Behold, I Make All Things New

One Friday afternoon in March, I left my Richmond apartment for Nashville, Tennessee.

I was on my way to retreat with the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecilia.


A Three Hour Drive


It was a three-hour drive from Richmond to Nashville. Early spring flowers bloomed along the highway, and a few of the smaller trees sported green-gold leaves. I enjoyed the feeling of driving away from my troubles in Kentucky, on towards a new and grand adventure.

I’d known about the Sisters of Saint Cecilia for quite some time. One of my classmates had entered their community after college. I’d been quietly amazed that Josie would be willing to give up everything to enter a convent.

Now, five years later, I was driving to that same convent, wondering just what I might find there. I was ready to make a change in my life again, and now that I wasn’t dating Aidan, I was free to make whatever choice I pleased. I didn’t have to worry about offending or hurting him anymore.

I could think about becoming a sister again.

At the very least, I could come to the convent and see.

The east-west highway from Kentucky to Tennessee came to an end, depositing me onto I-65, the road to Nashville.

As I approached the Motherhouse, I considered what the Lord might see within me, when I arrived. The image I concocted wasn’t pleasant: a swollen heart threaded through with barbed wire, so infected it could only be fixed by an expert surgeon.

Oh Jesus, I prayed, feeling ashamed at what I'd seen. I'm so sorry I don't have a better heart to give you.

I clutched the steering wheel, staring straight ahead.

"It's not a very good one, Lord. But it is Yours." I placed a hand over my heart, and entrusted it to the Lord. He would know how to make it as good as new.

Isn’t that what it had said on the retreat brochure?

“Behold, I make all things new.”


Arrival at the Motherhouse


As a sister opened up the front gate for me, I got my first glimpse of the Motherhouse.

It was a red brick building, three or four stories in height at different places. As I drove around the circle drive, I saw it looked directly out to downtown Nashville. Just beyond its chapel, a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus raised His hand in blessing, welcome.

After finding a place to park, I grabbed my belongings and walked slowly towards the front steps. My eyes absorbed every detail: the carefully tended cemetery to my left; the round, sloped hill where the Sacred Heart statue stood; the grand white pillars on either side of the front steps. Everything spoke of beauty, cleanliness, and Southern charm.

Two cheerful younger sisters helped me carry my things inside.

"I'm sure you'd like to make a chapel visit first, before getting settled," the first sister said. She led me into the Motherhouse, and I followed.


Chapel Visit


A cool brush of air touched my face as the sister brought me into the chapel. The sacred space had peach-colored walls with white trim, and two sets of stained glass windows that flooded the room with light. The air smelled faintly of soap and incense.

As we knelt behind the pews to pray, a professed sister entered the chapel from the cloister. Her white habit and long black veil flowed behind her as she crossed the chapel's center aisle, bowed at the waist before the tabernacle, and hung the numbers for Vespers on the hymn board.

The tabernacle behind the sister was gilded in gold.

The Lord was present there; He was the one who had called me on retreat. He was the reason I had come.

A series of stained glass windows adorned the lower walls of the chapel, illustrating the life of Saint Cecilia, virgin and martyr. My favorite stood on the right-hand side, depicting Cecilia bravely preparing for her execution by the sword. The glass panel beside her read,

“For stern as death is love; relentless as the netherworld is devotion.”

The sisters who greeted me at the front steps had brought me here, first thing, to the chapel. As I knelt in the very back, soaking in its beauty, I didn’t ever want to leave.

I’d finally identified the feeling that had been growing since my arrival.

Coming to the Motherhouse felt like coming home.


Meeting the Sisters


On the first night of retreat, my fellow retreatants and I shared a Lenten meal with the sisters. Everything was meatless, simple, and satisfying. The sisters were merry servers and conversationalists.

“I never used to drink coffee when I first entered,” Sr. Benedicta informed me. “But when I told my spiritual director that I only wake up after noon, he told me it was just my pride keeping me from coffee. Ever since then, I drink a cup every day.”

“Some sisters call coffee-serving the eighth corporal work of mercy,” another sister joked.

Considering that the sisters woke up at 5 am each day for prayer and Mass, the merciful coffee-serving made sense.

“My greatest dream is to go to Europe to celebrate the 800th Anniversary of the Dominican Order,” Sr. Benedicta continued. “It’s the year I make my final vows, so wouldn’t that just be perfect?”

I nodded and smiled. I didn’t know anything about Saint Dominic, except what I’d read in the retreat book before dinner.

“Dominicans are Marian, and contemplative,” the retreat book had said. The word contemplative intrigued me. A few months back, Aidan had given me The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. In the book, St. Teresa wrote about her deeper conversion as a Carmelite nun, and her profound experiences during prayer. She said that anyone could attain intimacy with the Lord, as long as they persevered in daily mental prayer.

Is that what the Dominicans mean by “contemplative”? If I came here, to the convent, could I find God in prayer?


Compline


After dinner and the first retreat talk, the Sisters took us to Compline.

“Because there are so many of you, we ask you not to join vocally in Night Prayer,” the lead sister said politely. “It will throw the sisters off.”

I felt disappointed not to be able to participate; disappointed, and curious. What was this thing called Compline, that was so delicate and intricate, only the practiced could speak it out loud?

Compline began with the Liturgy of the Hours. The Sisters sat, stood, knelt, and bowed in practiced unity. One of the sisters at dinner had called it a “liturgical ballet”.

After the Hours, the sister leading prayers for the day walked up and down the central aisle, sprinkling all the Sisters with holy water. When she came to the back of the chapel, I smiled in delight: it was my old classmate, Josie! She smiled at me and the other retreatants as she sprinkled us all with holy water.

After Compline, the sisters dimmed all the lights, except for one shining on the statue of the Blessed Mother. Two sisters dressed in white veils—novices—processed to the front and knelt before the altar. I heard a faint humming sound, followed by two trembling voices:

Salve…”

Except it didn’t sound like two syllables, but four. It was the first part of a chant. The whole community now joined the novices:

Regina. Et spes nostra, salve.”

“Hail, Holy Queen…”

On that first night the prayer seemed to go on forever. The silence following it went on forever, too.


What's Their Secret?


As they prayed, the Sisters rose from their stalls and processed around the church. The two singing novices went first, followed by the postulants and ending with the Mother Superior. When the Sisters reached the back of the church, right by me, they reverently bowed their heads to each other before returning to their chapel stalls. Some of the younger sisters made eye contact and smiled at their sister partner across the aisle.

They looked so merry, I wanted to know their secret. What would make them give up everything to come to the convent, perhaps for the rest of their life? And after giving up everything, how could they still be so happy?

It was a lot to think about.

But here in the peaceful convent, time was on my side. Time, and silence.

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Thank you so much for reading! Join me next week to hear more about my retreat with the Sisters.


About the Author:


Mary Rose Kreger lives in the metro Detroit area with her family, where she writes fantasy tales for teens, and blogs about her spiritual journey: before, during, and after the convent. Mary also shares faith-based poems and fantasy quotes on her Instagram account, @faithandfantasy1.

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