This Is Not the Tree You’re Looking For
We decorated the refectory Christmas tree with red and gold bulbs, a swirl of ribbon, and white twinkling lights. When I suggested adding some more decorations, Sister Joy told me it would clutter the tree.
As I studied our handiwork, I tried to hide my disgust. A baloney sandwich has more personality than this thing. “Why can’t we make it look a little more…fun?”
Sister Joy pressed her lips together. “This is where the professed sisters eat,” she said. “Their tree should have a classic, formal look.”
I stifled a sigh. It was classic, alright. And boring.
In my mind, a tree should be covered in beautiful, unique ornaments, collected over time, and carefully strung with large and small bulbs, of every color. It should have pictures and ornaments made by family members hanging at the bottom, and a multicolored star on the top. Hallmark ornaments with moving parts and buttons would play music or movie quotes, while a good set of bubble lights would add old-time nostalgia.
That was what a Christmas tree should be like. Cheery, homey, and unrepeatable.
“This is just the refectory tree,” Sr. Joy said. “Maybe one of the other trees will be more…fun?”
I brightened at the possibility. Once we finished decorating the refectory, I headed to the novitiate Common Room. Perhaps I could still find the tree I was looking for.
As we approached Christmas, I was learning more about what it really meant to follow God's will. It seemed to be less about coming up with big penances, and more about accepting whatever God chose to send me, in the present moment.
A few days before, we’d spent an entire day deep cleaning the Motherhouse for Christmas. We made the extra beds upstairs, cleaned the windows, and dusted every room from top to bottom.
“I wish we could do this every day,” I told one of the novices, while we scrubbed the window screens. “I didn’t have to sit and be still all morning!”
She laughed. “Remember to thank God when you can do the things you love!”
That’s what I needed to work on—being content and thankful, whatever the Lord asked of me. Whether it was a busy day of cleaning, or an hour of boring Christmas decorating, the Lord was present. What was most pleasing to Him was my obedience to the task at hand.
“The convent comes with built-in penances!” Our novice mistress reminded us in class. “You don’t need to come up with new ones.
“Once you succeed in joyfully embracing the penances you already have—the Rule, your daily duties, rising early for prayer—then you can ask me for more penances.”
Charlie Brown Christmas Eve
That year, I didn't need to come up with a single penance. Postulant year was full of them.
For example, the lame Christmas trees.
The refectory tree was boring, but the Common Room tree turned out to be even less impressive. The novice-in-charge had decorated a scruffy-looking spruce with battered homemade ornaments, blue lights, and a profusion of tinsel. Two rocking chairs were placed beside the tree, for easy viewing.
On Christmas Eve, between dinner and Midnight Mass, I sat down and rocked in one of those chairs. As I stared at the little blue tree, the room’s only source of light, I thought about my family at home.
Christmas Eve was our family’s biggest celebration of the year. As a child, we drove to my great aunt’s house for a twelve-course, meatless Polish dinner, with all my mother’s cousins, aunts and uncles. We'd sing Christmas songs, and Santa came to give each of the children a special gift—the first present of Christmas.
As time passed, we celebrated Christmas Eve at different houses, but we always followed the same traditions. We had pierogi and fish and lima bean soup and Grandma’s special cookies.
Back in the convent, I rocked furiously back and forth in my chair, eyes glued to the dismal tree. Instead of pierogi, the Sisters had served Arby's roast beef with curly fries. Instead of time spent with my family, cousins, and grandparents, I sat rocking by a Christmas tree, alone.
“Your family’s coming to visit in two days,” I whispered, encouragingly. “You will have plenty of time with them. And the Sisters here are wonderful. You can make new traditions.”
Still, at Thanksgiving and now again at Christmas, I felt cut off from my family heritage and traditions. It was a painful dying to self, to who I was and where I came from. But if this was really my vocation, then I had to let that part of me go.
I remembered the poem Sr. Lucia had taught me: “Let nothing disturb you…Everything passes, God never changes.”
My Christmas Eve was different this year, but not bad. I was surrounded by Sisters who loved and cared about me. Sr. Marisa, who sat out in the rain the day before, just to keep me company. Sr. Mary Frances’ tender friendship, and the care and encouragement of my sister postulants. Sr. Lucia, who offered to help me with my violin music, even though I sounded like a nightmare of squeaks.
Also, I knew the Sisters were praying for me. There was no way I would have made it this far, without God’s answer to their prayers.
Christmas Eve, at Midnight
That night was my first Midnight Mass. Red poinsettia flowers covered the area around the altar like a scarlet blanket. We sang traditional Christmas hymns, filled the chapel with song and incense, lifted our hearts and prayers to God.
Later, it was quiet. I knelt in my chapel stall, head bowed in prayer. I was preparing my little heart-home: a shaded, cavernous space with dark wooden walls. Outside my inner window, a meadow spilled out into a vast emerald valley, sprinkled with daffodils and wildflowers.
“Behold, I come to the door and knock.”
In Revelation 3:20, the Lord knocks to enter our hearts, and eat at our table. But He won't enter on His own. He is far too polite, and respectful of our freedom.
Let the Lord in, Sister Mary Joan.
The Sisters in the schola, or choir, were singing “In the Bleak Midwinter”:
What shall I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I would do my part
What shall I give him? Give him my heart.
I reflected on the lyrics, thinking of my new poverty.
Lord, I can’t give anyone presents this year. I don’t have a job and all my leftover money is for doctor’s appointments and dental bills.
In my imagination, I showed the Lord my tiny heart-home, that interior space I’d created for Him alone.
This is really the only thing I have left to give You.
I imagined the Lord entering, resting inside. Drinking orange juice and eating Christmas breakfast with me at my table.
In my journal that December, I'd written in the margins: “The greatest present you can give to Him is to allow Him to dwell in your heart!”
Who told me this? Was it Sr. Anna, or one of the black veils? Perhaps the priest at Christmas Mass?
Whoever said it, I listened to them.
It’s all Yours, Lord, I prayed. My heart belongs to You now.
Thank you so much for reading! Tune in next week to read about my family's visit to the Motherhouse and an eventful January in Nashville!:)
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.