If anyone had told me when I was studying to be an accountant, that I would give it all up just over a year after I qualified, I would have thought they were crazy. And yet that is exactly what happened.
I grew up in a fairly normal Irish Catholic home, in which we practiced our faith. It was something I very much took for granted. I never gave up the practice of Sunday Mass – it was just something I did every Sunday and it didn’t cost much to do it.
I studied Commerce and thoroughly enjoyed the social scene at University. After University, I decided to take up accountancy and so began several years of working full-time and studying in the evenings, with exams twice a year. Coming up to exams, I used to find that I became more ‘fervent’, praying that I would pass. Of course, the fervour would die down when the exams were over, and I would resume my social life.
However, as I went on, I began to question, interiorly, whether God really existed. If He did, then it was not fair just to come to Him when I needed something. If He really did exist, then what we are told about Him in the Bible was true and there had to be much more to my relationship with Him. If He didn’t exist, I could just forget about Him. One thing I knew for certain; my relationship with Him was not satisfying. In fact, I could not even call it a relationship, as there was no relating going on.
A friend and I watched a video on Medjugorje (a place in Bosnia where Our Lady has appeared for many years). I was fascinated by it. Some time after that, I met some young people who invited me to a prayer meeting which I began to attend. I just loved it. I was so amazed to see all these young people – there could be up to a hundred on any given night! They all seemed so happy and they radiated great joy. I was struck by their vibrant faith. When they shared how Jesus was working in their lives, it was apparent that God was not a remote Being, but was very close to them. And I was really struck by the fact that they were not “holy Joes”, but very ordinary people, from all walks of life. It took away the fear I had that if you were to take God seriously, you’d end up becoming a nun.
I wanted what they had.
Eventually, my friend Maura and I got the opportunity to go to Medjugorje. While there I had a very deep experience of God’s love for me. It happened during the consecration at Mass. I had often heard that God loves each one of us, but it meant nothing. But suddenly I was swept off my feet. I felt utterly loved by God and knew for certain that Jesus was truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. I was totally overcome and could not believe the intense feelings of love that I had for God. I cannot even begin to explain the deep feelings of peace and joy that I felt. Nothing in my life compared with it. I got a great love for prayer, because now, it was not just some dry formulas that I had to repeat, but a living relationship with Someone whom I loved with my whole heart and who I knew loved me.
When I came home from Medjugorje, I spoke to a priest about my experiences. At that stage, I loved God so much, that I wanted to do whatever He wanted, even if it was to become a nun. I was hoping that it wouldn’t be that but I was open to whatever the Lord wanted for me. He suggested that I finish out my studies and look at the vocation later.
So, I threw myself into living. I still enjoyed my social life very much. As well as that, I had several relationships, because marriage had always been in my mind. I met many new friends and we used to socialise together. But, I never felt totally fulfilled, even though I enjoyed myself. I began to see the power of prayer at work in my own life and in the lives of others, both spiritually and physically. For instance, I had a boyfriend who had severely damaged his back in a car accident, which meant he had had to take a year out from work. His back was instantaneously healed one night at a prayer meeting. In my own family too, great things were happening through prayer, with all of them experiencing God’s love in their hearts. We saw many miracles.
Eventually, I qualified as an accountant. I remember the deep sense of emptiness that I felt that day. I had spent so many years slogging for those exams and now that I was qualified, it meant nothing to me. I couldn’t believe it.
Maybe it was the disappointment of that day, that made me realise that I had to look at the vocation idea again. Gradually, as I wrestled with the idea of becoming a nun, it became something that I wanted as well. It was not an immediate thing. I knew, though, that I had only one life to live and to give myself to God, who is love, was the most beautiful thing I could do with it. Eventually, I it became clear that I would have to tell my family what I was considering. I am the eldest of three girls and we are a close family. I knew they would be devastated.
