Book Review: Sister Mary Baruch – The Early Years

By Rosemaria.

“My name is Baruch; I know, it’s not a girl’s name, but it’s my name… Mary Baruch, which gives it a nice feminine flavor, yes?… Like all the nuns that came before me, I was dying  to know what name I would receive… I was hoping for the name of one of the Apostles, or one of the Dominican saints… But I learned later that Mother wanted something from the Hebrew Scriptures… I didn’t know the Hebrew Scriptures all that well, and Baruch, for me, was the name of [that] college on Lexington Avenue and 24th Street…I’ve grown to love the name, however, as I know it means ‘Blessed.’… Before all that, I was just a nice Jewish girl from the Upper West Side of Manhattan…”

These quotes from the opening pages–and the lines of innumerable pages along the way–of the delightful fictional story Sister Mary Baruch: The Early Years may ring a bell or two within your heart.  Anyone who has ever been in religious life for any amount of time will find this tale of a young Jewish woman in the 1960s who converts to the Catholic faith and enters a Dominican monastery to mirror some of her own story.  Early on in the book, you will meet her devout Catholic friend who not only challenges her to go jogging (sure, but the tucked-away candy bars certainly help along the way!) but also is the reason she makes her way into a Catholic church to light a candle of hope and prayer one day and finds her life changed forever.  As you follow the spiritual journey of Rebecca-turned-Sr. Mary Baruch, you may see yourself, but for sure, you will laugh, and you may even cry!

Written by a Dominican priest, Fr. Jacob Restrick, the story offers a true inside look at monastery life as you watch Sr. Mary Baruch grow in her walk of holiness.  You will feel her struggles, laugh at her foibles, and rejoice at realistic stories of God’s grace.  And when you get to the end and wish there were more… don’t worry, there is a sequel, Sister Mary Baruch: The Middle Ages.  The only “complaint” I have about the book is that she is fictional:  she seems so real that you will be tempted to pray to her!

As the Year Ends…

cross-christian-pixabayBy Jacqui, re-printed from her blog Talitha Koum with kind permission. Please pray for her as she begins her volunteer work at at orphanage in India!

The past year has been such a journey. As we near New Year’s Eve, I am seeing more and more comments on social media about how terrible this year has been…as a whole. I have been conflicted in my response.

Yes, people died. We, as a society, have mourned the loss of many celebrities this past year. But, how many people have lost a friend or a loved one? How many parents have had to lay a child to rest too early? Personally, I have been to two infant funerals in 2016, and was not able to attend another. Dear friends of mine, who lost their babies all too soon.

I imagine their pain is overwhelming. Yet, I admire their determination and faith, that in the Lord’s time, all pain and sorrow will be healed. They have not dwelled only on their loss…they have found moments of joy and great blessing. They have chosen to look at the graces of 2016 and to look forward, in hope, to a new year. A new beginning. A fresh start in living out their lives of faith and trust in Divine Providence.

As I reflect on my own life, this past year, there are many moments of great pain and sadness. There are moments of death. Moments of utter abandonment. Moments where spiritually, there was only great darkness and a deeply penetrating feeling of despair or hopelessness. How easily I could look back and say, “Thank God, this year is finally over! It was such a terrible year. Hopefully 2017 will be better.” Yet, I choose to see God at work in my life. I choose to not focus only on my hard times, losses, etc.

In my looking back, this is what I see my year was:

I was living my life, as Sr. Emilia. I lived the life that, for as long as I can remember, I have always dreamed of. Then, in discernement, I began to pray about being called to an openness…to the idea…that I was being called to leave religious life to discern marriage. That was a huge time of fear, faith, trust in the darkness, excitement, etc. It was a gift…even in the pain.

I attended a Theology of the Body course retreat, in PA. That retreat literally, “changed my life!” I had no idea how beautifully painful that week was going to be. The Lord showed me throughout that week, His great and abiding love. The phrase I used after that week was, “…it felt like I had been stripped and beaten, then hung up to dry, alone.” It took me months to connect that imagery, to that of Christ, on His own Cross. Then, my pain (because it was on that retreat that I discerned I was called to marriage…which meant leaving my life and sisters at the monastery) became beautiful…because it was united with our Bridegroom’s Cross…the marriage bed of the Lamb.

(Now, a quicker version of the rest of the year…)

I left religious life in May. I lived with my Granny for a time. I lived on Kelley’s Island for three months. I applied and was accepted for a time of volunteering in India. I moved home to prepare for that mission. Now, we are just 6 days from my departure to India! I will live the first 5 months of 2017, on the other side of the world.

There were SO many days of great pain and sadness, as I adjusted to my new life outside of the monastery…without community…without such intense and beautiful prayer. Looking back, I see only growth and the gift of the Father’s love. There are no regrets. Yes, I could focus on the many wounds and struggles, the deaths of family and friends, etc. but I have chosen to look back at 2016, with gratitude. I choose to see the many gifts bestowed upon my life, as well as the times when I failed to live my life in holiness.

