Silence defined the monastery---except during recreation. the hour before Compline, the concluding canonical hour of the Divine Office, was a time of community togetherness. Pictures and letters from family and friends, parts of the lives they’d each left behind, were passed around freely. Over the years, the names and faces had all become part of a bigger family here at Our Lady of Hope Monastery.
Tonight, Sister Maria Victoria had photos of her new baby niece to show, and Sister Gertrude had received a letter announcing that her cousin had entered the priesthood. On the outside, these bits of news might have been glossed over, but here they were savored and relished as gifts from an ever present and good God.
Sadness, too, was more bearable a burden when shared by the entire community. After Sister Clothilde’s sister had passed away at another monastery few months ago, everyone had taken part in an all-night vigil. Through their shared prayers, the pain of one had been borne by many shoulders, lessening its crushing weight.
Now laughter rose easily among them almost in defiance of the storm brewing outside. The windowpanes rattled as the wind whistled through the cracks, announcing the rain that would quickly follow. As was the custom among long-time New Mexico residents, the nuns walked to the open back door to watch the rare event. Pax, the monastery’s large, white German shepherd, remained behind, content to sleep through the commotion.
“We’re in for a gully washer tonight,” Sister Bernarda said. The former Marine turned nun had a delivery that made even the simplest of sentences sound like an order.
“This should help ease the drought a bit. It’ll be a blessing, providing the rain doesn’t evaporate before it hits the ground,” Sister Agatha said quietly. Truth was, she didn’t like thunderstorms.
“This storm will bring a blessing,” Sister Ignatius said excitedly. “Look! Do you see it?”
“What?” Sister Agatha asked, glancing over Sister Bernarda’s massive shoulders.
“There! That cloud looks just like an angel with huge, feathered wings. This morning at prayer I asked the Lord to send us an angel as a sign that the monastery’s financial problems would soon be over, and there it is! And just to make it perfect, the angel has appeared to us in the middle of a storm!”
Sister Agatha looked up at the clouds and tilted her head, trying to discern the shape Sister Ignatius was describing. As she brought her cheek down and pushed it against her shoulder, a form began to take shape---but she couldn’t swear that it wasn’t a giant rabbit.
Sister Bernarda looked at Sister Agatha and shrugged.
“Maybe the angel won’t to appear to us externs,” Sister Agatha told Sister Bernarda with a ghost of a smile.
“It’s the price we pay for not taking a vow of enclosure---we become too affected by the world,” Sister de Lourdes, their newest extern said, joining them.
“I suppose it’s all in how you look at it, but in my opinion we externs have the best job of all,” Sister Agatha said with complete conviction. Extern nuns were part of the contemplative life of the monastery where prayers and a lifetime spent in service to God defined who and what they were. But externs also ventured into the outside world. The monastery relied on them to run errands, escort a plumber or an electrician onto the premises, and to be the liaison between the monastery and the community. It was that duality Sister Agatha loved the most, and she couldn’t imagine any greater blessing.
Sister Agatha glanced at Sister de Lourdes. The petite young woman had been known as Celia just two short years ago, a postulant headed for a life as a cloistered nun. But now she was an extern nun, having placed her own wishes aside to answer the needs of the monastery. Celia had been her godchild, and Sister Agatha hadn’t exactly welcomed her into the monastery. But there was no doubt that Sister de Lourdes’s calling was genuine.
Sister Agatha’s musings were interrupted when the bell announcing Compline rang. The sisters stepped away from the door, heads bowed, and began walking silently toward chapel. The stillness that surrounded them now as they entered the chapel provided a comfort all its own. It was the serenity and quiet that helped make Our Lady of Hope Monastery a spiritual fortress. Body and soul had to be at peace before the heart could attain union with the Divine.
As they began chanting the Divine Office, Sister Agatha felt a clear sense of God’s presence. Compline meant “to make the day complete” and that was precisely what the liturgical hour did. The prayers being chanted now were a daily reminder that He whom they served was faithful.
“And under His wings shall thou find refuge.” The words of the psalm said it all. Here at Our Lady of Hope, she’d found the “pearl of great price” that had required her to give up everything to possess it. A woman surrendered much when she answered God’s call. Turning her back on the right to have children and a family of her own, Sister Agatha had embraced another life, one where the spirit was fed daily, but human needs had to be set aside. Yet this was precisely where she belonged.