It was very hard telling them. It was bad enough telling them that I was thinking of becoming a nun, but that I was thinking of entering an enclosed order was even worse. The day after I told them, my father was giving me a lift to work. He told me, with tears in his eyes, that whatever I did, he was proud of me. I was so glad of the moral support of having him behind me, but it broke my heart to see him cry and to know that I was causing my whole family such pain. I felt that it was my fault that they were suffering so much and yet, I knew deep down it was something I had to do.
The following weekend, I went away – I needed a break. My sister gave me a letter as I was leaving. I remember taking it out to read it in a coffee shop and the tears spilling down my face as I read the very moving words about her interior struggle with my decision. It was heart-breaking for me. At that stage, it would have been so much easier to put the whole idea on indefinite hold, but there was no turning back the clock. When I went to Mass that Sunday, I got great consolation from a reflection that was printed in the parish newsletter. I was convinced when I read it, that the Lord was with me and knew what I was going through. The reflection went as follows:
“Life’s most painful choices are not always between good and evil. If that were so there would be a lot fewer quitters. No, the most painful choices are often between the good and the best. In other words, the things that tempt us to abandon our goal are not always bad. More often than not they are good, and that is what makes it so hard to resist them. We forget what was once precious to us and exchange it for something else that is less good but more immediate. If we wish then to remain faithful, we must be prepared to meet difficulties, especially from inside ourselves. We have to go forward at such times in bare faith, simple hope, and love without sentiment. “
The next few months were difficult. Eventually, I applied to the Poor Clares and was accepted. It was a decision that I had to make in faith. God had given little hints, but no big signs. I can see now that He was asking me to take a leap in faith and to trust that He would give the reassurance afterwards. That is one way He uses to make our faith grow.
A few months after I joined the community, my mother got cancer and had to have major surgery. It was a time when my beliefs were really put to the test. I believed that prayer was all-powerful and now I was given an opportunity to put that into practice. And the Lord blessed that in a marvellous way.
On a rational level, it might have made more sense to go home and look after my mother, but I entrusted her to God. And He really looked after her. She said afterwards that she really felt carried by prayers and that it took no more out of her than a visit to the dentist. It was a great turning point for my entire family, as even up to the time I entered, they found it difficult. Now, at least, they found it easier to accept. Since then, as they see that I am happy, they are happy for me. Over the years, they have come to a deep appreciation of our way of life and are very supportive, which has been a great blessing for me.
It has not always been easy, but then I never expected that it would be. I didn’t think I was coming to a holiday camp. I knew I was committing myself to a radical way of living the Gospel and I wanted to live as fully for God as was possible. It is a wonderful vocation, living as we do, with our lives centred on Christ in the Eucharist. We carry all people in our hearts, and present them daily to the Lord. I have never regretted coming here. I thought before I joined, that I was making a big sacrifice and doing a great thing in giving myself to the Lord. However, the more I live this life, the more I see that it is I who am on the receiving end, with God endlessly showering His love on me. So, everything has been a huge gift of grace and I want to spend my life in thanksgiving to God for that.
Pádraic O’Máille talks with Sister Colette, Mother Abbess of the Poor Clare Nun’s in Galway. Sr. Colette.
From time to time it’s useful to reflect on the meaning of life.
The environment you choose to do so in greatly influences the outcome. Some choose therapy. Others, Lough Derg. More again, Croagh Patrick.
For me, nothing could quite compare with the sterility of an accountancy lecture in U.C.G. in the early eighties. Here was a laboratory bereft of all strains of humanity. There was nothing else extant in life save you and a future in accountancy.
And then, enter Marina Hayden from Salthill. She was blonde, beautiful and vivacious. And then, there was the way she might sit beside you.
Life, and even accountancy, resumed its lustre and vitality and hope. Double entry accounting made implicit sense. Variance analysis became a thing of fascination. Even the dreaded SSAP 9 emerged as something of beauty.
“You’re right Uno. I nearly always did sit beside fella’s. But it wasn’t for the reason you think. Nobody from my class in Salerno had done commerce so I saw this as a great way of getting to know people”.
“I really loved College. It was such freedom and such good fun”.