I choose to look forward to 2017…not in the hopes that “2017 will be better,” or “to forget 2016!” No, I look foward to this new year of blessings and growths…trials and pains…adventures and the unknown, while remembering the past year and how it helped to bring me to where I am.

I implore you, my friends, to take a look at your own lives and focus on the blessings…even in the face of pain. Seek to find the good. What graces were you given this past year? What moments did you see growth in? Have you taken it to prayer? Have you thanked God for His love and blessings?

Merry Christmas!

Happy New Year! May it be a year of abundant growth and happiness.

Waiting for Orders

jack_cornwell_vc-wmcBy Penny.

It was the day before I was due to leave Walsingham, England’s Nazareth, and head back down to London for my flight home. I’d hoped that by that stage I would have figured out some answers: do I have a religious vocation? If so, where? And when? My pilgrimage was almost over, though, and no clear answers were in sight. Instead, during my penultimate Mass in Walsingham, the priest gave a homily about waiting that has stayed with me for months.

“Some of you,” he said, “may have heard of a boy named Jack Cornwell.” A lot of the older people in the congregation nodded. “He was a Boy Seaman, First Class, on board HMS Chester in 1916. The ship came under heavy fire from four German battleships, and all the sailors who were on deck manning the Chester‘s guns were killed or fatally wounded within fifteen minutes. Jack Cornwell was in one of the most exposed positions on the ship, but he remained at his gun awaiting orders from his captain – and that’s where they found him after the battle, barely alive and with his chest full of shrapnel, but still standing at his post, quietly waiting for orders.” He died two days later, at the age of sixteen. The priest went on to add that Boy Seaman Cornwell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest – and rarest – military honour in Britain, for “gallantry in the face of the enemy.” (According to Wikipedia, he was the third-youngest person ever awarded the VC.)

jackcornwellsgunhmschesterjutland

Jack Cornwell’s gun, aboard HMS Chester.

“I often feel,” the priest continued, “that I’m not doing a very good job of following God’s will – so often when I try to find out what He wants me to do, and to do it, I end up falling short. I want to push harder and try and force things to happen, but end up getting nowhere instead. You may find the same thing sometimes. But all of us – priests, laymen, religious – we are all called by God to stay at our posts, waiting for Him to give us our orders. Even when we’re wounded, that’s the way we are called to live: whoever we are, we are all standing where God has placed us, and quietly waiting for orders.”

The readings for the first Sunday of Advent, too, are about watching and being ready, “for no one knows the day or the hour.” Sometimes we are called to take action and make a leap of faith, but more often, we are called to wait: to remain alert and watchful, so that we are ready when the time comes and God calls us to move. I’m grateful to the priest for his openness about the sense of falling short in service to God, and for cutting through my own impatience with the reminder that we can’t force our lives forward, even in paths that might be His will, before His time comes. The greatest honour lies, instead, in remaining steady and awake at the post in which God has placed us, knowing that when it is time, His orders for each of us will come.

A Shrine in the Ruins

creake-abbey-3By Penny.

This is – or rather, was – Creake Abbey in Norfolk in the south-east of England, built in the thirteenth century and left to fall into ruins in the sixteenth. Just for once, it wasn’t Henry VIII’s fault: the small community of canons who lived in the abbey died of an outbreak of the Sweating Sickness, one after another, until the final survivor – the abbot – died in 1506.

At its peak, the Abbey church covered most of the area that is now a beautiful green lawn, but by the time the Sweating Sickness hit, most of it had been destroyed in a fire and never re-opened. The parts that remained are marked out on a map in terms that will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a convent creake-4– cloister, refectory, dormitory, chapel – all of them open to the air and the rain for hundreds of years. It’s a study in contrasts, in a way. On the one hand, the first impression as you walk in through the gate is of tidiness and order, a well-maintained historical site; but as you walk around through the columns and archways, following the route from cloister to choir, you begin to feel a strange sense of sorrow for a way of life within these walls that quietly died along with the brothers who lived here.

Creake Abbey is within travelling distance of Walsingham, the holy pilgrimage site I had gone to England in September to see, so I bought a return creake-5bus ticket and headed out there for an afternoon on the second day of my stay. I had seen numerous shrines across England in honour of Our Lord, His Mother, and the saints; beautiful statues and reliquaries in churches and side-chapels for the faithful to visit, not least in Walsingham itself. At Creake Abbey, however, I found something different. In a corner of what was once the chapel, there was a small, spontaneous shrine, with no gold leaf, exquisite painting or racks of candles; just dozens of copper coins piled in a niche and pressed into cracks in the walls, and a small, weathered plaque with a crucifix.

It’s such a deep, ancient instinct, isn’t it? If you asked someone from anywhere in the world or any time in history what was going on here,creake-6 each would say without hesitation that it is absolutely right to leave an offering of yourself in a holy place. If you asked a modern, secular tourist why he felt compelled to push a coin into the wall after he’d finished wandering around and taking photographs, he might not actually know. Lacking the language of faith that would describe it – an offering to God, a tribute to the men who had lived and died here, or even the pagan impulse to put money in a tomb to ensure the dead a safe trip to the afterlife – he might only be able to say something like, “I’m not sure, it just felt like the right thing to do” … but he would make an offering anyway.

