Cloistered Conversations

Jessica Hoelzer

“Inner silence, Mother. I struggle with inner silence.” I shudder as I always do when confessing my weaknesses. My Mother Superior responds with a grave nod of her head.

“A common admission, most often from novices and young postulants. But you have been here almost eleven years. Has your heart always struggled like this, or is it one of those regresses we often encounter on this long walk with our Savior?” She speaks, as she always does, with a sincere desire to be of service, but the solemnity in her tone betrays the gravity of her question. My eyes stray to the familiar furnishing of Mother Olivia’s office. Wooden bookcases line the walls, but they are not packed and overflowing like those of a library. Instead, each shelf is filled only halfway with books or file folders. The other half lies in wait, expectant. Her desk is made of the same color wood and is empty except for my file, a Bible, and a small glass dove, a reminder of her patron saint, whose spirit returned to heaven in the form of a dove. An icon of peace.

I know the answer to her question, but I don’t know how to express it. There isn’t a one or two word response to describe my feelings, and I cannot find my voice. After living by the rule of silence for so long, my vocal responses are limited to the Liturgy of the Hours, Mass, and Confession. I finger the wooden beads of my Rosary inside the folds of my cream colored habit, searching for words.

“It’s a constant struggle, Mother, but one I thought I had overcome…until the last week or so.” Actually, it has been exactly eight days since I noticed the disturbance in my heart.

“A reaction, I am sure, to the news of our impending move?” At Mother Olivia’s observation I sigh with relief, no longer required to bring up what I know to be a touchy issue with our Mother Superior. She has broached the subject for me.

“Yes, Mother. News of the move has disturbed my spiritual equilibrium, made me realize some of my faults that I had previously kept hidden – even from myself.”

“Such as?” Mother Olivia fingers the glass dove, seeking the peace it represents. She made her objections to the move very clear to the Bishop, but her wise opinion was overruled for reasons unbeknownst to us. We, a cloistered religious community, are not supposed to be concerned with such things.

“My attachment to this place, a worldly home, which has become dearer to me than is proper.”

Mother Olivia sighs lightly, closes her eyes in what I instantly recognize as prayer, and then addresses me once more. “I release you from your chores today – laundry, I believe? You are to spend that time in front of the Blessed Sacrament, praying to Christ our Lord and Mary our Mother for guidance and forgiveness. I will meet with you in a few days to see how the Lord has blessed you.” She rises, and it is clear that our session is complete.

“All for Christ,” I say, making the sign of the cross. She responds in turn and I escape into the silence that is both required and so dearly treasured.

* * *

Culture shock is almost a cliché these days. Its meaning has expanded from traveling between exotic countries to the difference between the east and west side of the same city. But if you really want to experience culture shock, try joining a cloistered convent. The only solace is in the belief that this is the last time you will have to make such drastic adjustments until your trip from this earthly dwelling to that of our Lord.

Which is, perhaps, the reason I am so conflicted with the prospect of this move.

In a cloistered convent, there is no television or news media of any kind. We are updated weekly by Mother Olivia about events around the world and reminded to keep those affected in our prayers. There is no music outside of Mass. There is no conversation between the sisters outside the dialog of the Mass, during which we speak as a community. We are schooled in silence, in listening for the quiet whisper through which God most often speaks.

It was a relief to escape the constant assault of sound and meaningless drivel I associated with this mortal home. Entering the convent felt like an ascent into some heavenly realm; not quite eternal bliss, but a good deal further along the path than I had been just steps outside the heavy wooden doors that mark the divide. Now they’re asking us to cross that boundary, to descend from this mountaintop into the valley. We’re merely transferring to another fortress of faith, but I am intimidated by the steep ascent I will have to travel before arriving there.

* * *

We leave the chapel lights off during the day in order to conserve our resources, leaving sunlight to bathe the white tile flooring in the unnatural colors of the stained glass windows. It’s raining today, so the floor is covered in slightly tinted shadows. The candle next to the monstrance holding the Blessed Sacrament casts its flickering light against my face as I genuflect. Father Timothy is hearing another sister’s confession, so I continue my examination of conscience as I wait. Neither the kneelers nor the wooden pews are cushioned, but I developed calluses on my knees long ago. Our habits, on the other hand, are taken out of circulation principally because of the frayed material around the knees.

I confess my sins to Father Timothy weekly. Few people outside the religious community understand how a cloistered nun can have new sins to confess each week, but we are still sinners. I have found that the more often I go to confession, the more aware I am of my iniquities. Today I am even more conscious of my shortcomings, as I have been unable to make much progress in my search for inner peace and detachment from this temporary home. I am scheduled to meet with Mother Olivia in two days, and my callused knees lose some of their sturdiness at the thought of such an encounter without any positive progress to report.

I do not see the face of the sister who leaves the confessional. Her head is lowered and the coif around her face hides her features. She is merely a silhouette gliding through the dim shadows. As am I.

“Greetings, sister,” Father Timothy says as I kneel behind the grated partition and make the sign of the cross. For most Catholics, this barrier provides the option of anonymity. For us, it is a requirement, meant to emphasize our separation, which extends even to our fellow religious. But after four years of hearing our confessions, Father Timothy recognizes our voices, our vices, and even the virtues we often fail to recognize in ourselves. “May God, who has enlightened every heart, help you to know your sins and trust in his mercy.”

“Amen. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been five days since my last confession.” I kneel on the metal stoop, wondering, as I always do, if this discomfort is provided as a preliminary penance. “These are my sins.”

I pause for so long that Father Timothy reaches his hand through the barrier and places it on top of my tightly clenched fists. It is a slight bending of the rules of separation, but a welcome comfort. “My child, our God is a God of mercy and compassion. Let Him welcome you back into His arms.”

