One night in June, I lay resting in my cell, listening to the hum of the air conditioning as it rushed through the ceiling vents. A ruby-colored Exit sign glared at me from the top of my cell curtain, but there was nothing I could do to block the light. All my sisters were asleep; no one was even rising to use the restroom.
It wouldn't have mattered. It was profound silence, and I couldn’t talk to them.
I wasn’t in need of small talk, or information, or the simple pleasure of human company. No, there was a secret burning inside of me, something that had already been hidden for far too long. Twelve years buried in my soul, and now it was desperate, frantic for release.
Night and Day
Day after day, the laughter and excitement of a convent summer. Three hundred teaching sisters, home from their schools, sharing meals together in the overflowing refectory, filling every cell of the Motherhouse, making the chapel echo with glorious song. There were so many sisters, some of them had to eat in the adjacent hall.
Nobody minded. A full convent meant a healthy convent. The Motherhouse that year was vibrant, active, and bursting with life.
Day after day, the joy, the laughter of the Sisters.
Night after night, the endless, the aching hours in the silence. My need to speak. My longing to be heard. All the prayers in the world couldn’t change it. My prayers were as necessary as breathing, but they could not shape my secret into something real. No. Until someone looked me in the eyes, listened to my story, and understood me…I would never get better. I would never be healed.
No hope for healing tonight, I thought with a sigh. The bell had rung, the sisters had retired, and I had another seven hours in the silence.
The Battlefield of the Mind
In the quiet, my anxious mind picked through my regrets. Tonight’s topic was my misadventure with Charles.
I wasn’t a fool. I knew nothing good could come out of visiting Charles that night, after he’d betrayed me. I knew I could never win back his affection or love. But I was in love with him then. Dear Charles, a sea with no pearls for me. If he didn’t want me, what did it matter what happened to me?
See? You don’t belong here, Sister Mary Joan. Your past life was a mess. You could never be good enough to be a sister.
“No, that’s not true,” I whispered back. “Jesus loves me, and He is going to make me into a saint.”
My inner voice assaulted me with more insults. Then: If you were a “good sister”, you wouldn't despise yourself. You wouldn’t want to—
“No, Jesus loves me,” I retorted back, soundlessly. “No, I am His little lamb, covered in His Blood. He loves me and knows me. He lifts me into His arms, and gives me courage.”
No words for it, but I knew what the voice wanted. Justice for the past, and a payment made in blood.
“If I could only talk to someone…” Whispering this into my pillow felt like shooting blanks. I spoke the truth to fight the voice, but felt no relief.
Silence, silence, with the voice shouting violence in my ears.
I gasped and sprung out of bed.
My water cup. Every bit of me was trembling. Get your cup.
My pulse surged through shaking limbs, and tiny capillaries stretched like spiders over my eyes.
I grabbed my ugly green cup, unpinned the cell curtain, and fled.
On and on, through the last dorm. A sister had left the south-facing window open. I could see the pearly shape of a near full moon, gliding above the Music City. Over Broadway Street, and the AT&T building, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Over Saint Cecilia Motherhouse, and every one of the sisters.
Even though I walk through the dark valley, I fear no evil…
You made a mistake coming here. You could never be good enough to be a sister.
My fingers clutched the wooden beams of the last doorway. I grabbed the door frame, then turned to face the full-length mirror. It stood outside the main bathroom, so the Sisters could check their physical appearance and attire. Mirrors by the sink were considered a vanity, of course, but there was nothing wrong with checking to make sure one was presentable.
I didn’t need to be presentable at 11:35 p.m. But I did need to be visible.
Two extra wide eyes in an oval face gazed back at me.
“There. See? You are real. You do exist.” Like my soundless whispering, my viewing did not satisfy. I was just looking at my body, which had already hidden my secret quite successfully for 12 long years. No one had suspected anything, including myself. Even now, I didn’t understand it all.
But thanks to a year of silence, I knew it was there. The grief. The wound. The reason for my pain.
Yet Will I Trust Him
The word Aidan said to me once, that felt like a world of love. In peaceful Kentucky, I knelt before a dark cherry tabernacle, gilded with gold. It stood like a tiny cathedral, a holy temple fitting for so great a Treasure.
“Mary,” he had said, brushing my shoulder with the gentlest touch. Like tenderness reaching out from the deep, inviting my heart, and calling me home. Everything, everything in that name. In my name. No longer lost in the crowd, unseen, unknown.
“Mary,” Aidan had said, and I was no longer alone.
On hearing this now, this Mary, my mind and heart stilled. It was Jesus calling. He was here, holding me now.
No longer could I fear the voice or any phantom from the past. I touched the mirror in farewell, then tiptoed back to my cell.
“Jesus, I love You,” I prayed, as I returned to my bed. “I am never going to leave You. I will stay here with the Sisters, as long as You want me.”
“Even though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” – Job 13:15
At the end of June, I performed a song for the novitiate talent show. I didn’t usually sign up for the Sisters' shows. The thought of going up to perform before seventy talented religious filled me with terror.
But in the midst of my sleepless nights, I had written a song, and tonight I was determined to share it.
After all, I wasn’t any good at basketball or soccer, either, but my sisters put up with me during outdoor recreation. They even taught me how to improve. So although I wasn’t known for my singing talent, I was going to perform, and they would all have to put up with me again.
Thankfully, I wasn't singing a capella. The musically gifted Sister Allison was playing piano accompaniment for me. And I hadn't even written the music. Inez, my confirmation sponsor and a dear family friend, had composed the song. I had just added a couple of verses to it, based on my struggles during the last two months.
I couldn’t share my private troubles with my sisters. But I could share how the Lord was healing me.
To make sure I didn't go back on my resolution, I volunteered to go first. The MC handed me the microphone. I nodded at Sister Allison, who began to play the melody.
"Jealous love is fiercer..."
Once I'd finished Inez's verses, I began my own:
Pierce my heart with your love,
Gentle King of my heart
Draw our souls together
That we never may part
Hidden within Your Love
You burn away whatever’s not of You—
Heal my mind, my will, my body—
Lord, you make all things new.
I was nervous, but I was singing. Not perfectly, but well enough. I didn’t want them to think about my voice, anyways, but on the words the Lord had placed on my heart:
All the sorrows of this world
The betrayals by those we love
Every pain and suffering
Is transformed by His Love
He lifts us into His arms—
Like little lambs,
And presses us to His Heart
O Love beyond all telling,
Share the secrets of Your Heart!
I finished singing and left the stage to warm applause. Sister Allison beamed at me from the piano corner; I smiled and waved back.
"Good job, Sister," whispered Sister Eileen, as I found a seat near the back. "It’s nice to hear from one of the sisters who doesn’t usually perform, for a change."
"Thank you, I'm glad you liked it!"
Her comment gave me pause. Sister Eileen had liked it, for the very reason that had nearly kept me away from the microphone—I didn’t consider myself to be talented enough for these types of performances.
But that’s what Sister had liked about it. Since I didn’t do it often, when I did stand up to speak…she had listened. My reticence had made it special.
Later that evening, I discovered two notes in my mailbox.
The first was from the next oldest postulant, Sister Emily.
“Jesus is so proud of you right now,” she wrote. “I sure know that I am!”
“Your song was so lovely tonight,” wrote kind Sister Lucia in the second note. “And so are you!”
Thank you so much for reading! Please join me in two weeks for more convent summer adventures! :)
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