One snowy Spring day, I was sitting at a small wooden table in the attic of a large old house, in a town on the peninsula of Gaspesie, Quebec, Canada. I was writing a letter and there was a very big conflict going on in my heart. It was caused by a realisation that I just might have a vocation to religious life, and what’s more, a vocation to an enclosed contemplative order. The addressee of the letter I was writing was the Abbess of the Poor Clare Monastery, in Galway. I felt divided in two. On the one hand I was hoping that I was really on the wrong track, and that it was just a phase I was going through. On the other hand, at a deeper level, I had a feeling that there was more to it.
I could recall when I was younger being impressed by stories of saints, like St Thérese of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun, and I could remember feeling an attraction at a young age to religious life. That all evaporated with time but now it came flooding back. How did I come to this point where I could begin to think about it again after so many years?
I was the fourth child in a family of six children. A sense of faith permeated our family life and this, I suppose, would eventually influence my vocational choice. Presentation nuns ran our local national school and I was always struck by their example.
They communicated the value of life lived for God and for others. Many religious at that time wore the religious habit and that symbolism spoke powerfully to me of the existence of God and of heaven. I think that the seeds of my vocation might have been sown at that time. It brought into my consciousness the fact that there were people who left everything to follow the Lord.
I really enjoyed secondary school and developed good and lasting friendships. Now and again a sense of being called to something would flit in and out of my thoughts but I never really bothered much about it. Life choices which lay far in the future didn’t impinge on my day-to-day enjoyment of secondary school and anyway, there were a lot of other things that claimed my attention, not least young men. I was always blessed with many good friends and I very much enjoyed going out to nightclubs at weekends and generally having fun. When I started studying Arts at university I became aware of a growing restlessness, which stayed with me. I enjoyed college life but there was a yearning in me for something beyond what I was experiencing, a hunger for some deeper fulfilment. It was a longing that would just not go away.
I think it was during this period that I began to ask some serious questions about the meaning of life. A spin-off effect of this was my increasing involvement in societies in College and in campaigns, which focused on human rights issues and fair trade. Eventually most of my energies were spent in the Pro-Life society. I was a typical, idealistic, student activist, and even though the activism was good in itself, it was also a way to avoid deeper questions about where my life was heading.
In second year, I decided to take a year out from study to go abroad. Having had some previous training and experience in teaching English, I decided to apply for a teaching job in Quebec, Canada, where I hoped I would also have a chance to brush up on my French. Just when a world of opportunity was opening out before me, my faith was at its lowest ebb. It was during my time in Quebec that my faith was challenged in a way it had never been before.
Quebec had been a staunchly Catholic province of Canada until the 1960’s when what is called the “Quiet Revolution” took place. During that time everything to do with the Catholic ethos of former days was called into question. When I arrived in Quebec, this ethos had all but gone and there seemed to be an apathy and indifference towards religion in general, if not a bit of quiet hostility. This atmosphere forced me to question whether my faith had any relevance to my day-to-day living. I hadn’t actually stopped going to Mass. I’d say a few prayers now and then but it had become a going-through-the-motions. I found myself looking with new eyes at the Catholic faith in which I had been brought up and suddenly realising that I had very little knowledge of it apart from the ritual side of things. I had never really seriously engaged with the big questions of faith and morality, and I couldn’t avoid looking at them now. Somehow, living far away from home gave me a whole new perspective on life.
A process was being set in motion and there was no going back. I was fast moving towards a place of decision about my life with God. I was being confronted with a decision to either take my Catholic faith seriously or to give it up altogether. Even though I had begun to grapple with the head questions, my practice of the faith was empty of any deeply felt love for God in my heart.
So I found myself in a church one day, on my own, in a foreign country, praying as I had never prayed before, a plea from the very depths of my soul, asking God to guide me along the right path.
Soon afterwards, I came across a leaflet with a medal of Our Lady on it and a recommendation to pray the Rosary for those who were looking for direction in life and also another special prayer, the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I began to pray deeply from the heart because direction in life was what I was looking for and I took up praying the Rosary for that intention.
Shortly after this, I had a very profound experience of God’s love for me. Strangely, it was painful and exhilarating at the same time. It had the effect of making me see myself in the light of God’s love and led me to look at attitudes and areas in my life that needed to change. While feeling a very deep joy, I also felt great sorrow for having taken God so much for granted for so long.
I remember crying on and off for nearly a whole weekend. My room-mate didn’t know what to think and I really didn’t have any idea how to explain it probably because I wasn’t quite sure exactly what was happening myself.
This whole experience gave me a fresh vision of the meaning of the Church and who God is. He had suddenly become real to me, no longer a concept of the mind but a Person known by the heart. Now I was able to surrender to God and I set about seeking His will in my life in a way I had never done before. I knew that I couldn’t rule out the possibility of religious life.
It was one thing to go through a dramatic spiritual awakening, but quite another to begin considering a religious vocation. It seemed to be a bit more than I could cope with, but I felt that I had to confront whatever listening to God would mean for my life. I had a strong sense that I would never be truly free otherwise, and there was, after all, every possibility that it wouldn’t mean religious life. As time went on though, the idea wasn’t going away.
