November came next with its cold winds, stripping the leaves off trees, and leaving them bare and beautiful in the Nashville sun. During choir practice, the Sisters passed out sheet music for the feast of Saint Cecilia.
I usually dreaded evening choir practice. After a long day, I much preferred to socialize than practice my Latin and medieval chords. The sheet music for Saint Cecilia, however, with its lovely illustrated cover, attracted my interest.
"The Saint Cecilia antiphons! Oh, I love this time of year," sighed one of the older sisters.
The choir mistress played the first antiphon, for all of us to rehearse:
With instruments playing, Cecilia sang to God in her heart, saying...
The music was slow, powerful, even a little ominous. The older sisters around me smiled and sang along, as if reliving pleasant memories from Cecilia days gone by.
I'd learned a lot about Saint Cecilia since Entrance Day. She is the patron saint of music and the arts, because of how she sang to God for help. She converted many people to the faith, beginning with her soon-to-be husband Valerian, whom she convinced to live celibately on their wedding night. Cecilia was martyred by the Romans, but before she died, she entrusted her home and property to the Church.
For three weeks, we practiced the Saint Cecilia antiphons during choir practice. Each week, the older sisters grew more and more excited.
This feast was going to be big, they assured us. Huge. The most epic celebration at the convent yet.
We postulants chatted with each other, not knowing what to expect. Would this be as big as the feast of Saint Augustine? As fun and mysterious as Halloween?
What would happen on Saint Cecilia Day?
The Night Before
I would've been much more excited about Saint Cecilia Day, if it hadn't landed on Thanksgiving that year.
I'd missed Thanksgiving at home two times before, but both of those times I'd spent the holiday with other friends and their welcoming families. I’d never spent it in a formal refectory with hundreds of Sisters, all of whom seemed more excited about the Cecilia antiphons than the turkey.
Nope, I told myself before going to bed. Tomorrow is just going to be wrong, from beginning to end.
My head fell forward on my mattress, where I’d been kneeling to write. I never sat at my desk. I never sat in the convent, period, unless it was mandatory, because it triggered my back pain.
I’d developed pain in my lower back after running high school track. Physical therapy had helped, but not healed it.
Ugh. I groaned silently and scowled. I can’t do this. I can’t show my face in public tomorrow, smile all day long for the Sisters, when inside I just want…to go home.
Not permanently. Only for Thanksgiving. Just to see my family, hug my sisters, have my mom’s home cooking again. To play Lord of the Rings Risk with my brother, and complain as he invades Middle Earth with a band of orcs and a few cave trolls.
My back twinged, making me squirm. It was a strange, moody kind of pain. Always lurking in the background. Always accompanied by guilt. It warned me something was wrong, that I was wrong -- even when that didn't make sense.
What’s wrong with me? I wrote in my journal. I meant it literally as well as rhetorically. What was wrong with my back?
I rubbed my face with my hands, glanced at the clock. One minute left ‘til profound silence.
Teach me, Lord. I can’t do it, I continued in hurried prose. Make it possible for me to get up and face tomorrow.
I closed my journal, flicked off the desk light, and climbed into bed. The profound silence of the convent settled over me, echoing the emptiness I already felt in my heart.
Saint Cecilia Day
I woke to the sound of guitar strings, twanging softly in the twilight of the dorms. First quietly, from far off. Then closer, with sweet, tender words:
While the music played, Cecilia sang
In her heart to her God
Though the darkness raged, Cecilia prayed
Make my heart immaculate…
I slid out of bed, peeked around the curtain of my cell. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
Another postulant’s head popped above the sea of white curtains, as she tried to get a view of the guitarist.
Did she climb on her bed? I hesitated, then followed suit.
Up on my mattress, I had a much better view. Now I could see one of the novices, Sr. Clare*, strumming her guitar. The other novices followed in her wake. Their white habits and veils made them look ghostly, like spirits from another realm. Like angels, perhaps, come to sing the praises of that wondrous virgin martyr, Cecilia.
That morning in the Motherhouse, Cecilia's story and music were very much alive.
Beautiful, furious organ music greeted me as I stepped into the chapel for meditation. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine I’d entered some baroque, Beauty and the Beast-style castle, or the Doge’s massive palace in Venice. And yet Saint Cecilia and her feast day were far more ancient.
During Morning Prayer and Mass, the Sisters sang special hymns and antiphons in honor of Saint Cecilia. The sacristan had decorated the altar with gorgeous flowers, and incense permeated the air as the priest began Mass. I joined in the singing, adding my quiet voice to the community's beautiful, uplifting melody.
After Mass, all the postulants ate breakfast together at the “kid’s table”. A few novitiate sisters had put together an elaborate Thanksgiving display, then seated the postulants all around it.
Sr. Clare stopped by while serving, to share the story behind her morning music.
"I was hugging my guitar all night, watching the clock," she said. "I didn't want to ruin the surprise for you all."
"It was amazing, Sister!"
"Yeah, great idea!"
I smiled. The morning wake-up had been lovely, but I still felt homesick. If anyone else felt this way, I couldn’t tell. I tried the eggs and daydreamed about what everyone was doing at home:
My little sisters, eating cereal on the couch as they watch the parade in downtown Detroit on TV. My mom, preparing the turkey for its long roast in the oven. My dad, vacuuming or cleaning the sinks, singing a cheerful tune from the The Music Man. Everyone is relaxed, and enjoying another holiday at home.
But this time, without me.
I'm sorry, everyone. I wish I could be there, too.
“Sr. Mary Joan?”
I glanced up, saw that the postulant next to me had asked a question.
“Are you going to play in the Turkey Bowl?”
I nodded and smiled. “Yes, I can play. I love football.”
For You, Lord
That afternoon I played in the Turkey Bowl with the other Sisters. We raced dutifully across the lawn under a slate grey sky. A lonely ache burned in my chest, pushing tears up behind my eyes.
Someday, you’ll get used to this, I coached myself. Someday, this won’t be so hard.
“Sr. Mary Joan! Are you open?” cried another postulant on my team.
I waved and reached for the football, but a professed Sister caught it first.
In my mind, I thought of why I had come here: to be with the Lord. Because He had looked at me once, and called me to Himself. He chose me: flawed, awkward, scatter-brained, tongue-tied Mary. Who could write just fine but struggled with basic conversation. Whose gifts seemed hidden, useless, in a convent of talented singers and artists, musicians and teachers.
So invisible, Sister Mary Joan. As if you didn't exist.
The November wind hit me from the north, flung my borrowed black scarf into my face, my blue apron against my legs. I didn’t care. At least the weather seemed to know how I felt.
I love You, Jesus. I swallowed, tasted the salt of unshed tears. I’m still here because I love You.
Thank you so much for reading! Join me next week for an action-packed description of my first Advent in the convent! :)
Bonus Story: Also, here is a link to an article I wrote about my convent healing experience: Sister, What Do You Desire? My Convent Journey to Healing and Hope
**There are a few spoilers in this story.** Thank you to Leonie's Longing for posting this article! :)
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. Mary also shares faith and fantasy quotes on her Instagram account,@faithandfantasy1.