“Do you remember the parties?” she asks me. As I fooster for an appropriate response to give to a Mother Abbess she lights up and reams off half a dozen of the night spots of the time. You know she’s for real when she remembers the “Lenaboy” before it was the “Oasis”.
“There was the Beach Hotel and the Holiday Hotel. There was the Warwick. Later you graduated to Kno Kno’s. And of course I was around for CPs”.
There were boyfriends too. “I just threw myself into living. I enjoyed life and I certainly have entertained marriage, but somehow I knew deep down that there was something more. Looking back on it, it was all part of the journey”.
There are fun girls and there are career girls and Marina succeeded in combining both. Early on she decided on a career in accountancy and chose her subjects accordingly. In addition, she appreciated the inherent value of developing her Curriculum Vitae. The two commerce societies of the time were The Commerce and Economics Society and AIESEC (an international society for commerce and economic students). Marina elected to join AIESEC on the grounds that it was smaller and presented more immediate opportunities for progression. Her instinct was spot on. She became President in third year, became involved in the national council and represented Ireland at their international conference in Coventry.
After graduating she worked in industry for a few years, before joining Peter Coyne Accountants and qualified as a certified accountant in 1992. What should have been a day of supreme elation degenerated into one massive anticlimax. “I remember the deep sense of emptiness I felt that day. I had spent so many years slogging for those exams and now that I was qualified, it meant nothing to me. I couldn’t believe it. I can remember distinctly that day when I came home. My mother was ringing all the relations telling them the great news and I just felt so unfulfilled”.
It would represent a decisive turning point in Marina’s life. The very next day “little things began to fall into place”. Serendipitously she discovered a book on contemplative orders in Ireland. “I couldn’t put words on it but I was being drawn. There was a definite attraction. Why is someone attracted to one man and not another? Even the title “And Speak to her Heart” resonated with me profoundly”.
It would also put one other seminal experience in her life into perspective. In 1988, while studying for her accountancy she had visited Medjugorje with her friend Maura. “While there I had a vividly real and deep experience of God’s love for me. It happened during the consecration at Mass. I knew without any shadow of doubt that it was Jesus. I was flooded with this experience of his love. Nothing in my life compared with it.”
It transformed her relationship with God. “Now prayer was not some dry arid formula that I had to repeat mindlessly. It became a living relationship with Someone whom I loved with my whole heart and who I knew loved me”.
Once she sensed that she was being called to religious life, her decision to select the Poor Clares was easy. “I always knew it would be the Poor Clare’s”. Her subsequent elevation to Mother Abbess was inevitable. As one of her class colleagues put it to me “It didn’t matter what Marina did she would have been the head of it. If she’d had joined KPMG she’d be head of that now”.
In a recent conversation with Padraig O Ceidigh, he suggested that in order to fully realise our potential we need to test ourselves physically, mentally and spiritually. Sister Colette, Marina’s religious name, has powerful insights into becoming spiritually fit.
With these three despairing words begins the seminal work of M. Scott Peck called “The Road Less Travelled”. He proceeds in rapid succession to neutralise things by declaring that “This is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult”
Sister Colette is equally forthright. “Jesus never said it was going to be easy. When he said to “take up your cross and follow me for the road is narrow”, he certainly was not promulgating a life free from pain, sickness, debt, loneliness, oppression and death. What he was saying however is that he will be with us in our pain”. She quotes the very last verse of 1 Corinthians 12 “Be ambitious for the higher gifts and I will show you a way that is better than them all” and proceeds to demonstrate the issue in a practical and personal context.
She recalls the intense trauma of breaking the news to her parents and family of not just becoming a nun but entering an enclosed order for life.