Initially, it caused me great anguish. I had begun drifting towards a career in law and like many of the young women my age, I more or less took it for granted that one day I would get married and have my own family. I knew though that my deepest happiness would only come in doing God’s will whatever it might be.
For some reason the Poor Clares was the first Order that came into my mind, and the only one that I considered in any serious way. I remember hearing that they were the nuns who get up at night to pray. There seemed to be an aura of mystery about their life and I felt a strong attraction to it for no apparent reason.
I decided to make the necessary enquiries, still half-hoping that the idea would go away once I got it out of my system.
It didn’t go away. When I came home from Quebec, I visited the Abbess. As I still had a year to go to finish my degree, the Abbess recommended that it would be better for me to do that first. So for that year I immersed myself again in College life.
Given that everything had happened so fast for me in terms of awareness of a calling, I think that the extra year gave me more time to reflect and pray about what I was hoping to do.
It was hard to tell my family. I knew they would all find it difficult, each in their own way, especially my parents, but, in spite of what it cost them I never experienced anything but love and support from them all. It wasn’t any easier telling my friends. Once word got out, some of them heard about it before I had the chance or the courage to tell them myself. They accepted it too even if it wasn’t all that easy to understand.
I knew that if I ever did join the Poor Clares it would be a little miracle. I didn’t feel I could do it on my own. I think I had a strange idea that these women had everything sewn up spiritually and that they didn’t have to struggle like everyone else. It was a relief to learn that this was not the case.
In the days and weeks before I joined, I really felt myself being carried by God and His presence as well as the love and support of family and friends.
I finished my degree that year, graduated in the Autumn, and a week later, I joined the Poor Clare Community in Nuns’ Island, Galway.
The restlessness of which I spoke earlier didn’t leave me, until I took that step. I have to say though, that it took me a while to adapt to life here, as it’s rather different. You don’t become a Poor Clare overnight. For the first couple of years, when I’d see the nuns walking in procession or kneeling in thanksgiving after Mass or eating in silence at meals and realising that I one of them, or at least aspiring to be one of them I’d sense a question welling up from within: ”How did you get in here?”
I sometimes have flashbacks to my days as a student activist and the different causes in which I was involved. I’m still as enthused about them as ever but my activism is different now. It takes the form of reverently “lobbying” the Lord in prayer not only for my favourite causes, but also for the needs of the Church and the world and all of humanity. So I think it’s true to say that I’m still campaigning.
The sense of fulfilment I know now is not easy to put into words. There is a parable in the Gospel that illustrates it well about a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he came across one, he went and sold everything he owned and bought it. People who have a similar experience, no matter what their calling, understand that nothing can buy the joy and peace that comes with knowing one’s life has a meaning and a purpose in the bigger scheme of things- in God’s scheme of things.
St. Clare summed it all up as she lay dying in the Monastery of Assisi in 1253 and I'll finish now with her words making them my own
" Thank you Lord for having created me"
“When you seek me you shall find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”
The Poor Clare monastery sits in the heart of Galway city on the aptly named Nuns' Island. While the hustle and bustle of life goes on around it, the silent monastery takes in every sight and sound from within its ancient walls. Seventeen nuns call the big white monastery home, and every day they rise joyfully to pray and give thanks to God, for this is what they have dedicated their lives to.
Sr Faustina always had a sense of being called to something. While her vocation may not have been clear to her at a young age, in retrospect she can see the signs were always there. She remembers fondly her national school days and the Presentation nuns reading excerpts from the autobiography of St Therese of Lisieux, a contemplative nun, and somehow as a nineyear- old she identified with the stories...
In 1995 she left the world as we know it behind her, and joined the Poor Clare Community that has inhabited Galway city since 1642. She was given the name Sr Faustina, after a Polish nun who lived at the beginning of the 20th century, as a symbol of her new life.
"There always seemed to be something missing in my life, I was always searching for a deeper meaning," says the young woman from the other side of the grille. "But I was a 'people person' and loved socializing with my friends, and of course like any other young girl thought I'd get married and have a family one day.
Dressed in the full habit of the Poor Clares, Sr Faustina may at first appear small and solemn, but it soon becomes clear that this 31-year-old is just as full of life, love, and joy as anyone can be. Her face dances with enthusiasm as she tells her compelling story.
"Looking back I can see certain flashes in my childhood that pointed to this, but my year in Quebec was where it all really began."
"I was a 'people person' and loved socializing with my friends"
"At that time in the Province (which had been staunchly Catholic until the 1960s) there seemed to be quite a lot of religious apathy, so it really made me look at where I was going with my own faith."
As the conversation turns to her conversion, the young nun's brow furrows a little. "I realised I had to make a decision about where I was going and what I was doing. Was I going to allow God to direct me, and take my faith more seriously, or just forget about the whole thing? I no longer wanted to be a just a 'practising non-believer'." The emotion in Sr Faustina's voice is telling. "I found myself in a church one day pleading with God from the very depths of my being, 'please direct me'."
It was a plea from the heart which was answered.
