Almost a Novice
During the third week of July, the other postulants and I attended a nine-day silent retreat in preparation for our novice year. The retreat would conclude just days before our reception of the habit ceremony, when each of us would receive our new Dominican habit and religious name, and begin our cloistered year.
On the first day of retreat, I grabbed a notebook and pen and found an open seat in the convent’s main hall. Sister Lucia and the other postulants and sisters were already there. The hall was hushed, near silent, but the sisters' anticipation was tangible.
The retreat master, dressed in the white habit of a Dominican friar, began his first talk in the traditional Dominican way.
“Before St. Dominic’s friars would preach, they began with this prayer,” said Father Gabriel. “Hail Mary, full of grace…”
The Sisters and I joined him in prayer. I had half-expected Father to open the retreat with a fancy, spontaneous prayer. Instead, he kept things simple. Our attention remained focused on the Blessed Mother’s intercession, not on Father Gabriel’s clever, inspiring words.
“…now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” Father Gabriel made the Sign of the Cross, then surveyed us all from his wooden podium. He was in his early forties, with a practical short haircut and clean-shaven face. We had heard other Dominican friars preach at the Motherhouse, but this nine-day retreat would be our most intensive preaching experience yet.
I watched Father expectantly. The retreat was so long, I supposed, because choosing to enter the cloistered novice year was a very big commitment. When the other postulants and I received our habits, we would formally become members of the community. We would spend a year in prayer and study at the Motherhouse, learning what it meant to be a Bride of Christ and a Nashville Dominican.
Most importantly, when I receive the habit, I will become engaged to Jesus. I fidgeted in my seat with barely contained joy. May this retreat prepare me for that day!
Digging a Foundation
“When we go about preparing our souls for the Lord, we may think of our heart as a house,” Father began. “A comfortable little cottage, perhaps.”
My ears perked up, intrigued by this description of the soul. When I prayed, I often imagined my heart as a little home for Jesus.
“But the Lord, He has bigger plans for us.” The floorboards creaked as Father stepped across the room. “He takes our little house and tears it down. Starts digging a new hole in the earth of our souls.” He paused, allowing the imagery to sink in. “It’s a mess. Muddy. Dirty. We appear worse off than when we first started following Him. Our whole lives have been torn down, dug up.”
I imagined a quaint, ivy-covered cottage, getting bulldozed, crushed, and pushed aside. Then: the Lord digging a big, ugly hole in the ground. Mud, dirt everywhere. Wouldn’t it have been better to keep the little house?
Father Gabriel answered my unspoken question.
“God doesn’t want our souls to remain small, comfortable cottages. He’s digging deep, building a strong foundation. His plan is far greater than ours: he wants to turn our souls into mansions.”
Father Gabriel’s description seemed an apt analogy for the purification process of postulant year.
When I'd entered the convent, I’d felt excited and proud to have made it that far: to have chosen a religious vocation. This initial excitement was followed by an intense stripping away. First, of the physical things: my old clothes, possessions, relationships, routines. Every aspect of my external life razed, torn down to the ground. Many aspects of my interior life rearranged, revealed, or unearthed.
As Father said, my postulant year has left my soul looking more like a freshly dug hole than a cozy cottage.
Far from achieving an advanced level of holiness, I was definitely a humble beginner. Lots of mess and dirt and smoke for me.
But Father Gabriel said this was completely normal, even desirable.
“Jesus is building a palace, not a cottage, in our souls,” Father said. “And even well-built houses need reinforcements when the storms are great, like they are today.”
On the next day of retreat, Father Gabriel spoke about the importance of healing for those entering religious life.
“God now wants you to enter into His joy and His happiness, into this deeper relationship with Christ. Some saints did have darkness, like Saint Therese and Mother Teresa, but they took it on purpose to give others light.”
The normal way of religious life, Father said, is to be consoled and renewed daily by prayer, the sacraments, and radical dependence on Christ.
“The more we reflect on our own experiences, the more we can heal others…if we can’t motivate ourselves to save ourselves, do it so we can save others,” Father urged us.
He emphasized this same point later on during the retreat.
“Earlier this year, I saw the film 127 Hours,” he said. “In the story, a young man goes out into the Utah outback, healthy and ‘happy’. But while he is out climbing, he gets trapped inside of a slot canyon, with his arm wedged under a fallen boulder. He has only 300 milliliters of water and a little food.”
I shivered in horror. What would the climber do now?
“In his mind, he envisions the bottle of Gatorade he left on his kitchen table. He is so thirsty, but he can’t free himself: his arm is stuck.”
Inside the Motherhouse, the afternoon sun radiated through a window behind Father Gabriel. As I gazed at its fiery light, I pictured the Gatorade bottle, glittering like a ruby on the man’s kitchen table. How tantalizing and delicious it must have seemed, especially now that it was completely out of reach.
“The climber spends 127 hours alone in the ravine. He reflects on his life—how he’d been relying so much on himself, and neglecting the other people in his life, like his mom and girlfriend. He’d thought himself invincible. He didn’t need anyone else. Only now he saw his mistake.
“When he’s near the point of death, and still isn’t able to break free from the rock, through grace he has a glimpse of the future. He has a vision of his unborn son.”
In my mind, I painted a vivid picture of that unborn child. An image so powerful, it might make a man brave enough to cut off his own arm to attain it.
“And that vision of an unborn son causes the climber’s heart to turn, and finally motivates him to amputate his arm and go free.” Father Gabriel paused at the podium, letting the words sink in. The other sisters and I stared at him, completely engrossed.
“Turning out of self, to others is what allows us to be free!” Father exclaimed, his words firm and passionate. “The great love Christ has for us—He wants us to trust in His Cross, to do things we don’t think we’re capable of. Our sufferings, big and small, can be used to rescue others. When we give for others, it lightens the load of Christ’s Cross.”
Incredible, that the man should see a glimpse of his own future, I thought. Incredible, that it should give him the fire to do the impossible thing, and make his escape.
The story of the man breaking free for the sake of his son stayed with me. It instructed me far more than a thousand carefully crafted sermons could have done.
Sometimes the only way for us to move forward is to think of the distant promise that awaits us: the children that will come, if we persevere. For ourselves, moving forward may not always seem worth it. But for the sake of others, for the ones who will someday need us, in order to exist and survive—we can do the seemingly impossible.
Thank you so much for reading! Join me in two weeks for more on the silent retreat and the reception of the habit ceremony!
Also, be sure to check my website for the latest "Life After Convent" posts:
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