After surrendering my novel to the Lord, I felt just as I'd expected: empty and sad. I moved about the Motherhouse with the fervor of a robot running through a checklist:
Get to meals, class, prayers on time.
Smile when appropriate.
Complete my duties without complaint.
Go to practice for Swan Lake. Play my violin poorly with the other postulants, who all have more talent than me. Who all seem to be enjoying this far more than I am. Who all seem happy to use their gifts for the Lord.
I would have been happy, too, if I'd possessed any musical talent. My friend Sister Lucia was in her element, choreographing and dancing the lead for the classical ballet. Sister Sophia played the violin so beautifully during our first run-through, she seemed bored by the rest of rehearsal. Meanwhile, I, Sister Mary Joan, struggled to play even the basic Swan Lake melody.
I’d started playing violin at 15, too late to be really good at it. At age 26, I was mediocre at best. In a convent named after Saint Cecilia, patroness of musicians, I was pretty much the worst. In any case, playing my instrument now brought me more frustration than joy. Every squeak, every wrong note, only reminded me of my inadequacy.
“Let’s try to keep the pace at moderato, please,” said Sister Mary. She didn’t look in my direction, but I knew she was talking about me. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to go faster or slower.
I nodded and played the notes a second time, increasing my pace to match the others.
Squeak-squeak, went my violin. My face burned in embarrassment, but I kept playing. Playing badly.
The other sisters were encouraged to use their musical gifts to bless the community. But Sister Anna had told me I couldn’t even think about using mine.
Why Lord? I demanded in frustration. Why did You give me gifts that I can’t use?
Later I was in the kitchen, cleaning. No one else was there; I was the last one finishing my chores. Outside, the weather was cold and clear. Afternoon sunlight passed through the windows above the pots and pans.
The sharp smell of cleaner filled my nose as I wrung out my dish rag in the soap bucket. I leaned forward, ran my fresh rag in overlapping circles across the metal work table. The smooth, silvery tabletop shimmered in my wake.
As I worked each table, the steel countertops reminded me that I was not at home, cleaning my old apartment or helping my mom with the dishes. Instead, I was serving in the communal, impersonal setting of the Sister’s kitchen. One sister, lost among many.
If this is what You want, Lord, I prayed, immersed for once in silence. I want You more than I want my words.
Sorrow followed my prayer. To give up my writing was to give up what made me…me. To embrace a half-life, an unfulfilled life. Like severing a limb. Like carving out a piece of my heart.
Harder and deeper, I scrubbed the countertops until they gleamed. All my emptiness and desolation went into each stroke.
“You plunge me into the bottom of the pit,
into the darkness of the abyss…
Because of you friend and neighbor shun me;
my only friend is darkness.”
-Psalm 88:7, 19b
I had descended into the abyss...but the Lord did not leave me there.
Darkness Like Light
In darkness He came.
Not dark like night. Dark like gazing into the sun, and getting blinded. Afternoon light from the window; at the same time, a grand, mysterious blackness in my soul. The movement of something - Someone - bending down low, over my heart.
I didn’t understand it, but I knew it was the Lord, descending into that empty space where my writing used to be.
I paused with my washcloth pressed into the tabletop. The moment passed; the memory did not. It preserved itself whole and intact: invisible, but also unforgettable. Within me, and also beyond me. In a single moment, and in all moments.
The Lord. It was the Lord.
When I finally raised my head, I was no longer alone.
Sister Lucia was there, too.
“What’s the matter?” she asked.
I hesitated before answering. I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t want to worry her.
“Sister Anna said I should stop working on my novel,” I swallowed back the sudden lump in my throat. “She said I should even stop thinking about it.”
Sister Lucia stared at me, stunned. Her reaction reaffirmed what I already felt inside.
You’re not giving up garbage to follow Me, the Lord had said. You’re giving up something good.
“I’m sorry, Sister Mary Joan,” she whispered back, her eyes compassionate and sad.
I nodded in thanks and offered a tiny smile. During such an important moment in my spiritual journey, I was glad to have Sister Lucia as my witness.
That night, I took to my pen. Maybe I couldn’t write my beloved novel, but I could write about my experience that day.
At the end of Compline each night, I liked to imagine the Lord coming to visit my soul, as if it was a “little house”.
That’s how I can write about what happened, I decided. I’ll write a poem about my little house.
Entry for January 29, 2013:
The mystery of You—I strive so hard to find you, to bring water from the well to the garden [of my soul]. But when you wish, you simply rain on me and I cannot say a word…The rest is silence.
Little house carved of stone
Pines whisper, fade into blue melancholy
Your coat and scarf hung on the rack
Mother Mary kisses both your cheeks
You lift me into your arms
The senses cannot understand you
My whole being fills with you…
I cannot see you, and I do not know my own self.
Instead—the turn, the delight unlooked for…
You never move, but I do now
You never change, but I am changing
Empty, you fill me
The vessel is imperfect, but willing
I am ready and completely unprepared…
You lead—your darkness is bright enough for me.
In the little house, a fire [now] burns in the hearth.
Thank you so much for reading! (Yes, today's post really happened, just as I described.)
Please join me next week to read about my first Lent with the Sisters. Including my enchanting play about the "convent cactus". ;)
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About the Author:
Mary 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 at www.monasteryinmyheart.com, and about her struggles transitioning to post-convent life at www.maryrosekreger.com.