When I was eleven years old, nuns were my heroes. I would watch movies about nuns and I would admire the nuns’ sacrifice and the traditions they practiced. Watching Haley Mills’ movie The Trouble with Angels and watching a girl being moved by the Lord to actually embrace the Religious Life got me thinking about the possibility of becoming a nun myself one day. My mother had raised me to see Jesus as my first love in all things and when I saw another nun movie (I can’t remember the title), where a novice’s silver ring was compared to an engagement ring, it was like a dream-come-true for this young girl to find out that there was actually such a thing as marrying Jesus! Even though my family and I were Protestant at the time and I could never have imagined I’d ever convert to Catholicism, my desire to be a nun was so great that I would make the Sign of the Cross in prayer, string “prayer beads”, wrap a piece of cloth around my head, and read about the Saints (one of my favorites being St. Clare). I would even fantasize about starting a group of “Protestant nuns”!
Because there were nuns, I could never see the Catholic Church as being evil and pagan like some of my friends and relatives did. As a result, when I turned seventeen, the openness this attitude provided contributed, at least partially, to a reasonable examining of Catholic doctrine, and I ultimately decided God was calling me to join His Church. I was officially received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of April 7, 2012, the greatest day of my life.
Back when I had just started my RCIA program, (which I’d already studied half of before consenting to take), my younger sister had brought home a bulletin letter from her youth group in which our cathedral’s rector was asking for twelve young ladies to form a prayer group that would pray a daily rosary for the installation of a Perpetual Adoration Chapel. (This prayer group would later take the name “The Little Flowers of St. Therese”). I thought it was a good way to serve the Church I had just decided to join, and a good way to make the Rosary (which I had just learned how to say) a part of my life. I had no idea, when I officially became a Little Flower on October 7, 2011, how many AMAZING GRACES I was to receive from this “mini-vocation”. To list them all would take forever, but among them I received a deep love for intercessory prayer (especially for priests and their intentions), and later when the the Chapel was finally installed, a deep love for Eucharistic Adoration.
One day our cathedral’s rector was preaching a homily on vocations and talking about a Saint who was miraculously enlightened as to what his vocation was. As was true of my decision to enter the Church, I felt the need to know more certainly that being a nun was God’s desire and not just mine, so I again asked God for a “little sign” from heaven and said to Him: “I don’t need something huge and miraculous like that Saint, just a little something. If You want me to be a nun, show me the Order and call me by name.”
Not too long after that day, I saw a poster for a PCPA (Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration) hosted fundraiser event on the Cathedral bulletin board: the 2012 Nun Run. I thought, “Now’s my chance to meet some real live nuns!”. I was told by mother I wouldn’t be able to go since she was still new to the state and didn’t feel she could drive all the way to Tempe successfully, but after a lot of begging and praying she found a new friend of hers from the local homeschool group who was going with her family and could take me. When I went, I told myself to just have fun and not to worry too much if no “sign” awaited me there, but I was secretly hoping. After the event, I got to meet two of the nuns there. After being introduced by the family who brought me, one of them lit up with a smile when she heard my name was Grace and began telling me a story about her niece who just happened to be named “Grace”. As I heard my name being given so much attention, I remembered the sign I had prayed for; but I still asked God to confirm whether this was truly an answer to my prayer. A little later, the mother of the family who had brought me was standing next to me listening to a priest talking onstage, then turned to me and said: “That up there is the Vocations Director for the diocese. If you ever feel called to the Religious Life, he’s the one to talk to. There have been lots of vocations from homeschooled families, you know.” It was rather astonishing to hear someone I didn’t know very well say this so soon after my prayer, especially since I hadn’t told anyone about my interest in becoming a nun. (This mother was one of several people throughout my life who would say they felt I was meant to be a nun.) After that, I started watching EWTN regularly and studying the PCPA Order.
I will share just one more “little sign” since there’s just been so many talk that I could never hope to remember and tell them all. As a young girl, I would hear the Bible story about Mary and Martha (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+10%3A38-42&version=NRSVCE), and my response would be: “I wish I knew what it meant to sit at Jesus’ feet in our present age; if I did, I would never leave His feet for the rest of my life.” Soon after my conversion to Catholicism, I read in a source I do not remember, that this was fulfilled in Eucharistic Adoration; and shortly after that, I read a poem about Mary and Martha:
“THE SISTERS” BY JOHN BANNISTER TABB: “THE WAVES forever move; /The hills forever rest: /Yet each the heavens approve, /And Love alike hath blessed /A Martha’s household care, /A Mary’s cloistered prayer. “
The words in the poem “A Mary’s cloistered prayer.” seemed to point me in the direction of the cloister, and I realized what this must mean in light of my childhood wish. Later it came to my mind that if you put Perpetual Adoration and cloistered prayer together you get the PCPA Order. As if in confirmation, I read on a PCPA website: “Here in silence and solitude, we spend our life at the Feet of Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist.” and similar statements on other websites belonging to that Order.
