by Ana Braga-Henebry
When our daughter told us she was going to enter the cloistered religious life, it was one of these life moments we never forget. My husband and I lay in bed that night, holding hands, awake. Afterwards I described the moment as similar to a child announcing an engagement, but it was not quite the same. Along the joy and excitement, there is an added dimension of loss, separation, even death, in a decision for the cloister.
Through time, we grew more used to the idea and began talking about it to family and friends. I teach at a small parochial school alongside wonderful religious sisters, and one of them was so excited by the news. “Your family will receive unimaginable blessings”, she told me, and I clung to her words fiercely.
My husband and I prepared to handle critical responses from family and friends, and were pleasantly surprised by their general absence. The few concerns brought up revolved around her intellectual abilities. A diligent student, Maria was a spelling wiz having gone to the National Bee and receiving academic awards in high school in many areas including writing and Latin. Her college professors were astounded at the quality of her work. Our daughter was peaceful about putting all of that to the service of God, following the path of older sisters at the convent, and the example of so many saints in history.
The months before our Maria’s entrance were a whirlwind of travels, visits from family and friends, and an unusual shopping list. Maria reflected,
“It is my last day at home, but somehow it hasn’t hit me yet. The monastery I’m entering feels very distant when I’m sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch, or sprawled on the couch with a cup of tea and a blanket, or out shopping, or watching a movie. And yet, I know I couldn’t stay like this… It’s the feeling of blooming or coming out of a chrysalis, I guess. You know it will be hard and so, so different, and it’s kind of scary, but there’s no part of you that wishes you could go back to the way it was before, when you were a bud or a caterpillar. What butterfly wishes it were still a caterpillar?” (an excerpt from Maria’s blog prior to entering cloister)
All too quickly, my husband and I saw ourselves driving up a remote California sierra with our dear daughter in the back seat, reading and writing last emails. To enter cloister as a postulant, she would be leaving behind her phone, her computer, her blog—all digital communication. After a last meal in the guesthouse, our daughter handed us a last bag of her possessions, and we walked together to the little chapel, stopping to take a last selfie.
The last couple of minutes with her went in a flash. Mother Prioress came to meet us, we hugged and blessed her, and into the little inconspicuous side door of the chapel went our daughter, disappearing unceremoniously into a new world. We sat in the quiet chapel, numb. Our mind spinning, we knelt and prayed for a long while, silently, and both of us cried hot, painful tears. It was a long time before we got up to head back to the guesthouse. On our way out, a priest came to us, and his words were soothing balm for our aching hearts. He congratulated us for having raised a daughter with the maturity and courage to make such a radical and beautiful decision in life. His kind words focused on what we parents go through in such a critical moment, filling our hearts with peace and comfort.
The next day we were able to glimpse her in chapel through the grille, filing up with the other sisters, the simple postulant veil on. We had a final visit with her through the grille in the parlor before departure. How we pressed her young hands in ours, and drank those moments of just looking at her.
During the long trip back home, I cried rivers. The tears just flowed, in a seemingly unstoppable cascade. Normal life was soon to resume, largely unaware of this life-changing event by a young woman in California: so this interlude of travel was my time to cry. I cried in awe of the courageous sacrifice she was making—“Let me suffer for you”, one of her last blog posts stated. I cried thinking of our family holiday dinners without her; I cried thinking of her nephews and nieces growing up without their brilliant aunt and her famously laconic, pithy remarks. I cried thinking of her new life, so simple and penitential—never a restaurant, a trip to the beach, an evening with friends by the fire—all of the little delights of life now closed to her.
The blessings Sister had promised have come to fruition.
Our daughter’s monthly letters, eloquent and amusing, have become bright, special moments for us. We speak of the now “Sister Maria Perpetua” and of her new life with admiration and confidence. Her vocation has instilled in us a further desire to grow in our own spiritual life. We all sense a connection with the world shared by priests and religious. Above all, the knowledge that she is constantly praying for us is intensely powerful!
A year after her entrance I was able to visit the monastery for a longer stay in the guesthouse. I met many young sisters and worked alongside them. We had time to chat across the grille, my veiled daughter and I, our hands always busy with a manual task, as time is never wasted in the monastic rhythm. I truly did not want to leave that ordered, joyful, prayer-filled routine of days.
I walk my daily life with a heart overwhelmed by gratitude. To think that God allowed me to be the mother of a religious sister. At home, with family and friends, or in the workplace, she is a favorite theme in conversation. To non-religious persons in the secular world, I describe my joy in terms they can relate: I tell them of our daughter who lives in a religious community, where they grow organic vegetables and fruits, milk their cows and goats, make cheese and yogurt, and live a healthy routine bathed in prayer and chant. People are often interested, and ask more about it.
As with other spiritual gifts, it is difficult to put into words the joy that has lived in this maternal heart since I dared to see a possibility of a vocation in my young daughter. I hoped and prayed as I saw that possibility growing in her. Seeing it come to fruition, helping her prepare for entrance, and now reading in her letters the fulfillment of a heart devoted to the love for God—it is beyond me to describe this joy.
Now when I cry unexpectedly for her, as when clicking on an old video of her singing, I sense how similar—and how different—it is to cry for her as to cry for a loved one who has died.
The vocation to the cloistered life is in a sense “death to the world”, and I cry because she is no longer able to travel home for the holidays or to enjoy time together. Yet it is so different: we can still tell her of our life by letters, and we receive her hand-written lines overflowing with grace, insight, and love. We know that she asks God daily to give us what is truly good. We know her life brings immeasurable good into the world. We miss her, but we know she is well, healthy and happy, and very much alive.
“If I were to give advice to someone on how to find their vocation, I would say this: it’s already there inside of you, because God knew you before He formed you in the womb, and He created you for a reason. So take an honest look at yourself, your interests, and your desires, and then give it to Him to show you what to make of it all. Pray with St. Alphonsus Liguori, “Grant that I may love You always, and then do with me as You will.”” – Sr. Maria Perpetua
Ana Braga-Henebry, a long-time member of Well-Read Mom, is originally from Rio, Brazil and has a M.A. in Humanities/Aesthetic Studies. She teaches Latin in parochial schools. Ana and her husband Geoffrey, a scientist and professor, raised seven children. Their sixth child is a Norbertine sister in CA. Her daughter’s blog reflects on her imminent entrance into the monastic life and may still be accessed online: http://earlgreysoliloquy.blogspot.com/
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