After Compline, the Great Silence began. Except for a grave emergency, it wouldn’t be broken until after Morning Prayers the following day. Listening to the storm raging outside, Sister Agatha lingered in chapel after the cloistered sisters had left. The two other externs, whose duties often prevented them from having time for silent meditation, had also chosen to remain.
Sister Agatha’s gaze focused on the sanctuary light flickering over the tabernacle. The flame was a symbol of the living presence there---of the One they loved. Though rain continued to fall outside and the rumble of thunder shook the windows, the menacing gloom couldn’t disturb the blessed serenity of their chapel.
As the rain peaked in intensity, Sister Agatha heard one of the branches of the cottonwood tree outside hit the roof with a heavy thud. Flat roofs---old flat roofs---had a tendency to leak, particularly during downpours like the one they were experiencing now. She made a mental note to check things out tomorrow morning.
Focusing once again on her prayers, Sister Agatha’s gaze shifted to the statue of the Blessed Mother. The stand of votive candles before it cast a maze of dancing shadows on the wall, but it was the liquid shimmer there that drew her to her feet and in for a closer look.
As Sister Agatha reached the far corner, her fears were confirmed. Water was trickling down from the ceiling. The light from the candles played on the drops, making them sparkle with a benign grace that was dangerously deceptive. A water leak here in the chapel could do untold damage.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. Turning her head, she saw Sister Bernarda standing there with a worried frown. Sister de Lourdes approached a moment later from the sacristy, flashlight in hand. After using a bright light to examine the rivulets of water running to the floor, Sister de Lourdes pointed to the ceiling, which was bowed slightly in one section. Sister Bernarda looked back at Sister Agatha and, without breaking the Great Silence, pointed with her thumb toward the chapel doors.
It was obvious that she wanted to go up to the roof now and not wait until morning. Sister Agatha nodded in agreement. The water would have to be drained immediately to prevent the ceiling from collapsing.
Sister Agatha went to the front doors and stepped outside. Lightning was only visible behind the mountains now, and there was no more rain. The downpour had been typical of New Mexico storms---impressive but short-lived.
Sister de Lourdes and Sister Bernarda came out to join her a moment later. After seeing that the canales, the protruding gutters, were clogged and the water wasn’t draining properly, Sister Bernarda and Sister de Lourdes followed her lead and walked to a storage shed to retrieve a long ladder and more flashlights.
Once the ladder was in position, Sister de Lourdes climbed up while Sister Bernarda held it steady and Sister Agatha aimed a flashlight. But as Sister de Lourdes reached the highest safe rung, it was clear she was too short to hoist herself up onto the roof.
Sister Agatha took a deep breath then signalled for Sister de Lourdes to come down. A few minutes later, trying to ignore the way her arthritic joints screamed with pain in this kind of weather, Sister Agatha stepped onto the ladder. Sister Bernarda’s fear of heights was something she’d never quite mastered, and making her climb up now with only the glow of a flashlight for guidance seemed uncharitable. It was up to her.
Sister Bernarda tapped her on the leg, signalling for her to come back down. Sister Agatha came off the ladder and stepped away. Before she could figure out what was going on, Sister Bernarda grasped the sides of the ladder and climbed up.
With a sigh, Sister Agatha helped Sister de Lourdes steady the ladder and aim the flashlights. So many people thought that they lived loveless lives here in the monastery, but she’d seen more genuine affection since her arrival at Our Lady of Hope than she’d ever known on the outside. Love here often took the form of small, selfless acts of courage like what Sister Bernarda had just done.
Sister Agatha placed her flashlight in a pocket, forced her swollen hands to grip the sides of the ladder, and climbed up to join Sister Bernarda. Two could work faster than one. As she hoisted herself up onto the roof, she saw Sister Bernarda’s grateful smile.
The canales were clogged and blocked by branches, leaves, and plant debris.
Oblivious to the light drizzle that had started, they cleared the canales and soon were ready to go back down. Sister Agatha went first. Sister Bernarda was a large woman and it would take two of them on the ground to steady the ladder for her.
Once the signal was given, Sister Bernarda went down slowly, feeling her way with each step, but as her foot touched the last rung of the ladder, she slipped and fell unceremoniously to the ground.
