Saturday, August 20, 2011

tyburn monastery

my retreat bedroom's name:
"Heart of Jesus: Fullness of Peace"
(each bedroom was named for a different attribute
 of the Sacred Heart of Jesus)

Today was beautiful. It was sunny, clear, not too cold and filled with nuns. Real nuns - authentic, cloistered, pray all day nuns in full habit. Some of the girls in the youth group were going on a retreat at the Tyburn Monastery in Rotorua and Christine and I were welcomed along on the outing with our trusty sidekick, Joseph Pio. 

We left at 7am sharp to make it there in time for 9am Mass in their chapel, which we did with exactly three minutes to spare. However Joseph's diaper must have exploded at the very start of our journey and so by the time we arrived, an unfortunate yellow sticky substance had leaked in wet clumps through three layers of clothing, shot all the way down one leg (to the ankle) and crept up his back to the middle of his shoulder blades. So I spent most of the Mass in the sacristy trying to piece him back together with the six baby wipes that turned out to be all I had managed to bring along for the day. The day could only get better from there.

a tyburn nun at prayer behind the grille in the chapel

After the Mass and the Mess were done, Mother Prior brought us into the uncloistered rooms of the monastery and served morning tea. True "nuns" are cloistered, meaning they do not venture off of the grounds upon which they live and are often separated from visitors by a "grille". Most of what are commonly call "nuns" are actually technically "religious sisters" - most people could never possibly meet a proper nun unless they visited a cloister. I say all of this by way of explanation that the Tyburn nuns are semi-cloistered; they do not leave the grounds under normal circumstances and they spend most of their time behind the grille or in the enclosed parts of the monastery. Their days are spent in prayer, physical labor, and in hospitality to those who visit the retreat center in which they live. Since Christine and the girls were visiting as part of a discernment process, they were permitted behind the grille and inside the enclosure with the nuns while Joseph and I enjoyed the grounds....immensely.

 door to the cloistered part of the monastery,
the "enclosure"

I have seen a lot of beauty in New Zealand.  An awesome beauty, and in abundance. There is nothing you could possibly ever hear about the natural beauty of New Zealand that is an overstatement. To the contrary, words and photos and even Lord of the Rings films cannot possibly capture the majesty of this landscape. But today there was this little house. It was just a tiny little farmhouse alongside the winding oak-lined gravel driveway that stretches the kilometer from the road to the monastery.  The tall, pointy green hills so characteristic of New Zealand surrounded it almost completely. A small herd of graceful alpaca stood between the house and the drive. A few horses grazed on a hill above the house and a handful of sheep roamed close to the front porch. One rooster called frequently at some distance while another ran close at my heels, trying to keep up. The gravel made a wonderful crunching under my feet and the sun was warm on my face. There were no sounds other than that one persistant rooster and a few small birds. None. The hills must just absorb and block all the noise of a whole universe. The peace was profound - natural - and supernatural in its proximity to all that holy prayer. Although the township calls that gravel run Dods Road, the nuns have painted a little sign renaming it God's Road. And so it is. I stood for a long time taking it all in and feeling the most certain sense of belonging in a place I have ever experienced. I had just made up my mind to go home and ask Richard to pretty pretty please buy that house for me for my birthday when I remembered that the house would never ever ever be a cozy haven from swirling snows. I could no longer decide. Surely somewhere in the Pennsylvania countryside there must be a tiny house, quietly surrounded by tall pointy hills and crunchy gravel roads which see regular winter snow.  I realized it would be better not to confess that fleeting moment of temptation to my New Zealand infatuated husband.

touring the monastic grounds with the nuns 
these nuns are fun, funny and always laughing

I went eagerly to the Tyburn today seeking peace, after a year that has been a true school in the grace and virtue of peace. I brought with me a small book on peace, sent to me from the States by a dear friend who has walked faithfully at my side through all the hard lessons. I was assigned, through no choice of my own, to the bedroom named in honor of Jesus' peace. I stood on God's Road and was immersed in the greatest sense of peace I have had since the overwhelming "mission-preparation process" began, aside from some of the lovely hours I spent nursing newlyborn Joseph (back when we were blissfully ignorant of the road ahead for him).  I was gratified to see the young girls who were my companions seeming so at peace as well.

the view from my bedroom!

The calm openness of my younger companions as they experienced the cloister scene was remarkable. It's not that the nuns and the vistas and the prayerful atmosphere lend themselves to anything else, it's simply that I did not have that kind of spiritual maturity when I discerned religious life at an age quite a bit older than theirs. My memories are a mix - I was very powerfully attracted to the peace, simplicity, prayerfulness, joy, virtue (and to the community life, which I found so much more droll and hilarious than I expected it to be). I was also very afraid. I was afraid of the sacrifice that would be involved and afraid to really ask myself if the Lord was inviting me into this life. I spent most of my mental energy trying to find "flaws" in religious life that would let me off the hook. The "flaws" I found are quite humorous to me now. For example, I was very turned off by the convent rising at 5:30 every morning. I felt certain that I could never be a pleasant or productive person on that little amount sleep. I never fathomed that I would one day meet a little man who thought the day should begin at four am...every morning. Nor did I ever imagine his sister's habit of disrupting my sleep precisely once an hour every night for the first year of her life. I did not at the time realize that most nuns are getting more and better sleep than most mothers of young children and that nuns get a day off - to sleep undisturbed in a silent bedroom - if they are ill (I do not). I have not now decided that motherhood is harder than religious life, but I've realized that sacrifice and suffering are equally present in both vocations. The girls at the Tyburn today seem to understand that. They were awed and impressed with the sacrifices of the monastic life, but not unduly afraid. They remain open. And that is the peace that the Lord gives, which "the world" cannot give, but tries so hard to take away - a peace that comes from trusting so entirely in the goodness of God that suffering does not reduce us to fear or despair or excessive sadness. I did not know or understand or believe in this peace during my high school years and was drawn to youth ministry ten years ago by a strong desire to communicate the reality of that sort of peace to as many young people as possible. These girls already know it. Praise God. May they live it compellingly in a world desperately in need of witnesses.

the alpaca greeting committee

"my" house
(almost hidden there at the right)


  1. So beautiful - you have such a beautiful soul.