|St. Walburga nuns, 1992|
When I was growing up, moving frequently from place to place with my family, we never attended church. My parents were not religious in any sense. My father had been raised in a family that followed no faith that I am aware of, and Mama was raised as a Catholic. To marry my father she left the church and never spoke of it to me, that I remember anyway. My grandmother lived with us for a time and she never mentioned going to church. It was only the secular holidays of Easter and Christmas that we celebrated in the fashion that so many do these days: Christmas is presents and shopping for gifts to wrap and put under a Christmas tree, wondering what those presents with your name on them contain; and Easter was pretty dresses, baskets filled with hard-boiled eggs that we had dyed in pastel colors. There was never any mention about the meaning behind these two holidays.
In my late teen years, just after having graduated from high school, I discovered religion. My father was stationed at an air base near Albany, Georgia, and when we moved into our rented house, a priest from the nearby Episcopal Church, Fr. Shipps, came to welcome us to our home. He also was interested in finding out what church we belonged to. I don't remember what was said to him, but I remember promising to come and visit the church. It must have been the right time, I'm not sure what triggered it, but I became intensely interested in learning everything I could about Christianity and was baptized and became a member. I just looked on line to see if I could find that church from all those years ago, and I think it was St. Paul's that I joined. But what I remember more than anything is that I was like a hungry person sitting at a banquet table. I could not get enough information fast enough, reading the Bible every day, studying everything about my new religion and becoming convinced I was meant to join a convent. (I have never done things half way, but this new tangent was a bit extreme, even for me.) My parents were very concerned but would have allowed me to follow whatever direction I chose.
I know I wasn't really all that serious, looking back, because I perused information about several different Episcopal convents and looked for the most attractive habit to guide my choice. When fashion is your guide to a convent, you can't be all that serious. But instead of joining a convent, I met a young airman who caught my eye, and we began to date. You can't have both of those things, apparently. But all of that information and what happened to me is another story.
The religious conversion was real, however. I have called myself a Christian and attended several different churches over the years, but as I have grown older I realize that the internal journey is still in progress. Prayer has always been something I've received great solace from. My life has not been an easy one, and so many times there was nowhere else to turn. In the years I lived in Boulder, I found it important in my life to find times to spend in concentrated prayer and meditation. St. Walburga's convent gave me that opportunity.
I would take a vacation from work and head to the Convent on Wednesday of Holy Week. The nuns provided me with a little cabin of my own, furnished with a bed, a writing desk, and a chair. If I chose to have a completely silent and private retreat, they would have left a meal for me outside the door, but I decided to take my meals with the other retreatants. The Benedictine nuns have designated times for all things, following the offices of St. Benedict, and strict times for meals. When I entered the little dining hall, a place was set for each of us, and we ate in silence while we were read a passage from the Bible. We were allowed to chat after the meal was concluded. This was the only time I spoke to anyone for the entire five days. I went into the chapel to listen to the nuns gathering to sing their offices several times during the day.
On Thursday, the nuns washed the feet of the retreatants, and I was quite moved to find how this affected me. It was humbling to have this lovely cloistered nun performing the ritual, one of so many she followed every day of her life. Since I was spending my time in solitary prayer and meditation, perhaps this is one reason why it seemed so meaningful. Everything, including walking quietly on the grounds of the Convent, took on a different light.
Saturday before Easter was like no other day. It is the only day of the entire year that Mass is not performed. No one takes communion that day. Christ is dead and has not yet risen. The feeling of the nuns on Saturday was mournful and quiet. But just the opposite occurred on Sunday morning: they had been up all night baking cookies and breads, and each of us was presented with a beautiful basket filled with these freshly baked goodies. Not your traditional Easter basket of jelly beans and hard boiled colored eggs, but one that was filled with lovingly prepared treats.
The Sunday service was packed, with all the faithful residing in nearby Boulder pouring in, and it truly felt like a celebration. I would pack up and leave after the Sunday service, filled with gratitude and spiritually renewed. Each year for at least five in the mid-1980s I spent Holy Week with the nuns at St. Walburga, and I have thought of them with fondness many times during the following decades.
Today, sitting in bed with my dear husband gently sleeping next to me, with the sun's rays beginning to come through the window, I realize how blessed I am to have the life we share today. For Easter this year, we will dress in nice warm clothes and drive to a nearby lake and walk around it together. I will have time to take pictures and we will discuss things going on in our lives. We will both be contemplative in such a beautiful setting, listening to the birds sing and watching the ducks and geese swimming on the lake. It is the church I attend these days, and it's a good one.
But I am also aware of what the nuns are doing right now, how joyful they are, and what they gave me that will never leave me as long as I'm alive.