Behold the Handmaid of the Lord.
I have finally applied to enter the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus! There are still a few pieces to submit, but Mother has assured me those can come in later. The Handmaids reside in New Ulm, MN, a small town. Because they currently serve a rural diocese, they have St. Isidore, patron of farmers, as one of their patron saints. Right alongside St. John Paul II. Their convent is converted from the New Ulm Cathedral middle school, when the school (wherein they teach) consolidated its middle school into the elementary and high schools. They are currently renovating an upper room for their new chapel, of which the small hermitage and potentially vaulted ceilings are the chief excitement of the renovation. No doubt in the near future Work Days will center much effort in this renovation.
If I am accepted, it will be my first experience of living in a rural community. I have had my childhood in the suburbs, and my young adulthood (however brief the stint of the last five years may be in my life) in the city, but I move on to new places and a new culture. So much for the where.
Who are the Handmaids? They are beautiful young women, daughters of God. They are strong—they have already weathered much suffering in their efforts to establish themselves as a new religious order. They are pioneers, with great hopes to grow and expand to other dioceses. But most of all, they are real. These are not the Maria VonTrapps and Sister Mary Clarences of Hollywood caricature. They aren’t drama queens—though they can be dramatic—and they aren’t nuns because they’re good at singing. They are real, that is, they have real emotions, real fallen human natures, real humor, and real love for the Lord. They are striving for holiness, just like everyone else among the faithful.
I just spent another weekend visit with them. Again and again, it moves me to kneel in the chapel with them…to see the backs of their veils as they focus their attention on their Beloved, to witness and partake in this exchange of love. We had Holy Hour two times per day—and don’t be deceived, I was certainly distracted in my prayer times—but their example of steadfastness and attentiveness at the feet of the Lord helps me to lift my eyes and again turn my mind and heart back to the Lord, no matter how far I have wandered interiorly.
And this is, I think, what it means to be a Handmaid. To remain attentive at the feet of the Lord, and then to serve Him in whatever He tells us to do. It is a life of love and a life of receptivity. It is radical, but it is authentic femininity.
And how am I going to spend my time? Well, a great deal of it in the next year will be in prayer and in formation or study. However, as a postulant (first year convent tenant), I will also be working in the various apostolates. Currently that’s helping the sisters who teach, serve in the diocesan offices, run retreats, lead faith formation, etc. They have a wide variety of duties, and it’s always adaptable, based on the current needs of the diocese. Never a dull moment, it seems.
Speaking of dull moments, I had a discussion with the psychologist who administered my evaluation for the convent application. It was nowhere near “dull,” but her notes from the tests I took explained that I had a “great sense of adventure” and loved to “try new things and see new places.” The psychologist was concerned about whether I thought that would make convent life difficult. I chuckled a little bit and told her some placating answer like, “I’ll take more appreciation in the little changes that will always naturally come.”
But the reality is that going to the convent is the biggest adventure. Sure, the initial feelings of hype and change and radical living will fade after a bit (and maybe sooner than I’d like), but all the times I’ve spent with the Handmaids have showed me how busy their life is, and not just with the same routine day after day. I think they are doing something different at least once a week! When I was there this past weekend it was the Ordination and First Mass for their newest priest, Fr. Sam. When I spent a week there, it was a Confirmation day retreat, a Teen Talks retreat, a visit from Bishop Cozzens, and intercession for the interview of a new school principal at their Cathedral parish school. They serve in so many ways—I can see how precious their time together at meal times and prayer times is truly sacred to them. Their life exemplifies the real need of community in the religious life. A woman would burn out and despair after two weeks of their apostolate if she were not fed by union with God in prayer and a community of women to support her work and labor alongside her. Even their time of communal silence is fraternal by nature…there is no room to feel lonely. I can attest to this by contrasting it with my present condition, in which my roommate has gone on vacation this week and I’ve spent the last two nights alone at home muttering to myself and watching a British TV miniseries. (Don’t worry, I’m hanging out with friends tomorrow, babysitting on Thursday, and celebrating a friend’s birthday on Friday, so I won’t be insane with isolation by the end of the week.)
To conclude, this community has figured it out, even if “it” doesn’t include everything. They know what is essential, though, and this is what gives them joy and true freedom in their life, this radical Love-centered oblation of themselves to Love Himself. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux–what is essential is invisible to the eyes. The Handmaids have rediscovered the heart of a full life as a religious in today’s world: The Sacred Heart. Union with His Heart, from which flows all communion among us human creatures, and perseverance in poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Image courtesy of the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus