Postulancy is the first stage of religious life and no matter how old one is, or how much life experience one has, this initial introduction to life in the convent has a way of dismantling any existing illusions of self-sufficiency. Religious life is a supernatural life of faith that is expressed in the very real, very concrete details of daily life. Learning all the customs and procedures, the hows and whens of accomplishing even the simplest tasks in a new way, can feel daunting.
Of course, you are not alone. The novices, veterans of one year or maybe even two, are eager to share the riches of their “vast” experience. Sometimes, depending on how many novices there are and on the intensity of their eagerness, this can make you wish for a moment that you were alone. I remember approaching our Directress one morning overwhelmed by the number of things I was discovering I didn’t know how to do the convent way and wailing, “I don’t even know how to clean the shower!” She just smiled and said something about it being a little early to get discouraged since I had only been a Postulant for four days.
She was right. And although my first weeks and months of religious life were at times bewildering and humbling, they were also full of joy and a powerful experience of His grace working in my weakness, a deepening of the realization that this One who was calling me to be His spouse could be relied on in all the ways that counted. During the months I spent as a postulant, a man whom I greatly loved and admired, gave the world a moving witness to this very same truth. Pope John Paul II’s testimony to the power of God at work in every human life no matter how weak or filled with suffering seemed to resound with ever greater strength and clarity as he grew physically weaker. Finally he stood at the balcony for the last time and the words would no longer come. We watched the footage in the refectory and knew that our time under his care and guidance here on earth was drawing to a close.
Just so you know, we don’t watch TV in the convent except for the occasional Catholic news show or the secular news when something of great significance is occurring in the world. As you can imagine, the last days of our beloved Holy Father were of the greatest significance to us and so that week found us watching and mourning the death of Pope John Paul II. We accompanied the casket as it processed through the Vatican. We attended the Mass, watching the wind whip through the pages of the open book of the Gospels sitting on the wooden coffin holding his remains. I wondered through my tears if I could love our next Holy Father this much.
In college, my friends and I, all Pope John Paul II fans, had a joke about his election. We said the Cardinals must have gotten together and said “One, two, three, NOT IT.” And Cardinal Wojtyla, off in a corner praying, missed it and was elected. In the quiet days after the funeral, I began to learn about the real procedure for electing the pope. This was a whole new experience for me but I quickly picked up the professed sisters’ excitement and began to wonder who God was going to choose for us. I watched with fascination as the doors of the Sistine Chapel closed and hoped we would get to see them open again.
CNN had a camera trained on the chimney that would show the smoke when the ballots were burned and the live image was in the corner of the screen even while the regular news was occurring. The excitement heightened when Mother Regina Marie announced that we could leave the TV on during the day with the volume muted and the professed sisters could “tune in” online. The first person to see white smoke was to ring the large outside bell and everyone would congregate in the refectory to see our new Holy Father. I was in the back kitchen quietly cutting vegetables for the priests’ lunch surrounded by the hum of industrial equipment so I didn’t hear the bell. Someone told me later that our bell, usually rung with a sedate and solemn, “dong, dong, dong” to call us to prayer, was pealed with wild abandon. All I knew was that I looked up just in time to see a novice run through the front kitchen. Now, sisters, as a general rule, don’t run. Postulants forget this, but novices usually remember. So the sight of her veil flying could only mean one thing…white smoke! I abandoned the bell peppers and tomatoes and joined the sprint for the refectory.
A group of professed sisters was already there with more streaming in every moment. I have never before or since seen so much excitement in the convent. Everyone was talking at once and no one could stand still. As we were waiting, I glanced at the clock and realized that the priest who gave us our Tuesday classes would be arriving soon. I knew that I should offer to go and meet Father so he wouldn’t arrive to an empty classroom but the classroom was on the other side of the building. What if the Pope came out? I wrestled interiorly for a few seconds and finally went to our Directress to make what felt like the ultimate sacrifice. Before I could open my mouth, she said, “Can you please go into the classroom and set up the TV to see if it gets this channel over there?”
“Sure, Sister!” Relieved that I wouldn’t miss the event after all, I took one last long look at the empty balcony and calmly walked out of the refectory. I held the swinging door to make sure it closed quietly, turned away, and sprinted through the kitchen, through the dish room, past the priest’s dining room, down the hallway to the classroom. With trembling hands, I yanked the TV cart over to the outlet, plugged it in, said a prayer, and turned it on. Victory! The empty balcony came into view and I knew I had not missed anything. I returned to the refectory door in record time, pulled up short, and walked calmly to our Directress letting her know that the TV did indeed work. “Good,” she said, “now we can go over there and watch while we wait for Father to arrive.”
When Father arrived he joined us in our vigil around the TV in the classroom. We stood in a semicircle chatting, coming to attention every time the curtain on the balcony stirred. Finally, the curtains were really parting and a small group processed to the edge of the balcony. By this time some of us were on our knees. The novice next to me had grabbed my hand and in her excitement was alternating between squeezing it and pumping it up and down. “Habemus Papam.” Cheers from the novices and then more words in Latin until the clearly spoken “Joseph” and we were all on our feet laughing and crying and hugging because we didn’t have to hear the name “Ratzinger” to know that our new Holy Father was someone we already knew and loved dearly.
St. Teresa identified herself as a daughter of the Church and St. Therese found the fulfillment of her Carmelite vocation in the realization that her mission was to be love in the heart of the Church. The day of Pope Benedict XVI’s election, I experienced the intense joy of life at the Heart of the Church and rejoiced that I was following Jesus in the company of these Carmelites, daughters of the Church. The election of the Pope marked our postulancy in more ways than one. As our entrance to the Novitiate was drawing near, the sisters began to speculate about what names Mother would choose for the two of us postulants. The novices gleefully tormented us with suggestions like Sister Bede of the Holy Rosary but the names which won the acclaim of all were suggested by a professed sister one day at lunch. Mother called us over to her table to hear our new “names,” Sister Habemus and Sister Papam.
Eight years later, I am now perpetually professed and I see my newest sisters in their blue uniforms and postulant hair cuts from the other side of the refectory. Now I know that even though Postulancy ends, the learning is a life-long process. My first superior in my first assignment after professing first vows and leaving the Novitiate, moved into her assignment the same day I moved into mine. She looked at me, smiled, and said, “We’ll be postulants together.” And she was right. Every new opportunity brings the same glorious mixture of grace and humor and humbling experience as one navigates the process of learning new people, new places, new duties. Pope John Paul II’s witness to the power of God radiantly visible in and through our greatest weaknesses continues to resound, growing louder in the moments when I find myself a “postulant” again, learning in ever deeper ways how to rely more fully on the strength of the Lord.
By: Sister Marie-Aimée, O.C.D.