In the summer of 2012, though, a terrible thought came to me: “You don’t truly desire to be a nun in your heart anymore. You’re just continuing the pursuit of a long-past childhood fancy. There is no difference for you between that life and any other life.” This seems a silly, unfounded, statement even to me now; but at the time this idea was enough to plunge me into almost a year of vocational confusion. God continued to send me external signs, which I didn’t really doubt; but my confusion clouded my view of the internal ones, which I knew to be key. The confusion brought by this sudden uncertainty of what my true calling was would often bring me to tears. Looking back, I see this time as a truly necessary one in which I did a healthy amount of self-examination, objective discernment, and intense prayer on the subject of my vocation. I also increased my studying of different states of life during this time. Even though I was confused as to my internal desires, I never quite discarded the idea of becoming a nun. Deep down inside, I felt this season of confusion to be merely a trial, and that I would eventually find myself in a monastery or convent of some sort, even if I didn’t fully see the light for long time.
While I loved just about everything I knew of the PCPAs so far, I still had some doubts in my mind as to the idea of being cloistered and why that was a thing anyway. One night though, as I lay in bed thinking again about the question of my vocation, a new understanding of what the cloister truly was caused me to finally make peace with, and even fall deeply in love with, the idea of cloistered life. I had often heard the Religious Life referred to as “dying to the world” and “white martyrdom”, terms which intrigued me because the Holy Martyrs had been my heroes and dear friends for as long as I could remember. (The Martyrs were my other tie to the Catholic Church in my Protestant youth.) That night I realized that entering the cloister was a lot like going to Heaven through a sort of spiritual martyrdom. Just as in the “red martyrdom” you leave the world for the love of the Lord and His children through death and the world thinks you died in vain though you are now more than ever as a heavenly intercessor in the Presence of the Beatific Vision, so in the “white martyrdom” you separate yourself forever from the world for the love of the Lord and His children through the cloister and the world no longer sees you and thinks you’ve thrown your life away but you’re more powerful than ever as a consecrated intercessor in a sort of “Beatific Vision”, beholding Our Eucharistic Lord and never leaving His side. I’d wondered before, in my experience with intercession as a Little Flower, how I might be a better intercessor by living the Saints’ Heaven here on Earth. Now I knew. The term “white martyrdom” came alive for me at that moment, and my heart was set on fire. While this enlightenment definitely seemed to be an instance of interior desire, I decided to set it aside and see if it came up again later.
In August of 2013, a recurrence of this attraction to being an intercessor in the “Heaven” of the cloister, as well as the fact that the love stories I came in contact with caused me to pine after Jesus rather than mortal man, caused me to realize that I did indeed still desire Religious Life. Any voice telling me otherwise was a temptation from the devil.
This idea of the cloister being “Heaven” seemed to be confirmed at a PCPA Duc in Altum retreat I attended at Our Lady of Solitude Monastery. In one of her talks, the nun leading the retreat explained how the word for the nun’s bedroom “cell” (which tends to have a negative and “deathly” connotation for worldly ears) actually came from the Latin word for Heaven: “coeli”. Also, I realized how truly my soul is at its best living in Christ’s Eucharistic Presence all the time. And thirdly, as another nun took me and the other retreatants on a tour of the cloistered and uncloistered parts of the monastery chapel, she explained how people coming into the uncloistered side of the chapel would be able to hear the nuns chanting the Liturgy of the Hours on the cloistered side, even though they couldn’t see them and that this truly sounded like hearing voices from Heaven.
Another thing that attracted me once again toward this particular cloistered order, after I came out of my time of my confusion, was the realization that not only was my vision of Christ as Divine Spouse echoed beautifully throughout the Order, but this order held all the same charisms that I felt the Lord had placed in my heart throughout my Catholic life (Marian motherhood for priests, intercessory prayer, and Eucharistic Adoration. I’d also grown very fond of the Franciscan Tradition. (St. Francis was someone I was raised on even as a young Protestant girl.) I found this Order to be the spitting image of my own soul!
With all this excitement boiling over in my soul, I wrote to Our Lady of Solitude Monastery concerning my vocation shortly after the retreat, eager to begin formation. When they informed me they had recently changed their minimum age to twenty-one (I was halfway through my nineteenth year at the time.) and that I was not yet old enough and would have to either wait or apply at a different monastery, I was heartbroken. I had been so excited and this disappointment caught me completely off guard. Finally, though, I resolved to wait. The longest eighteen months of my life!
After eighteen months of finding every possible way to prove myself ready for the Religious Life, I wrote to Our Lady of Solitude again shortly after my twenty-first birthday. Though the excitement had dulled a bit during the long wait, I was still quite anxious to begin my life in the Lord’s house. How could they refuse me now? The only thing they had found me lacking in was age, and now that much-longed-for birthday had come and set everything right!
You can imagine how crushed I was, when they replied that they just weren’t open to young people period and that I should find myself a different monastery. I felt I had wasted a year and a half of my life for nothing and was angry and hurt over the cruel trick life had played on me. I finally collected the broken pieces of my heart a few weeks later and wrote to St. Joseph Adoration Monastery in North Carolina, whose Vocation Directress I had had a brief but promising correspondence with a while ago. I was again disappointed when I found that that monastery had been combined with Our Lady of the Angels in Alabama and was temporarily off the map, from a part of the website I hadn’t seen before. I was relieved though, when the Vocation Directress wrote back a couple weeks later and said she was very interested in my story and would probably want to begin formation with me once she had settled into her new position as Vocation Directress for Our Lady of the Angels and that we could correspond in the meantime.
