leads to self-knowledge but "knowledge makes a bloody entry." Yet, as it crosses the threshold, as one moves from the dark valley of egoic struggle, the faithfulness of God is revealed and joy abounds. So too abounds "the liberty of the children of God."

When community life is alive, when everyone is 'with the program', when everyone recognizes the weakness of their own humanity, "union of hearts and mutual charity" can flourish. The Rule of Life comes alive. In the old days it was a supreme compliment to say of a sister, "She is a living Rule." The corporate community is to be a living Rule. And our Redemptoristine Rule declares that we must be "living memories" of Jesus Christ. This is the shorthand expression of our charism, lofty but very real.

There was perfect joy for me in profession of solemn vows, in total commitment. I felt so comfortable with all of the spousal imagery of the ritual. Years ago I learned that in Europe married women wore wedding rings on their right hand therefore religious with congregational roots in Europe continue, even in the USA, wear these rings on the right hand. When I received the ring of my solemn profession I deliberately held out my left hand. The ring is molded in a design called hands in faith, in common use as a wedding ring in the culture of our foundress. The ring expresses my spousal bond to the Beloved. In this country, a gold ring on the fourth finger of the left hand sends that message. For me to wear that emblem of love is perfect joy.

The last expression of joy to be shared came not in conscious mind but in a dream. Dreams are not real but they speak of the reality apprehended by our unconcious mind and can serve as correctives to the limitations of conscious thought. Dreams can speak of a deep reality to which we have been unable to give voice. In my dream I was serving as Eucharistic Minister at Mass in the monastery. I was standing beside the altar waiting for the priest to give me the Body of Christ. As I held out my hand to receive Communion, the host seemed to multiply so that even with two hands I could not contain the amount flowing into them.  What an image - overflowing Eucharist - overflowing thanksgiving - overflowing gift of Jesus - oveflowing love. That is an image of unsurpassed joy.


Jane O'Brien, ANG said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. I dare to admit that it resonates as deeply as its companion post. Thank you, again, and thank our good God who calls us, each one, to union. The treasure in the field, worth every penny of the cost. It costs everything, but is worth that and more.

swallowtail said...

I love this post... "The human desire and capacity for joy is stubborn..." Thank you. I will return often, I'm sure.