Photography disclaimer: All of these pictures were taken with the iPhone. I never got around to getting out my camera while we visited. I will remedy that on a future visit.
Just to set the stage, Emma, one of the girls who I originally knew in youth ministry years ago and who has since become a dear friend went off about the same time I left for the seminary to join the contemplative sisters of the Community of Saint John. She started her postulancy in January of 2010 and entered the novitiate with them a few weeks back. It’s not my place to tell you her story, but trust me that it is a beautiful story of The Lord moving in and through her life.
Anyway, since she arrived in Laredo, TX where she was for around a year and a half, I have been trying to make it to visit on one of our breaks from the seminary. I finally made it to visit her over this past Fall Break at the convent in Princeville, IL, where they now have their Novitiate. God-willing, I will be taking another trip up there in a few weeks to see her receive the habit of her order. This post is just a rundown of some pictures and stories from the visit.
I made the trip with one of the other seminarians studying here at Notre Dame seminary, Paul, who is studying for the Archdiocese of New Orleans. We were working on getting another man or two to join us, but schedules just did not allow it, and I was not going to let myself be deterred this time. The plan was to drive Friday night as far as Memphis and spend the night in a motel. After Mass Saturday morning, we were to set out to arrive in the evening in Princeville. The return trip was to start Tuesday morning and bring us to Nashville. I had arranged a couple guest rooms in the rectory at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville, and the plan was to join the Dominican Sisters of Saint Cecelia (Nashville Dominicans) Wednesday morning for Lauds and Mass before driving back to the seminary. Surprisingly, the whole trip went mostly according to plan. This might be a first in the history of mankind.
The drive up
We left the seminary and hit the road with the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and made the run up to Memphis. There wasn’t much to tell about that drive. I finally finished, through the generous reading talents of Paul, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I can say was an excellent book, even though it took me a year and a half to get through. The Cathedral in Memphis is lovely, but I prefer Nashville (I could have a bias, here).
As we planned, after Mass we started the drive through EXCITING — no wait, that other thing, boring — Arkansas and Missouri. The most exciting part of the drive was the truck with comically large tires on the bed. I know that these are for some sort of construction equipment, but my oft repeated joke (it’s all I have) was to question if I could put these on a pickup truck to make myself a proper redneck. Through the course of the drive up, Paul and I entertained ourselves with a discussion of philosophy that would have bored just about anyone else out of their minds, but that’s ok. We enjoyed the discussion. At least I did, and I’m going to assume and assert that Paul did, as well.
The only other detail that made us chuckle on the drive were two sights as we neared the community. We drove past a field with people circling a couple cows. Our only guess here was that it was some sort of odd druidic circle. Next, just a mile or so shy of the convent, we passed a farm called the “No Goat Farm.” For some reason, both Paul and I found that to be an amusing name.
The Community of Saint John
We made it up on Saturday just before the Sisters’ Mass. Now, if we’d known that they had Mass in the evening on their Desert Day (even more silent than this silent community usually is), we would have just hit the road and attended Mass there, but we didn’t know, so, instead, we went to a second Mass.
Paul and I were very holy that day. After Mass, Emma showed us where we would be staying. It was actually a garage that was converted into a small apartment. It was lovely, though. We ate dinner the first night with the Brothers, and, after dinner, we were invited to help them wash the dishes and clean the kitchen. Now, I know that this would usually have been something that one would consider a bit of an odd thing to look forward to, but this was a wonderful experience. The cleanup was done, as most things in the community, in silence. I remarked to Paul after that that I’ve never thought that washing dishes could be such an experience! Emma visited for a bit that evening, then we headed to bed since Sunday was to be a long day. Paul was brave (or foolhardy) enough to wake at 1:30am to join the Brothers for Vigils. I opted to get up in the morning to join the Sisters in time for Lauds; I had told myself that I’d try to wake for Vigils, but I entirely failed in that quest. Sunday, we joined the Sisters for prayer and, later, the entire community for Mass. The custom in that house is that, for Sunday, all three communities on the site, the contemplative sisters, the apostolic sisters, and the brothers come together for Sext and Mass. After Mass we ate lunch with the Brothers and the retreat group that was arriving at the house. We learned that the prior knew one of the professors here at the seminary from when he’d been a member of the Community. In fact, the prior, Father Joseph Mary, drove our professor to the priory in France for his novitiate. The rest of Sunday was a mostly down day, but I remember it ended with joining the Sisters for Compline. Wow! Lovely! Peaceful! What a way to end the evening!