The very next week Caroline received a letter from her mother, with a medal of Our Lady and a recommendation to recite the rosary enclosed. "I put my fate into the hands of God and prayed the rosary every day for two weeks."
The power of prayer is a mysterious thing but for the young student, confused and determined to work out where her future lay, it was no mystery. She was beginning to realise what God had in store for her.
"A week or two later my life changed forever, and I experienced what I call my conversion. The orientation of my life changed. It was no longer about me, but what does God want for me? It's so difficult to describe, it was joyful and painful all at the same time." She laughs as she recalls how it dawned on her: "I realised that God was calling me to the religious life. I kept asking are you sure God? Is this what you really want for me?"
It was February 1994 when the young woman sought advice from a priest in Quebec who confirmed what she already knew in her heart and soul: God was calling her to a religious life. But why a contemplative order of nuns? Why not the Mercy sisters or the Presentation nuns? That would still be God's will.
"Yes, it was not only the idea of religious life that was entering my mind at that time, but specifically the Poor Clares. Perhaps because I had always known about them growing up, or because they have a very clear identity in the community."
"I was amazed as a student to see the lights on late at night"
Sr Faustina recalls passing by the monastery at night as a college student only to see the lights on. "They would get up at night to pray, this really impressed me, and stuck in my mind, but why I was so drawn to them is a mystery of the calling."
The young woman talks about her vocation with a sort of bemused wonder. "I often feel inadequate about my vocation but the call is a privilege and a gift. It doesn't depend on a person's good or bad qualities."
And she firmly believes that the power of prayer works to build a better world. "People often ask the question, 'why not dedicate your life to the missions or some sort of practical work?' but we believe that our prayer is at the cutting edge of every human rights need in the world."
Indeed John Paul II, though firmly committed to promoting hands-on aid to those in need, believed that the greatest humanitarian 'work' was prayer, and many of the nuns in Galway's Poor Clare monastery worked for such charitable causes before entering the Order.
"One of our sisters worked as a nurse in Zimbabwe, one was a volunteer nurse with Concern during the famine in Uganda, and another was working in Ethiopia with children suffering with AIDS. Social concern is very much a part of a nun's consciousness, but there comes a point where you feel, you know tha God can do more."
So the young woman made up her mind to become a Poor Clare, but how did her parents take the news? "They were absolutely magnificent. They supported me all the way," she says, her voice betraying some emotion "My parents are wonderful people."
Indeed this contemplative nun was lucky tha her family and friends were so accepting, not al are so willing to let their loved ones go. "It was quite natural that, through genuine concern for me, there would also have been misgivings about whether or not I was doing the righ thing. It might have just been a phase I was going through after all, but on the whole I felt a groundswell of support for the decision I had come to. For my parents and family, knowing that it was what I wanted was all that they needed to know."
So on October 7 1996, one year after she had entered as a postulant, Caroline was officially accepted into the Community and given her new religious name, Sr Faustina symbolizing the beginning of a new life in friendship. But can there be real life and friendship in an Order where silence and prayer are the main focus of life?
"The sisters here are funnier than anyone I've come across."
"When I first entered it was very difficult," she says, "and I did have this idea in my mind o nuns as silent moving statues, but I was really impressed and delighted at how witty and intelligent everyone was," the young nun laughs, "the sisters here are funnier than anyone I've come across."
If people sometimes think that nuns are so taken up with prayer and the things of God tha relationships are of little importance, Sr Faustina thinks differently. "This life, being a call to friendship with God and with others means that warm human relationships are an important part of our Community life."
She goes on: "The solitude and silence is a positive one and works to enrich the Community, and St Clare’s Rule is filled with wisdom. You can speak in a low voice when necessary, if someone is down you can take them aside, and of course you can speak to the sick."
The Poor Clares not only go about their daily routine which includes meditation, Mass reading the scriptures, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and making altar breads for the diocese in relative silence, but they have limited access to telephone, newspapers, and television (only at Christmas, Easter, or importan religious events) and can only see their family four times a year. The discipline of enclosure means that exits from the monastery are rare mostly for medical treatment, and sometimes for formation.
"All these rules serve as a kind of scaffolding to support and foster this particular form o life."
So does Sr Faustina, now a Poor Clare nun for 10 years, ever think about the course her life could have taken?
"I don’t really think about what I might be missing out on, when you choose one thing you give up another. Perplexities may come and go but I can say with one hundred per cent conviction that I feel at peace in my vocation. I'm not getting complacent about it though, often pray for God's help to be faithful to it. Everybody needs to do that no matter what your vocation. We can't do it on our own."
As the sun sets over Galway Bay, the nuns in the Poor Clare monastery finish reciting their evening prayers and prepare to retire for the night. From her simple cell in the monastery that will be her home forever, Sr Faustina reflects on the day with joy in her heart. She jus might be the happiest woman in Galway city.
The value of contemplation on the mystery of the Incarnation remains unchanged. And despite the changed conditions of the time, for the majority of people there remain unaltered the characteristic periods of the day - morning, noon and evening - which mark the periods of their activity and constitute an invitation to pause in prayer.