Holy Week. The last mile in the Lenten marathon, and I entered it just as wearily.
When will Lent be over, Lord?
The meals were simpler, the mornings earlier, and the silence-filled days long and grey. Over the last 40 days, I’d lost several pounds I hadn’t needed to lose, endured more silence than I thought possible, and strengthened my spiritual muscles more than ever before.
By the time Holy Week arrived, I was tired but ready for the sacred days ahead: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter.
Conference with Sister
On the Tuesday of Holy Week, my novice mistress met with me for a one-on-one conference. We talked about a variety of smaller topics before tackling the foremost issue on my mind.
“How is your back pain, Sister Mary Joan?” Sister Anna asked.
“A little better.” I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “I met with the doctor you recommended. He thinks physical therapy might help.”
“Have you been doing the stretches and exercises he recommended?”
“Yes, they’re helping, too.” I answered, trying to sound optimistic. The stretches did help alleviate the pain, but they didn’t heal my back. As soon as the next morning arrived, my back was just as prone to hurting as the day before.
Sister Anna was quiet for a moment. I happily remained quiet, too. I didn’t like talking about it. The physical pain from my back was unpleasant, but the feelings of guilt and shame accompanying it were far worse. Almost unbearable. Deep down I knew there must be more to this wound than met the eye. There had to be, or why hadn’t it gotten better after 12 long years?
“Sister, do you think there could be a psychological reason for your back pain?”
I blinked at Sister Anna in surprise. “A…psychological reason?” I repeated. “What do you mean?”
Sister Anna smoothed the fabric of her scapular over her knees. Above us, the heating vents hummed to life with a sound like rushing wind.
“Sometimes a wound from our past can cause us physical pain. Maybe that’s not true in your case…but it’s worth praying about.”
I nodded, lost in thought. “I didn’t know that could happen, Sister.”
“Perhaps think back to when your back pain started,” Sister Anna suggested. “Maybe that will help you identify its cause: physical, psychological, or both.”
A Silent Plea
My conference with Sister Anna stayed with me all the way to afternoon Holy Hour. I felt like Sherlock Holmes, presented with a new lead for his latest case. Could my back pain have a psychological cause? If so, what could it be?
Lord, I asked very simply, if there is a psychological reason for my back pain…please reveal it to me.
I fidgeted in my chapel stall, trying vainly to distract myself from my aching back. I was hurt, and not just a little. No, this problem was big, deep, and complicated, and there was no way I was getting out of it all by myself.
If you desire it, you can heal me, Lord.
I sighed. I’d had this wound for the last 12 years. No other doctors had been able to get rid of it, or even make it noticeably better. At best, all their efforts had only helped me to cope with it.
Please show me the source, Lord, if there is one, I prayed. Show me there’s some sense behind all these years of embarrassment and suffering and shame.
I raised my face to the monstrance, regarded the beautiful form of Jesus in the Eucharist. Faith told me the Lord was present, listening, but I received no answer in the silence.
Holy Thursday – Evening
The Sisters’ Holy Thursday traditions began during dinner in the refectory. I wasn't serving at table that day; instead, I remember sitting in the soft, muted light of the refectory, indirect sunlight from the north and east windows filtering into the large eating space.
At home in Michigan, my family and I typically had roasted lamb, potatoes, asparagus (for our bitter herbs), and my dad’s homemade cinnamon raisin bread on Holy Thursday.
I suspected lamb was too expensive a food for a convent with hundreds of sisters. Instead, we had pork chops, fresh salad, a glass of wine, and our very own loaf of bread—round, crusty, with a cross over the top.
At table Sister Lucia and I broke open our loaves, adding real butter to it piece by piece, just as we’d learned from our postulant manners class. As we ate our loaves and sipped the red wine, a professed Sister read from the Gospel of Saint John:
"Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end…" Sister began, quoting John 13:1.
I listened carefully as the Holy Thursday narrative unfolded, starting with Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet, the announcement of Judas’ betrayal, and all the beautiful words Jesus shared with his disciples at the Last Supper:
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? - John 14:1-2
I knew these Gospel passages. I had meditated on many of them before and after entering the convent. But I had never read all of them together, or considered how Jesus spoke them at the same time. Now I imagined Jesus, both eager and dreading all that was to come after, giving one final teaching. These were His last words of comfort to His disciples. His final prayer to the Father, before His Passion:
I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you…that the world may believe that you sent me. - John 17:20-21
My Sisters and I were also included in this prayer of Jesus: we, too, had believed in the Lord through the disciples’ word. So although John wrote this Gospel two thousand years ago, Jesus’ words were still living, active, and relevant to each of us.
“So that they may all be one,” Jesus prayed on behalf of His disciples.
O Lord, help me to be one in prayer with all my sisters tonight. Show me how to remain one and close with You.
My back was aching by the time the long meal was over. However, my thoughts for once were not on the pain. I was thinking about the Lord, and how I could best enter into the events of Holy Thursday with Him.
In the convent, this was simpler than wading into quiet waters. All I had to do was participate in everything happening around me: sending plates through our Hobart dishwasher, removing my work apron, pinning on my veil, and entering the chapel for the Holy Thursday liturgy.
The Mass was beautiful, as always, but the Gloria that day was special. On Holy Thursday, all the bells in the Church are rung during the Gloria. They are not rung again until the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night.
The Mass begins
Grand and eternal as always
Until the time for Gloria.
Bells, bells, bells.
The tinkling of tall and tiny bells—
From the organ and courtyard,
The stalls and sacristy,
A rich, echoing, joyful sound.
Lent is over! Gloria, gloria!
Christ’s Passion begins tonight, but
Ends with Resurrection!
Thank you so much for reading! Please join me next week as I continue my journey through a convent Holy Week and Easter. The Sisters sure know how to take things (spiritually) to the next level!
Please also check out my latest post on Life After Convent, the blog for my author website. Subscribe to receive weekly stories of encouragement and a free e-Book. :)
About the Author:
Mary Rose Kreger lives in the metro Detroit area with her family, where she writes fantasy for teens and blogs about her spiritual journey: before, during and after the convent. She writes about her convent experience here at www.monasteryinmyheart.com, and her struggles transitioning to post-convent life at www.maryrosekreger.com.