Today is All Souls’ Day, a day on which we make an offering of prayer for the dead, and hope to gain for them a plenary indulgence through the merits of Christ. It’s also a day to remember those whose creake-7lives on earth have ended; those we have known and loved, of course, and also those whose names have been lost to history, like this little community of canons and their lonely abbot. And not least, it’s a day to reflect. In worldly terms, Creake Abbey was a failure, an abbey on the periphery of the more important shrine at Walsingham that attracted only a small number of vocations and fell into ruins within three hundred years. And yet, centuries later, the echo of their prayers in the chapel still has the power to turn sightseers into pilgrims: pilgrims who place coins in the wall as an because a small handful of men dedicated themselves to God here and made it a holy place.

We cannot see who we will be when our lives are complete, or what ripples our lives will have throughout the centuries after we have died – but God, in His mercy, does.

The Rosary: A Prayer for Comfort

rosary-pixabayBy Lucia Delgado.

For most of my life, I prayed often. I prayed for my family, friends, the country, and the whole world.

When I entered the Catholic Church in 2004, my prayer life was under development. I was introduced to the Rosary by the Dominican friars and they helped me understand the Blessed Mother more fully.

I guess that is why I decided to aspire with a Franciscan community under the protection of Our Lady of Sorrows. I was attracted by their desire for prayer. After a brief aspirancy period, I left the community after praying and asking the Blessed Mother for help. It seems that I was entering religious life to please others. Six months later, I met my fiancé and we have a wedding date set.  During the discernment process I lived in fear; the marriage vocation scared me because of past family experiences. The Lord told me that everything will be fine… just follow Me. I sat up and accept the call to marriage and eventually motherhood. May God’s will be done.

The Virgin Mary was called not only to be a mother to the Lord; she was called to be a mother to all of us. Her fiat changed everything; she had peace know that God’s will be done.

In the month of the Rosary, I decided to reflect on this beautiful prayer which St. Dominic prayed in order to bring others to the Lord. I would that the brief aspirancy helped me to pray the Rosary and have a greater love for the Blessed Virgin Mary who leads us to Jesus.

By praying the Rosary, my fears are diminished. Mary was courageous enough to travel to visit her cousin Elizabeth; she trusted God throughout the pregnancy and the birth of Jesus.

She was sorrowful during the Passion but she knew that joy was coming.

For those who have left religious communities, know that joy is coming soon. We are not abandoned by our Lord and His Mother. He gives us His Mother to comfort us.

Hence each Ave Maria is a prayer for comfort.

Finding North

Compass Map Navigation North PixabayBy Cinnamon.

I call it almost-discernment: where you’ve been bruised by a brush with convent life and are in no particular rush to repeat the experience, but at the same time, the idea of becoming a sister is like a distant phone in the background of your life that never stops ringing. Like when you hear about a new religious community and think, simultaneously,

a) I wonder if that will be the community God wants me to join?

and

b) I hope not because I don’t really want to be a sister anymore,

and

c) but I wish I could stop thinking about becoming a sister. (That phone is starting to drive me berserk: Lord, I’d answer it if I could figure out where it is. Could You please either point me in the right direction, or make it stop ringing?)

Discerning a religious vocation the first time around wasn’t easy by any means, but at least it was comparatively straightforward. The explanation I came up with for my spiritual director was this: the first time you enter religious life, it’s like turning a compass slowly until the needle points north and everything falls into alignment. God is the magnetic pole Who draws you to Himself, and you need only keep your eyes on the compass and follow the path north to Him.

Leaving the convent is like dropping the compass.

Of course, you pick it up again, and it looks fine on the outside – the glass unbroken, the case undented – but when you try to follow it, sooner or later you’ll find it’s been jarred out of alignment. The needle swings back and forth without stopping, on any bearing, let along north. God is still out there somewhere, and you keep waiting more or less patiently for the compass to settle down and start pointing you in the direction He wants for your life… and when it doesn’t, there’s no option but to start walking regardless, because that phone is just going to keep on ringing until you do. Discernment the second time around means having the courage to take even a single step forward, knowing that you have no real idea whether you’re heading north or south-south-west.

My post-convent discernment path has been largely comprised of zig-zags, punctuated occasionally by an “oof!” asHiking Map Orientation Backpack Pixabay my faulty compass guides me straight into a tree. (I went on a nine-day orienteering camp when I was fourteen. Didn’t like it. Can you tell?) Our Lord told us, though, to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking; without a functioning compass, the walk will take longer, but one day – in His time – the underbrush will part suddenly and a clear path to Him will become visible. And He asks us to trust that, when each one of us gets to heaven and looks back down on the times when we felt most lost and helpless, meandering pointlessly in the scrub, we will see only one set of footprints.