We drove up to my monastery, the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament, on January 7, 2018, in time for the 7:15 am Sunday Mass. My parents, older brother and his wife, two younger brothers, two younger sisters, and my paternal grandparents arrived with me to see the new place I would call home. We knelt to pray before Mass and were greeted by the fun-loving Sr. Faustina Marie, one of my fellow externs.
EXTERN: For those who don’t know, although I am a sister in a cloistered community, one enclosed from the world, God has called me to be an extern sister. Although I do not have an active apostolate (like teaching) as active sisters do, some cloistered communities have sisters called externs who take care of the tasks outside the cloister. This means I am a contemplative sister, but I am not a “cloistered nun.” Our primary mission as contemplative sisters is to pray for the whole world. This is my calling and mission. Some of my external duties however include putting out meals for guests, answering the door where we get deliveries, running our Catholic book store, answering our 24-hour prayer line, and giving spiritual guidance to those who wish to speak to a sister. Since we have four externs and twenty-three cloistered sisters, it is a busy but fulfilling life as the hospitality team.
After Mass, my family got to meet my sisters in the parlor. They all drifted in and said their hellos and gave me the Dominican greeting, a hug on both sides, similar to how some European cultures give a kiss on both cheeks. Because it was a Sunday, we got the privilege of having over two hours in the parlor with them, a very rare treat that doesn’t usually happen.
PARLOR: The room in which cloistered sisters are able to meet guests. Some cloisters have a grill or grate separating them from the public. In ours the grill has been removed and it is now a counter separating the enclosed sisters from the public. This is the cloistered sisters’ place of interaction with the world.
The sorrow my family came with at the thought of losing me was eased greatly with the joy they witnessed in that room of women solely dedicated to living their life for God. We laughed and introduced ourselves in the parlor. My family came out overjoyed with how awesome my sisters are. My little sister Jianna said, “I know we’re not supposed to pick favorites, but I had five.” The family thought that each one was so joy-filled, unique, and lovely. My sisters have a great sense of humor, and so my family and the sisters got along great.
The following day was my entrance. For the first year, I am called a postulant, and I wear a long sleeved button up white shirt, long black skirt, and black vest. As the ceremony began, Sr. Miriam, another extern, took me to the cloistered side of the chapel as I crossed the threshold to a world beyond.
CLOISTERED CHAPEL: When you walk in, it looks like a normal church but the priest will stand on the side of the altar with you at his back. This is because he is facing the glass wall that separates the public from the cloistered sisters. If you are tall you may be able to see a few of the sisters from the public side of the chapel.
When I crossed the threshold, I was greeted by my prioress (the head of my monastery) and my novice mistress (the sister who will be my director in my years of formation). There was a kneeler in the center for me, where I received my black and white Dominican cross, and they placed a black veil on my head. Since my little sister knew it was coming, right before I entered, Jianna made sure to touch my head since it would be the last time she saw me without a veil to cover up my hair.
After the priest’s blessing, I proceeded to the chapter hall (where our meetings are held) to greet each of my sisters with the Dominican hug. I got to greet my family after in the parlor. This time, I was the only one of the cloistered side and my family sat on the other side. I had a friend and another friend’s mom come to my entrance as well, which was a huge blessing.
When we said final goodbyes that night, we had a quick 10 minutes before rushing off to Compline, our evening prayer, so we could unite in prayer as our final goodbye. As sad as it was to say goodbye, I was grateful for the opportunity for them to see my utter joy in being here and the joy of my sisters. Thank you Jesus, for answering my prayer in comforting them. The following Psalm rang true: “I shall change their mourning into gladness, comfort them, give them joy after their troubles” (Jeremiah 31:13). Mama Mary, continue to take them by the hand, always.
I was reminded of the line of a song from one of my family’s favorite movies we like to watch together, Les Misérables:
“Don’t you fret, Monsieur Marius, I don’t feel any pain. A little fall of rain can hardly hurt me now.”
As Eponine dies in the arms of the one she loves, she tells Marius not to worry for she is at peace in his arms for her last moments. This may sound depressing to relate this to my situation, but my leaving for the monastery is a death of sorts to those I am leaving behind. I know it is a big sacrifice for my family and friends to have that empty chair and empty table (Les Mis fans – see what I did there?). I won’t be there for birthdays or Christmas traditions, like Secret Santa, births or deaths, little siblings’ basketball games, best friend outings to Hobby Lobby, late night prayer talk over pineapple, Escape Rooms with friends, or late-night McDonalds and adoration runs with the siblings. I thank you for your sacrifice, my friends and family, and know that the Lord will give you even more abundant graces for your sacrifice.
As Eponine says, “I don’t feel any pain.” It is not that the days and years will not hurt with me being away from you all. I have sacrificed these beautiful things for a greater purpose, to dedicate my life to growing in holiness and intimacy with Jesus, to being His bride, my soul’s desire. God has given me abundant blessings in this life of faith, family, and friends. With these abundant graces, I have more to give back to him as a sacrifice. The day of entrance though, for me, was a joyous day. This seems contradictory, but we must look at the circumstances through the eyes of faith.
I was discontent for so long in the world because I knew deep within I belonged to Him and was called to a different way of life, away from the world, a life of silence and Eucharistic adoration. One of my favorite songs’ lyrics rang true:
All I know is I’m not home yet
This is not where I belong
Take this world and give me Jesus
This is not where I belong
This shows for our hunger for heaven, when we, the Church, will be united to the Bridegroom Jesus at the Wedding of the Lamb. As a consecrated religious, I get the joy to live heaven on Earth as the Bride of Jesus, by living the virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience we find in Heaven.
When I found my monastery, there was a peace; the search was over because I had found my home. I have found the place where my heart belongs. If people only realized the great blessing that is found within religious life, I think many more would join, instead of letting fear stop them. If people only realized the true freedom within the walls of a cloister, being always in God’s house, with Him in praise and perpetual adoration. I am only in week two. I have so much to learn, but I know I am here where He wants me, where I have belonged all along.
I thank you for your letters. It means so much to me to get a letter. Although I cannot respond at this time, know of my prayers for you and your intentions! We are united in prayer and the Eucharist. Rejoice and be at peace in Him who loves you!
Love, SISTER Jamie
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© Jamie Leatherby 2018
Photo: A picture of myself and my family as I enter the convent and become a bride of Christ—Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament
Lyrics from Les Misérables, the movie