Hearing Sister Bernarda moan softly as she reached for her ankle, Sister Agatha looked over quickly at Sister de Lourdes. The younger nun nodded and ran inside to search for Sister Eugenia. The infirmarian was needed now.
Sister Bernarda struggled to her feet and, grudgingly accepting Sister Agatha’s help, hobbled back inside the chapel. As they stepped through the massive wooden doors and entered the cloistered side, Sister Eugenia suddenly appeared, pushing an empty wheelchair.
Sister Agatha recognized it instantly as the one Sister Gertrude had been using since her second heart attack. Here, everything was shared as the need arose.
Seeing the wheelchair, Sister Bernarda took a wobbly step backward and shook her head in protest. However, Sister Eugenia’s formidable stare left no room for objections. Mortified, Sister Bernarda sat down and allowed herself to be wheeled out of the chapel.
As soon as they entered the infirmary, Sister Eugenia spoke. “The vow of charity takes precedence over the vow of silence, so speak freely and tell me what happened,” she said.
“It was my fault,” Sister Bernarda whispered, making sure her voice didn’t carry. “I was so relieved to be close to the ground again that I hurried---and slipped.”
Sister Eugenia took off Sister Bernarda’s alpargates, the rope soled sandals they all wore, then removed her wet woolen sock. As she did, they all saw the tattoo above her ankle that read, semper fi. The dagger between the words almost looked like a cross.
Seeing it, Sister Eugenia laughed. Noticing the uncomfortable look on Sister Bernarda’s face, she added, “I’m sorry, Your Charity. I just didn’t expect the tattoo.”
Sister Agatha smiled widely. Somehow that didn’t surprise her at all. “At least the words that go along with that tattoo seem appropriate to our life here, too. Do you have any others?”
“You’ll never know,” Sister Bernarda answered with a trace of a smile.
After rubbing ointment over the ankle area, Sister Eugenia stepped back to evaluate her work. “All you have is a minor sprain. The ointment will help the swelling and the pain,” she said. Refusing to let Sister Bernarda leave the infirmary, Sister Eugenia led her to the cot. “Tonight, Sister, you’ll remain here.”
Assured that all was well, Sister Agatha stepped to the door and nearly collided with Sister de Lourdes. “I found some more leaks in the chapel,” Sister de Lourdes whispered at the infirmary doorway. “I’ve placed buckets beneath them, and brought towels to absorb any splashing or spills.”
“There’s nothing more we can do tonight. We’ll have to call in a roofer tomorrow. For now, you should go to bed. I have a feeling tomorrow will be a very long day.”
Sister de Lourdes bowed her head and hurried silently down the corridor. Sister Agatha continued more slowly to her own room, known as a cell. She was incredibly cold and the wet fabric of her habit felt as heavy as chain mail. Quickly slipping into another dry habit, she looked wistfully at her bed, where Pax was snoring contentedly, then hurried back to the chapel.
Sister Agatha entered through the side door leading from the enclosure. Only candles illuminated the interior now, but even in the flickering glow she could see fresh leaks everywhere. She was nearly finished positioning more buckets beneath the drips when she heard a rustle of cloth from somewhere behind her. Glancing back, she saw Reverend Mother watching her.
Sister Agatha shook her head imperceptibly, letting the abbess know that the situation was grave. She was considering breaking the Great Silence and going up to talk to her when she heard a new plopping sound. Spotting a new leak near the second station of the cross, she hauled out another bucket from the sacristy and positioned it beneath the steady drip.
After wiping up the water that had collected there with a towel, she was ready to call it a night, but just then a loud ring sounded. It was the telephone in Reverend Mother’s office, down the hall.
Sister Agatha’s heart began to beat faster. There were only two phones in the monastery---one in the parlor, and a separate phone line in Reverend Mother’s office. As their abbess, it was necessary for Reverend Mother to maintain her own link to the outside. Calls from the archdiocese and the Mother House usually went directly to her. But nothing except an all-out emergency would have caused that phone to ring at this hour. Glancing down the hall, she saw Reverend Mother hurrying to answer it.
Sister Agatha followed Reverend Mother to the office, ready to serve if needed and preparing for the worst.
Copyright © 2006 by Aimée and David Thurlo