Christmas in the Convent

The Christmas holidays are long gone but I’d like to share a little about living with nuns.  They really are great people, full of lovingkindness and mercy unto the stranger and alien among you and all sorts of virtuous stuff you only find in a King James Old Testament.  I’m quite moved by how they go out of their way to talk to me and care for me—they really have made it a way a life around here.  I wrote this way back at the beginning of December, and it seemed like a good time to share.


I could feel the quiet strength of the Advent message as we gathered around a room lit by a single candle.  The words meant nothing more to me than the leaping shadows of the wreath in the center of the room, but I understood.  She was asking us to consider what the Advent season means for us, to open our hearts for preparation.  To listen.

“She talked about gifts,” a friend explained afterwards.  “In the season of preparation, we can prepare ourselves not only to give to others but also to receive.  To be open to what others offer us.”  And I wanted that so badly.  I spend so much time and emotional energy longing for love without opening myself to receive it.  I unlock the doors to my heart but I leave them closed.

After the gathering was Convent Open House—the one day of the year when boarders are invited to see the nuns’ living space.  This really challenged my stereotypes about nuns.  Every room had a prayer corner with an advent wreath, but they also had plants sometimes, artwork, a few pictures, and always many books.  Even living amongst them, I imagined them just praying all the time and thinking about God and feeding the poor.  But they study!  They read or make music or teach.  One sister had a whole shelf of biology texts and reference books; many rooms had a Czech-Italian dictionary to help them work through some theological literature.  I was very pleased to find many of my favorite C.S. Lewis books in the convent library.

Priorities here are unmistakable.   My main criticism of Catholicism at large has been that it gets off-track from the essentials by elevating saints, doing penance, and going through the motions of rituals, but I’m the one who’s making too big a deal about these things.  In this household, absolutely everything points toward worship, prayer, study, community, and service.  And it’s not limiting like I imagined (“poor nuns, it’s a good thing they’ve got treasure in heaven because life here can’t be much fun”).  With their individual and corporate life fixed on Jesus, they are creative, fun-loving, curious, adventurous, humble, and breathtakingly generous.

I finally asked one of them why she became a nun.  When she understood my question she paused for a moment.  “Inside,” she explained, pointing to her heart, “God calls me.  I didn’t want to go.  For two years I wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t even think about it.  And then one day I really knew.”

I’m humbled again.  Among my other nun stereotypes, I assumed desperation was always a part of a decision to take orders.  Either running away from some aspect of life, or a dramatic conversion where one swears to devote one’s life to the church.  Or that you get brainwashed or drafted into it as a kid, before you know any better, or you’ve run out of other options and at least you’ll have a steady job this way.  I’m used to hearing about “callings from God” for ministry, missions, etc.  But to be a nun?!  I wouldn’t listen either!  If God calls me to be a missionary at least he can change his mind after a few years!  I don’t really hear about women leaving the sisterhood except for Maria Von Trapp and she clearly had a higher calling to make sweet German music with a family full of children.

Now don’t get me wrong, as of yet I’m definitely not called to be a nun.  But I am called to give my best and my all to seek and serve my God every day for the rest of my life.  It’s a full-time commitment and I’m only living it part time.  I might have a prayer corner in my room, but there are a lot of other corners too.  And the truth is that I’m scared of what I’ll miss out on if all of it belongs to God.

Prepare yourself, says the advent speaker.  Open yourself to that which others would give to you.  I want to say yes to the good things that God wants to give in every corner of my life, because good is the ONLY thing he gives me.  That is who he is, all the time.

Can I prepare my heart this season to trust the goodness of his gifts?  Can I be open enough to accept what he is already offering?