From "What is religious life 'really' like?" By Leydi Bautista
Catholic Advocate October 13, 1999 Copied with permission
(Editor's note: The following article is a log by Catholic Advocate intern Leydi Bautista who attended a recent Vocation Retreat at St. Walburga Monastery, Elizabeth. She offers a fresh insight into an important part of the discernment process for women considering religious life.)
I reached the Benedictine Sisters monastery on a Friday afternoon and was greeted by Sister Rosemary and Sister Lucy, a novice... After most of the retreatants arrived, we were taken up to our rooms and shown the library... These relatively new facilities are connected with the 'Mansion' that served as the old monastery and convent decades ago. It is a gorgeous building and remains fully functional.
During introduction, we were given information on religious life to read during our free time and a schedule of events. We then went to the new chapel to learn our places... The church is very beautiful. ...The crucifix is a sight to behold as the figure of Christ is very life-like with his arms stretched downwards giving the sense of welcoming embrace. I found the atmosphere of the church very encouraging when it came time to pray.
After the brief tour - which allowed us to find our way around - we could go to bed. I had a late snack in the kitchen and talked with some of the other retreatants.
Our schedule called for Morning Praise at 7:30 a.m. in the chapel. I thought it was early for a Saturday morning, but once it began it was so beautiful. We sang psalms and hymns. It seemed the church- the building itself- was singing.
Morning Praise lasted about half an hour and was followed by Mass. Benedictine Father Philip was the celebrant and he advised us with the Gospel reading,"do not be afraid..."
I guess many of us are afraid of following God's will, for that means acting on faith, something you can't touch. Being on this retreat meant following God's will for many of the retreatants - and that is hard in a secular society that emphasizes self-sufficiency. The word of God reassures us and encourages us to leave worries in His hands.
Breakfast followed Mass, and retreatants gathered in the kitchen to eat and socialize before the first session. Women of all ages and walks of life openly shared their lives...
During the first session, Prioress Sister Louise welcomed us. She told us that since community is the focus of the Benedictines they don't have a "particular ministry" - such as education. Sister Louise explained, "as the needs of the church change, so do our ministries."
One ministry was health care. The Benedictines have a hospital in Kingston, NY; the hospital has grown from 38 beds to a 200 bed facility. They serve not only the growing Catholic community, but non- Catholic community as well with 14 outreach units to assist those living in the rural area.
...Health care is only one of the Benedictine ministries. Their most visual is probably education. This community in Elizabeth is in charge of an academy for girls and a preschool for children over three; it also leases one of its buildings as a hospice - a center that takes care of the terminally ill.
The Benedictines believe that whatever your talent is, it can be used in the community. For example, a Sister that knows how to do upholstery refinished all the chairs in the mansion.
...After Sister Louise's talk on the Benedictines' ministry, Sister Marita spoke on the spiritual life of the community.
Prayer is very important. Since the Benedictine life centers around community, gathering for prayer is a constant reminder of God's presence in their lives. Sister Marita explained how prayer is an integral part of the day. She noted that it's not always easy; and at times one is tired and has to re-focus. This is a discipline that takes time, but the satisfaction is great, stressed Sister Marita.
Sister Marita set up a schedule around our break times so we could meet with her individually and talk person to person about religious life.
Breaks gave participants an opportunity for quiet reflection, reading materials, or interacting with others. By sharing small pieces of their lives, participants realized that all were looking for the same thing and all the roads traveled by each led them to the same place.
After midday prayer and lunch, we were given a tour of the monastery grounds... At every turn during our tour we would encounter a Sister going about her work who, with an anecdote or comment, would make us laugh. The Sisters 'monastic' lifestyle is flavored by their frankness and wit.
The second session had Sister Germaine, Sister Marcia and Sister Marlene talk about their calling and the community. Sister Germaine talked about the elements of the monastic life, stressing that "living in community is not romantic." Some-times, like in the working world, you don't get along with a Sister in the community but you realize that God lives in her and in everyone around us. "We are all loved by the one God."
They explained their vows in a simple manner. 'Stability', that you do not escape yourself (that's why community is so important); 'conversion' of life according to the monastic way; and 'obedience', "being willing to let go for the good of the community," said Sister Germaine.
"Stability is the most important characteristic of the Benedictine profession," explained Sister Marlene, "it creates local flavor.."
After viewing a videotape of a sister professing her vows (that conveyed a real sense of community and family), we returned to church for Vespers and then had a marvelous dinner.
Sisters at dinner read part of a Benedictine rule and said a prayer. They have an ordered way of doing things that flows harmoniously through their day.
Immediately after dinner [was Compline] which consisted solely of singing psalms - the thought of breaking your routine in praise of God, to let your spirit recharge was refreshing. It is a way of putting your worries behind you. The Sisters schedule their days around their daily community prayers. Some of the Sisters had funny stories about what happened when they had to rush in order to be on time for prayers.
The third and final session followed...At this point I was into the longest Saturday in my life. I had been awake since 6:30 a.m. I didn't expect to get much out of the session since all I saw in my mind was a bed and a blanket. I was wrong. Sister Marlene and Sister Lucy, told the stories of what led them to religious life.
Sister Marlene - one of the most interesting people I have ever met - joked that she was part of the last "boring" generation that entered the convent right after high school in the early seventies.
"The reasons that bring you here are not what keeps you here," Sister Marlene said. "You have to recommit, comparing it to a woman in a marriage who goes through an occasional crisis that makes her learn more about herself."
Sister Lucy's story was very different. Because she was an only child her parents discouraged her from even considering religious life. Still that spark was always there. She had two children, one passed away at an early age, the other is an aspiring politician. She said she always knew a vocation was there. "Out of the brokenness, comes joy," she said of the trials that ultimately led her here.
"I was afraid, I even backed away when I felt the calling," Sister Marlene said. "But that call is like a fly that keeps coming back even though you might swat it away."
After the evening was over, we went to our rooms to rest.
In the morning we had a wrap up session at 9:30 a.m. and were given additional reading materials. The Sisters wanted us to be as informed as possible when making a decision. Some retreatants spoke about the impact of the retreat and the lives of the sisters. "Interacting with the sisters gives you the feeling of community" said one retreatant. "Having the Sisters come in and tell us their story was great," said another echoing what many felt.
I felt that the Sisters and the retreat challenged participants to see themselves for who they really are.
After lunch I was offered a ride to the train station since the sisters were on their way to a festival in Newark organized by the Benedictine monks. Benedictines offer one another real support, I see them now as a true family bound by their dedication to the Rule of Benedict.