Monday was a feast day for the community since it was the feast of Saint Teresa of Avila, to whom they owe a portion of the spirituality they have embraced. That meant that Mass was moved to the morning, so Monday morning was a beautiful marathon prayer morning. I joined the Sisters at a few minutes past 6am (they had started at 6) for silent adoration. Lauds was at 7 and Mass at 7:30. After Mass, the Sisters remain in the chapel in silence for thirty minutes thanksgiving before saying the Angelus. We were in the Chapel in prayer until around 9am, I think. I didn’t look at my watch; I found that, most of the time, I didn’t need to look at my watch.
Monday afternoon, the Sisters did a few hours of work in the gardens to prepare them for the winter. They graciously allowed us to help them. Now, I want to be very clear. I was not being sarcastic with that last sentence. Paul and I were excited and eager to help. My reader(s) know that I’m not really one who enjoys much of manual labor, but working in this environment was a lovely experience. We basically spent a couple hours weeding so the gardens could be covered with manure for the winter. Paul got the opportunity to shovel poo, which excited him immensely. A couple local kids were also invited to help in the effort, and they were ecstatic when they found a few field mice hiding out in the gardens. They shrieked with delight as they tried to chase down the field mice to relocate them to the woods out back. Finally, after the work was complete, we joined the Sisters for Vespers, and Emma and Sister Mary Rose joined Paul and I in our apartment for dinner, so we could have some time to visit with Emma. Dinner was wonderful. We had a nice discussion of philosophy in which Paul tried to convert Emma and Sister Mary Rose from their Aristotelian Thomism to Gilson’s Existential Thomism. Don’t worry if that didn’t mean anything to you; just trust me that it was entertaining. Dinner ended with yogurt and cookies since it was a feast day and dessert was allowed. The community eats dessert only on feast days and Thursdays (in honor of the Last Supper). Even then, the desserts have a sort of progressive solemnity. Emma told us that cake is allowed only on Sundays and solemnities, and, during Lent, dessert was rarely more than applesauce or something equally simple.
Finally, our last morning rolled around. Tuesday, we joined the Sisters for prayer, one of the priests celebrated Mass for us, and we said our goodbyes and hit the road.
I want to take a moment to mention the silence in which the Community of Saint John lives. I commented to Paul that it was fundamentally different from what I observed around me in the silence of the seminarians on our silent retreat. I think the biggest difference is really just the fact that they know how to do it. The Community of Saint John lives in a silence that is full rather than in a silence that is just the absence of talking. Also, they convey the very best of the idea of living alone together. That is to say, whereas, in order to “keep interior silence,” seminarians often seem to act as though they are wearing blinders, the brothers and sisters here would smile when they encounter each other or their guests. Their joy and love just emanates from them in a way that I find it difficult to even describe, but it’s there. Somehow, those of us in seminary need to learn this kind of silence for our retreats. Even while doing dishes or working, the spirit of silence was kept. We did talk when we were doing the yard work with the sisters, but the talk was peaceful in a way that chatter never seems to be. You’ll just have to take my word on it.
The Community, both brothers and sisters, use a little prayer bench when they pray that I thought looked pretty neat. This picture is one of them in use from around the internet. I didn’t take a picture of it there. The ones that they use are only really different in that they lack the cushion.
Anyway, they look kinda comfy, right? Kneel and sit back at the same time for long prayer, right? Wrong! These are horrible torture devices! They are comfortable for precisely 8.432 seconds. After that, you wish your feet would fall off to relieve the stress on your ankles! I have great respect for the Community’s ability to use these for extended periods of time for prayer and then walk afterward. The prioress, Sister Jean-Marthe assured me that one gets used to them and the ankles become a little more flexible, but I’m not sure I believe her.
We made the trip home as planned. Mass with the Nashville Dominicans was beautiful, and it was a major change from the simplicity of the Community of Saint John. We happened to make it into New Orleans just in time to visit the Nashville Dominicans who are assigned to Cathedral Academy here and say Vespers with them before winding up the trip. It made a wonderful ending to our travels for the day: beginning and ending with the Nashville Dominicans.
If you want to see them, here are the other pictures from my phone. Like I said, I will take better ones next time I visit.