Though the excitement had dulled significantly with the time that had passed, I was still happy to be beginning my life purpose soon. The months went by, and I wrote a few more times to maintain contact, but no response. Discouragement set in as I realized that I had either been forgotten or was no longer wanted. Life had played another cruel trick. My spiritual fervor in general had been growing cold and I was becoming more and more attached to the world I was stuck in. I accumulated a wealth of secular interests to keep busy and happy, and it worked, all too well. By the time I gave up on St. Joseph and wrote to Conversion of St. Paul Monastery in Cleveland, Ohio (which I didn’t even really know that much about), I didn’t even really expect a response and almost didn’t mind being stuck. I was becoming more confident in my ability to enjoy life in the world.
Consequently, I was completely shocked when I got a call from the Reverend Mother of Conversion of St. Paul saying she loved my letter and wanted me to come visit. At first I was ecstatic, but as time passed, I realized how attached to the world and its fun I had become and a new storm of confusion began. This time I had an actual competing desire: I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to miss the fun things I had been looking forward to. As the visit drew closer, I began to panic as I now questioned whether being a nun was even something I wanted. I knew my desires for remaining in the world were for all the wrong reasons, that I had not been called to any other state of life, and that God had not given me the provisions towards making a life for myself in the world anyway, but I still had conflicting desires. I didn’t want to leave the things I had become so attached to. I realized that I had been feeling this way for a long time and that it was just now coming to my attention. I tried talking to people, but of course all people had to say was “follow your heart”. What my heart was “telling me” was the problem I needed unravelled. I should have been overflowing with joy and instead attachments I knew shouldn’t be that strong were holding me back.
After weeks of praying and hoping that this conflict in my heart would be resolved soon, an answer finally came: a mental image of myself in a novice’s habit imprinted itself in my head and with it came great joy and a flood of graces! I was ready! I would still greatly miss all that fun I could be having in the world, but I knew where God wanted me and where I consequently would find true fulfillment.
I flew to Ohio and I expected my visit there to go something like the weekend retreat I had made at Our Lady of Solitude. Not so. This was a two week live-in. I was brought into the cloister where the Sisters lived and put right into the life as if I was already a nun: the prayers, the chores, the schedule, everything.
The two week live-in truly is a genius idea. You’re put into the life you plan to embrace long enough that all the “sunshine and roses” (false illusions of what it’s like) get completely stripped away and you’re brought face to face with the hardships and sacrifices that come with a vocation. (If you think you’re called to the Monastic Life, but you don’t feel equally called and willing to embrace a living martyrdom for the Lord, you’re not ready for what Monastic Life actually is.) But, on the other hand, you are also there long enough that you don’t get an opportunity to run off scared — you have to stick with it all the way through and realize that this actually is a life you’re capable of living with the grace of God. It is in that moment when the physical pleasure and energy, the emotional excitement and happiness, the mental ideals and visions, and even the spiritual consolations and satisfactions get cast aside and you find that there is a deeper “something” still — something you can’t even describe — beating in the very depths of your heart, that you truly are “called”. That moment when there is no reason at all why you should choose that life, but you find yourself choosing it anyway and can’t imagine choosing any other: A “God thing” as my aunt would say, is the moment you truly know what a vocation is. You realize in that moment that you really aren’t the one in control, but that’s okay, because the One who is will work everything out the way it ought to be.
On the exterior side of things, it was love at first sight. The Monastery dates all the way back to the nineteenth century, and looks just like the ones you see in the old Saint movies. Tall turrets, old bells gonging the hour, an infinite number of halls and passageways, dusty floors, “ghosts”, secret rooms, a garden courtyard in the center, an old Cathedral-like chapel with dark wood and stained glass, and everything looking like it came out of a medieval fairy-tale: it actually makes you feel like you’re in one of those old European castles. The nuns all seemed to love me, although I’m sure, when I wasn’t around, they were all singing: “How do you solve a problem like Grace?” (for those of you who’ve seen The Sound of Music) because of all my newbie awkwardness. I even found out that Mother Angelica (R.I.P.) had entered that same monastery when she was my age with the same idea of the “Heaven of the Cloister”. It was all too good to be true, really. I tried to brace myself in case this turned out to be another heartbreak. On the last day of the live-in though, Mother officially accepted me into the community of Conversion of St. Paul and I am now scheduled to enter as a postulant on June thirtieth: the Feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome!🙂 I am going to miss the fun stuff here in the world, my beautiful state of Arizona, and my parish, family and friends — many of whom I may never see again and others of whom I’ll hardly see — but like the Holy Martyrs before me: it’s just more to put on the altar of sacrifice, and I am doing eternal cartwheels in my soul over the fact that I will finally be able to answer our dear Lord’s call: “Come follow Me.”. I’m coming, Lord, I’m finally coming!🙂