When I was growing up, my mom would light the candles on our Advent wreath before our evening meal. We dimmed the lights, held each other's hands, and sang O Come, O Come Emmanuel. The haunting music drew me into something deeper, older -- the ancient longing for a Messiah, a Savior, to come and dwell in our midst.
After we sang, we'd turn the lights back on and eat our evening meal. My childish mind would fill once again with thoughts of Santa and presents, school concerts and Christmas parties. I'd return to thinking the way most Americans do: as if Christmas had started the day after Thanksgiving, rather than on December 25. Although I loved Advent as a child, the outside world usually distracted me from its meaning.
In the convent, however, things were different. We celebrated Advent right up until Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. We sang O Come O Come Emmanuel, and Comfort, Comfort O My People, and allowed Advent, that brief period of waiting and expectation, to truly have its own season.
Advent 2012 - A Retreat in the Woods
In the second week of December, Sister Anna took all of us postulants to the Bethany Retreat House. The retreat house was nestled in the woods and farmland of central Tennessee. The Sisters gave retreats there for the parents and staff at their schools, as well as for the Sisters themselves. It was a beautiful, peaceful place to pray. That morning we enjoyed the view from the building's long outdoor porch, marveled at the massive fireplace and picture windows of the great room, and explored the cozy loft, complete with couches and bookshelves.
Next, Sister Anna gave us a morning conference in the chapel. We prayed together and ate a delicious lunch in the airy dining room. Later during our free time, Sr. Lucia and I went out to explore the grounds.
We walked through the trees past the swimming pond, then headed down the hill, towards the Sister's convent and the road. The woods bordered us on the left-hand side.
On this day, and every day, I still struggled in the silence. I tried not to think without the Lord, but whenever a new problem would pop up, I’d go right back to worrying and being anxious again.
Today I was worrying about my back. The pain had been getting worse and worse as postulant year went on. If we had a good outdoor recreation with lots of exercise, it was okay for a while. But many days, our postulant duties or bad weather prevented us from going outside. Then my back would start bothering me again, and my frenzied thoughts crowded together like water clogged in a dam.
I swear Sr. Lucia could see it, the latest storm brewing inside my head.
Why can't you just fight through this, Sister Mary Joan? Why can't you be like the other Sisters, content to sit still and pray and study all day?
“Why don’t we walk in the woods over there?” Sr. Lucia asked, pointing to our left.
"Sure, Sister." I smiled a little. My friend didn't like to sit still, either.
Together we wandered off the trail, into the strip of trees. We kept a brisk pace as we waded through crisp leaves and navigated the winter undergrowth. I loved it.
“I’d like to teach you a poem, Sr. Mary Joan,” Sr. Lucia said presently. The exercise had brought a blush of peach color to her cheeks, and her auburn ponytail fell over her shoulder. “It’s by Saint Teresa of Avila."
I climbed up on a half rotten log and glanced back at her. The whole wood lay quiet, sleeping around us. Nothing but dead leaves, broken branches. The sky, though. Pale and tender blue, streaked with feathery wisps of cloud. Heavenly perfection over a bleak landscape.
"I can sing it for you, in Spanish," said Sr. Lucia.
“Nada te turbe, nada te espante
todo se pasa, Dios no se muda…
nada le falta, solo Dios basta.”
The song was simple, and felt comforting.
“What does it mean?”
Sister Lucia climbed up beside me on the log and surveyed the wintry wood. “It means you don’t have to worry, Sister Mary Joan. God is taking care of everything.”
I met my friend’s eyes, then shuffled my shoes. “Can you teach it to me?”
She smiled. The pale December sun sparkled in her eyes.
“I intend to. First, ‘Nade te turbe, nada te espante…’”
Line by line, she taught me the words. I repeated them again and again, embedding them in my memory. The poem was a gift, an anchor to cling to when the storm clouds rolled in. A shield to ward away my inner demons, and defend myself from needless worry.
Later, someone gave me Saint Teresa of Avila’s holy card. On the back of the card were the same words from Sr. Lucia's poem, this time in English:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
A Time of Waiting
We were still in Advent. I was still living in my own darkness, waiting for the Light. Having no idea of what it would take to liberate me, or what it would cost to heal me.
The Lord knew this; He knew I wasn't quite ready yet for change. So instead, He comforted me. He urged me to trust Him, and His timing. And He gave me friends, so I wouldn't have to suffer alone.
Before Christ saved us, He first came to us, in a lowly manger. Before He healed us, He first stayed with us.
That Advent the Lord stayed with me, waiting for me to grow accustomed to His Presence. The Divine Physician could not, and would not act, until His patient was ready.
Thank you so much for reading! Happy Feast of Saint Teresa of Avila! Join me next week for more wintry reflections and Christmas time in the convent. :)
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.