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Monday, 30 April 2012

Vocation Story: St Cecilia's Abbey, Ryde

This vocation story comes from a sister at St. Cecilia's Abbey, Ryde. 

"Why are you doing this?” asked a teaching colleague, as we sat at an outdoor cafe. “Because I love God.” “You love God that much?”

So it was when I arrived at Heathrow with a letter from the Abbey, the customs official asked, “And how long do you plan to stay in this country?’ “Forever, I hope.” Forever is not a category familiar to immigration officials, so I was sent to the sidelines together with who appeared to be other illegal aliens, while my fellow travellers looked on, wondering what I had done. Forever: not because I was sure it would all work out, but forever, because love is like that.

I was born into an extended Christian Palestinian family, but unlike many Americans who grow up barely knowing their neighbours, I was part of a tight-knit communtiy of customs and elders, tradition and ceremony. That community was the loose confederation of relations who came to the US from Palestine, proud to come from the Holy Land, whose roots plunge themselves into the first generations of Christians. Naturally talkative and hardworking, they radiate hospitality and warmth; they are a people at home in the world, and one of my familiy’s enduring gifts to me was the appreciation of created values, an awarenes that God is glorified in our use and enjoyment of all He has given. There was nothing pinched, arid or abstract about home. I still remember the large family gatherings--the platters of stuffed zucchini and vine-leaves, the dancing of the dubka at weddings,the rattle of dice on backgammon boards, and the goodnatured shouting and roar of laughter between adults. A cousin once asked his father why he always fought with his relatives. “Fight?” he laughed. “That’s our way of talking.”

But for all that, my sister and I grew up as Americans, in the southern part of that country in the pine woods, swamps and sugar cane fields of Louisiana where people drink iced tea. It was another place where mystery and manners were important, and where religion was part of everyday life. Statues of Our Lady often appear on country roads and in people’s front gardens. My early life was very ordinary, apart from the fact of a powerful sense of God’s presence which accompanied me. I remember once emptying the dishwasher and having this overwhelming and intense experience of the love of God, and a piercing joy. I felt I could have died at that moment and my life would have been complete. From then on God was like a prism through which everything passed, enriching and intensifying life and filling it with wonder. There was no sense of discontunity between my faith and life. I plunged myself into studies, sport, especially tennis and skiing, student government, running successfully as first female president of the student council in high school. Friendship, like family, was a manifestation of God in my life. In the summers, together with my parents, my sister and I were exposed to both the wild beauties of America and the ancient riches of Europe and the Middle East, with their multiplicity of churches, fountains and squares. The highpoint for me was visiting Jerusalem where we witnessed the ordination of my father’s first cousin and crowding together for his first Mass in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity; and seeing, among the many relations, two of my father’s sisters who are active religious sisters working in the Middle East. All this led eventually to the decision, after graduating from university, to pursue graduate studies abroad, in England.

Although the possibility of religious life had been a real one for much of my life, I knew nothing about monasteries before I came down to St Cecilia’s after finding it listed in the Directory of Monastic Hospitality. I’ve never been to the Isle of Wight, I thought, I’ll go there: it was as silly-- or providential-- as that. I had simply wanted a quiet place in which to reflect on the quiet perisitent desire within me. By the end of the weekend I was totally captivated by the Benedictine idea. I did not know what it meant, but it was something that responded to all the spoken and unspoken desires of my heart. I felt drawn like a magnet. “I cannot forget that beauty. . “: this is how I described the experience to my friends on my return, not realizing I was echoing the words of those 7th century envoys from Vladimir, prince of Kiev, returning from the celebration of the divine liturgy in Constantinople. “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. . . “ It was not only the transcendent beauty of the chant, but also the beauty of community life, a living together with profound respect, courtesy, affection and joy; the beauty of a community dedicated to a way of life based on faith in all its details--but in a matter-of-fact and simple way. I was also drawn by its sanity and wisdom, the goodness and variety of people in it, the humanity and kindness of its superiors. The seeds of much of this had been sown in childhood, but in Benedictine life it came into the open in a whole way of life.

It was difficult to explain my choice “You don’t seem really the type,” one friend noted. “How can you give up so much?” “Think of all the good you could be doing.” Can you really bear giving up travel?” “You’ll never see penguins in the wild!” ll these questions and more were brought up by well-meaning relatives and friends. Behind all these questions was lurking the real issue: “Why aren’t you satisfied, what more do you want?” The why is ultimately God’s secret. I only knew that I could not rest until I had given myself totally. “Can’t you find God in the world?” Well, yes, that was precisely why I was doing this. I had found God in the world, and I wanted to live in that Presence. In trying to answer their questions, I felt very like engaged couples who are asked why they have fallen in love. “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know” (Pascal), My family were especially shocked and grieved by my decision. When I told my mother that a friend’s mother had said how beautiful it was to have a vocation, she replied, “It easy for her to say that. I wonder how she would feel if it were her daughter.” The cross is part of every vocation, and mine was the pain I caused my family. “The greatness of her love was cause of the greatness of her pain,” as Julian of Norwich wrote of Our Lady, at the foot of the cross. But Dame Julian went on to note that “before miracles come sorrow and anguish and trouble.” And the miracle came. Now they cannot do enough for the community, usually expressed in true Middle Eastern style: feeding us!

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