Sister Mary Agnes had been in the enclosed convent, leading a silent contemplative life, for over 30 years when I met her. The daily routine of Mass, devotions, prayer, chores and evening half-hour of conversation with her sisters took place behind locked doors.
Even doors within the house were locked. I caused consternation by trying to wander out into the garden. A key had to be found, in the charge of the keyholder sister. No one made eye contact or exchanged greetings in the corridors. Meals were silent except for one sister reading aloud. I tried not to clink my knife and fork.
Anyone seeing contemplative life as a retreat from the real world is mistaken: far from avoiding life, it avoids the comforting distractions and confronts reality – including the reality of evil in the world – head on. The apparent serenity hides a battle.
Sister Mary Agnes looked ill. She had health problems and so did many of the others. The younger ones caring for the elderly were no longer young themselves. There were no new postulants seeking to join the ageing community.
A plan was being made to merge this convent with another. But there were problems within that other community that hadn’t been resolved, and she wasn’t looking forward to joining them.
Then a phone call came from the Mother Superior of another house, from the same order but in the States: a personal invitation, ‘Come and join us.’
And after 30 years of going no further than the front door, she got on a plane and went.
She was met at the airport by ten of her new sisters carrying balloons and was taken home to a cheerful community room decorated with paper leprechauns (to celebrate her Irish heritage) and a sparkly green cake.
It was her decision not to dress in ordinary clothes like the others but to keep her old habit and veil: she said she was too old to change.
But in every other way she embraced her new life with joy and ever-improving health. Thanks in part to the use of the exercise bike.