“I remember my father leaving me to work the morning after I broke it to them. He told me how proud he was of me but it broke my heart to pieces to see him cry and to know I was perpetuating such pain on the entire family. It was almost a self fulfilling prophesy for my mother. Her mother had an abiding fear that one of her daughters would become a nun. And my sister so struggled with my decision that she had to put it down in writing for me”
“At that stage it would have been so much easier to have put the idea on indefinite hold but as I said Jesus was with me in my pain. I became conscious of a line from Psalm 91 and I have no doubt it carried me through. I repeated over and over again “Since he clings to me in love I will free him”. And then that Sunday in the parish newsletter came the confirmation of the Lords presence and counsel. The reflection went as follows: “Life’s most painful choices are not always between good and evil. If that were so there would be a lot fewer quitters. No, the most painful choices are often between the good and the best. In other words, the things that tempt us to abandon our goal are not always bad. More often than not they are good, and that is what makes it so hard to resist them”
Jim Collins, author of “From Good to Great” would later observe that “Good is often the enemy of great. The reason we don’t have great schools is that we have good schools. The reason we don’t have great businesses is that we have good businesses”.
Brian Tracy, best selling business author and consultant, suggests that we should make “peace of mind our number one objective in life”. When I ask Sister Colette how we might practically do that she draws richly on the thinking of a Canadian priest, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, who impresses her greatly. “Fr. Ron distinguishes between two POMs. There is the POM that comes from the world and there is the POM that comes from Jesus. The POM that emanates from the world is generally predicated on feeling healthy, loved and secure. But all of these are fragile, ephemeral. They can change radically with one visit to the doctor, with the breakdown of a relationship, with the loss of a job. This is an anxious POM”.
“The POM from Jesus on the other hand supersedes all feelings of anxiety. It is the absolute assurance that we are connected to the source of life in such a way that nothing, absolutely nothing, can ever sever. We are unconditionally loved and held by the source of life itself and nothing can change that”.
On the question of happiness she is equally direct. “For a Christian, a better question to ask is not so much “Am I happy?” but rather “Is my life meaningful?” Your faith should allow you stand inside of every reality in your life, positive and negative, and see some meaning in it”.
In the lounge bar of Wards pub are two images of Galway city hanging side by side. One is a medieval map dating from the seventeenth century. The other is a modern aerial view of the city. As I was quietly nursing a pint the other night a guy asked me who I’d be writing about next week. When I informed him that it was a Poor Clare nun he was less than impressed. “Sure what did they ever achieve anyway?”
Right at the epicentre of both images is a heart shaped oasis of land. In 1649 it was called Oilean Altanagh (Nun’s Island) and was given as “free grant for ever” to the Poor Clare’s by Galway Corporation. For three hundred and sixty one years it has housed a family of nuns whose dedicated role is to pray for the city and the world in order that the presence of Christ can be a reality in our lives.
What is the impact, if any, of these disciples of St Clare? To the sceptic and scientist I’d refer you to David Hawkins brilliant book, “Power vs. Force”. Based on twenty nine years of hard research he has demonstrated that in essence, every single person including large groups of people can be calibrated for their energy levels. One of the more fascinating aspects of this research is the notion of counterbalance. High-energy people counterbalance the negative impact of low-energy people. A Gandhi or Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela, all strongly connected to God consciousness, can counterbalance the negativity of several millions of people.
To those searching for wisdom or peace of mind or meaning in life I’d recommend you visit www.poorclares.ie. It is an excellent website that will at once provide you with practical strategies to confront and solve life’s many problems and also give you a sense of God’s loving presence.
In 2012, almost 800 years ago, a young beautiful girl, ran off to join a band of ragamuffin friars led by a man whose “words seemed to be afire with God”. Both from Assissi, his name was Francis and her name was Clare. Throughout the years Galway has benefitted greatly from their single mindedness and passion. St. Clare’s legacy is in great hands.
As the time for Benediction approached so too did Mike Shaughs to take the photograph. “Ah lads, we should have done the photo before the meeting. Now my cheeks will be all red”
Earlier she had explained to me how she prayed. “In the presence of the Blessed Sacrament I simply look at Him and He looks at me”.
I think He would have approved of those red cheeks.
Padraic O Maille
The consecrated life thus becomes one of the tangible seals which the Trinity impresses upon history, so that people can sense with longing the attraction of divine beauty.
Pope John Paul ll in Vita Consecrata