It was time for a much-needed retreat from life. Always multi-tasking, why not visit with the Capuchin Sisters of Nazareth in Northern Pennsylvania, who happen to live ten minutes from my grandparents?, I thought. No matter it was a “discernment retreat”; I just wanted my quiet time.
The nervousness began when Sr. Christina requested I wear a long, flowing skirt throughout the weekend. (The tomboy in me instantly began rebelling). I also had some reservations with the most important thing to bring: an “open heart”. Let’s be fair: I’ve considered religious life, and although I feel drawn to the Thoreauvian purity and simplicity of it, the idea of being a nun terrifies me! Yes, my fear is irrational (a phobia of religious life--how ridiculous!), but still..I can’t control my feelings, people.
When I first arrived, uncomfortably wriggling on a skirt in my car, I felt very out of place. The sisters were so light and joyful, laughing, smiling, welcoming..and the seven other retreatants were all six or more years younger than me. What was I doing there?? But, I tried very hard to stay open as Sr. Christina requested. But right away I noticed--how very, very different their lives are! The sisters are all young, wear full brown habits and sandals (though we walked around the house shoeless), and pray multiple times a day, singing the Divine Office. Because they’re Franciscan, they live extremely simple, sleeping on a mat on the floor in barely heated rooms with sparse wooden furniture. Sitting down to a dinner of PB&J (Fridays are fasting days), it seemed so strange to think that all their food is directly a gift from God, as they live completely on Divine Providence. Yet though they live in poverty, they never go hungry.
That evening, we prayed evening prayer with the sisters and went to adoration in their small chapel. Each of the sisters, including the three visiting novices, kneeled down to kiss the wooden floor before the tabernacle before attending their small wooden seat (just a mini bench, and no kneelers). I was quite jealous of their time spent in adoration: two hours a day, once in the morning, and again in the evening! Also, we were able to attend daily Mass in the chapel, which was beautiful. One by one, my reservations began to melt away as I observed the great humility and simpleness of the sisters. I learned from them the great joy and peace that comes from fully trusting in God through their poverty. I saw the beautiful laughter and jokes shared around the community table over dinner, and found that their chastity creates a family bond—they truly act like sisters! I discovered the discipline of obedience, rising at 2 am to the ringing bell, filing up the stairs in silence with the other retreatants (ironically reminiscent of the Von Trapp children’s entrance in Sound of Music) to the chapel, preparing our souls to receive Jesus in the Eucharist, praying for the sanctification of those tempted by sin in the wee hours of the morning, and living in solidarity with the mothers around the world rising in the middle of the night to care for their crying children.
By the end of the retreat, I had learned to be still and not feel anxious. To quiet my heart and my surroundings and let God speak to me. To actually listen to what God had to say, and not to ask myself whether I’m doing His will, but to ask God what His will is for me!
That weekend with the sisters was the closest I’ve ever felt to Heaven. Sr. Joan, the sagacious Guardian, sent us home with the mission to go out into the world where they can only go in prayer, and to let people know that religious life is beautiful. I hope I’ve shown you that.