“It’s not that I’m particularly ashamed, Father, but that I don’t know how to move on. I want to confess my sins and leave here cleansed, but I fear that my imperfections will remain, staining my soul as soon as I leave this safe chamber.” My mind is filled with the image of burrs coating my habit like the sins clinging to my soul.

“Do not make the mistake of assuming control of your own heart. No sin is too great for our Lord, the healer of souls. To cling so tightly to your failings is to doubt the goodness of our God.”

My face twists as I am confronted with yet another of my errors. I fight to maintain control of my emotions. “Then let me begin with that, the sin of doubt. And follow it with the cause, a disturbance of my heart. I have found myself very unwilling this past week to submit in obedience to the decisions of my leaders, and I have discovered that I carry far too much reverence in my heart for a mere place. I have neglected my God and charity towards my fellow sisters in my attachment to this convent.”

There is a pause before Father Timothy speaks. This moment of silence between responses is characteristic of convent life. Each word is carefully weighed in light of the will of our Lord.

“We all struggle with Christ’s directive to ‘be in the world but not of it.’ It is a difficult existence, to straddle the divide between heaven and earth. You have heard this many times, Sister, but your best course of action is to follow in the footsteps of your Savior. Pray that not your will but His be done.”

“I wish I could be like Padre Pio. Bilocate. It would be a lot easier than straddling like I am.”

Father Timothy chuckles, and I feel my spirits lift with even this slight attempt at humor. “For your penance, I would like you to meditate upon the serenity prayer. I have no doubt that Christ will lavish His graces upon you. You are one of His blessed children. And now, an act of contrition?”

“Certainly, Father.” I grip the interwoven strands of cast iron at the top of the kneeler and breathe in the warm air that fills the small room. “O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin. Amen.”

Father Timothy pronounces absolution and silence envelops me like a warm blanket, a comfort in my confusion.

* * *

I neglect to use the kneelers in favor of the tile floor, a more proper declaration of my desire for true penance. Father Timothy’s directive to trust God still lingers in the air, almost tangible, but I am still plagued by the fear that I cannot avoid the near occasion of sin, as I promised. How can I? The move is going to take place; I must accept it, not avoid it. I pray that the hard, cold floor will speak through my knees, increasing my faith. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” I cannot change the Bishop’s decision; I can change my attitude towards it.

“Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace…” I ponder the prospect of hardship. Does moving really qualify? I find myself hoping so, if that would indeed bring peace.

“…taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.” Not my will, but His be done. And let it be done with joy. I have prayed this prayer countless times, but this particular recitation strikes me as an endeavor for happiness. Enjoy every moment, be happy in this life; the message is clear, even if I’m struggling to obey.

* * *

The stained glass windows are dark now, their colors obscured but the outlines of each shape still definable in the now lit interior of the chapel. I kneel with my forty-two fellow sisters, waiting to begin night prayer. It is only 8:30, but in order to get seven hours of sleep, we must retire within an hour.

As we wait for Mother Olivia, I let my tired eyes rest on the blue candle that sits next to the monstrance. It’s light seems less poignant now, the artificial lighting subduing its brilliance. How is it that adding one light dims another?

There is a loud rustling of habits and feet as we stand to begin prayer.

“God, come to my assistance.”

“Lord, make haste to help me,” we respond to Mother Olivia’s opening. The prayers, the psalms we recite, are painted upon my mind. Sometimes I think my heart, however, must be illiterate. The rote recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours is perhaps one of the best indications that my mind has been less focused this past week. Fresh from reconciliation, I struggle to focus myself and decide to listen tonight, rather than read along with my sisters.

The hymn has been sung, and the sisters begin reciting Psalm four. The right half of the pews reads the first verse, the left the second, alternating throughout the reading.

 

“When I call, answer me, O God of justice; from anguish you released me; have mercy and hear me!

“O men, how long will your hearts be closed, will you love what is futile and seek what is false?

“It is the Lord who grants favors to those whom he loves; the Lord hears me whenever I call him.

“Fear him; do not sin: ponder on your bed and be still. Make justice your sacrifice and trust in the Lord.

“ ‘What can bring us happiness?’ many say. Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord.

“You have put into my heart a greater joy than they have from abundance of corn and new wine.

“I will lie down in peace and sleep comes at once for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

 

I am captured by the melody of the voices, speaking in harmony, if such a thing is possible. What can bring us happiness? My penance reminded me of it, but I never considered the true importance of defining its source. Rather than asking, I merely assumed the significance of a place. Joy. The missing ingredient. Peace. Through hardship. The themes resonate in my mind, their applicability sobering in the inherent implication. There are no coincidences with God, especially inside a cloistered convent. And the very idea that the Creator of the universe would speak to me in such a powerful way is humbling.

The sisters begin to recite again. “O come, bless the Lord, all you who serve the Lord, who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God…”

The rest of the psalm is lost to me as I once again hear the words spoken to my heart. The house of the Lord. The. Singular. I am struck by the insignificance of this earthly dwelling, and yet the amazing role it plays in this cosmic mystery. We are gathered in a small chapel, lost in the heart of a large city that scarcely recognizes our existence. And yet we are joined in a mystical union with every other chapel, creating a supernatural house of the Lord. I will have, at our new location, the opportunity to experience a second of these tiny components, evidence that I have been greatly blessed.

“May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.” Mother Olivia’s voice is never lovelier than when she intones these final words of the day. I raise my voice with the others, fully focused and aware. I have heard His voice in the silence, in the quiet whispers, and through the voices of my sisters.

“Amen.”