The soft glow of the candles cast their lively shadows across our chapel’s sanctuary walls. The final strains of Night Prayer’s chant faded into the cloister. Grand Silence began as my Carmelite Sisters left the sisters’ choir to retire for the night. It wasn’t long before I was alone in the darkened chapel, absorbed in the stillness of Carmel, a motionless figure silhouetted against the dancing candlelight.
On that particular night, a strong desire welled up within me to linger a while longer in His presence, ruminating over the compelling presentation I had just listened to earlier that afternoon. Sometimes, during my afternoon meditation time, or in the sacred silence after Night Prayer, I am able to bring together the sights and sounds of a busy day into a personal, contemplative view of the day that was ending. It is a restorative time for my soul and very good for me to consciously slow down in God’s presence and regain His perspective on the day.
That particular evening one theme ran through my mind–The Faith–as my Irish parents and grandparents would say. The Faith. I remember my mom telling me that my ancestors in Ireland suffered much for their Catholic faith. That thought slipped back into my mind as I knelt at Our Lady’s altar, trying to make sense of the day’s events. Yes, they, too, had to do with The Faith.
Archbishop Tadeuse Kondrusiewicz from Russia had spoken at the workshop. He spoke about his beloved Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. He shared the suffering of the Russian people throughout the many decades of godless atheism–atheistic communism–ruling his country and the unbelievable joy at the re-opening of the churches after the fall of communism. He told us that he was appointed Archbishop of Moscow and was commissioned to re-open the Russian churches.
That is exactly what he did.
I was moved to tears as I heard him tell about what happened when he went to re-open the first church, and it was still uppermost in my consciousness at the end of the day. He said that when the churches were closed back in 1917, they were turned into museums or art centers or for other purposes less noble or allowed to fall into disuse. Too “re-open the churches” meant, in most cases, returning to old buildings, neglected and in disrepair. His talk centered on the first church he re-opened, and I cannot get his words out of my mind. Today, over ten years later, they are as fresh and new as if I heard his stories just this morning.
He related to us that on the appointed day he went to the church wearing vestments, determined to open and renovate the crumbling building so that it would again be a worthy and sacred space for the Blessed Sacrament. As he stood on the steps of the church, he was amazed to see people coming one by one from every angle and converging before him near the church steps. “What does this mean?’ he thought.
“Where did all these people come from?”
He noticed all the people were carrying little bags–of the sort I used to carry as a child to hold my jacks–and a little red rubber ball–the kind that ties together with a pull string. Many of them were older women, babushkas. When the first woman walked up to him and gave him her bag, not knowing what to do, he untied the strings and looked inside. All he saw was dirt. A second woman came with her bag. She was followed by a third, a fourth, and literally hundreds of others who came forth all carrying little bags of dirt. One of them told the archbishop,
“When the churches were closed, our grandparents or great grandparents scraped the wall and took home the scrapings. They were placed reverently in a little bag. My grandmother gave her little bag to my mother and my mother gave it to me. We were told to keep this bag, and, if the day came when the churche’s re-opened, we were to bring the bag back to the church and empty its contents so they could be used to re-build the church.”
She continued, “All these years, we have used this little bag as a reminder that we were not alone, that we are members of the universal church. When we baptized and married, we would place our hands on this bag as our pledge of remaining faithful Catholics while our churches were closed. So, I am here today in the name of our family–and especially in the name of my great grandmother who got them in 1917–and to say to you, our archbishop, that we have kept the faith through all these years of communism. Today I come to help rebuild our church.”
As I knelt there, surrounded by that still quiet that envelops the earth during the deepest part of the night, I meditated on the power of The Faith. I thought about my country and Ireland, the country of my ancestors. I thought about our world today and I thought about Faith. You cannot see it, taste it, touch it, feel it, or hear it. Still, it is. It exists.
Our Catholic Church teaches that there is natural faith and supernatural, infused faith which comes at Baptism. It is there within all baptized persons. It may seem to be quietly lying dormant, forgotten, or perhaps inconsequential in the going about of daily living. Yet, I have known many people in my 50 years as a Carmelite Sister, taught many students, been on many retreat teams, and even helped out in our healthcare centers and I have come to realize that almost every country has stories about faith and times of persecution. It is a fact –a definite part of history–these persecutions. My religious community, the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, came to the United States as refugees during the horrible persecution in Mexico in 1927.
“What about my country?” I thought.
I guess that’s really what nudged me to stay in the chapel a little longer that night. Making the sign of the cross, I genuflected and quietly tiptoed down the center aisle and out the front door. Turning, I got a few scrapings from the exterior brickwork and carefully placed it in a small envelope which I had brought with me that evening into the sisters’ choir before Night Prayer began.