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First printed in the Winter 2017 Together paper
‘I want you to leave everything and follow me and become a Sister’.
What? I thought, don’t be silly, I can’t do that!
I was sitting in the Holy House praying, when these words were spoken to me in my heart. I was on our annual parish pilgrimage to Walsingham. I’d been going for several years but this year was to be different. My marriage had broken down a few years beforehand; my husband was an alcoholic and as his drinking got worse I felt the need to go to church more, for:
The Lord is my strength, and my shield;
My heart hath trusted in him, and I am helped: (Psalm 28 v8)
I’d been going to Mass on Sunday mornings for most of my life, but as time went on I started to attend Evensong too. Then gradually I felt God calling me to attend Mass every day and then to start saying Morning Prayer. All this time I was feeling that God was there leading me, but I had no idea where. When I wasn’t at work, or looking after the house, I was in church being a ‘Mary’ sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to his word and receiving the Sacraments, but also a ‘Martha’ busying myself around the church cleaning, polishing and serving.
Even though the marriage had broken down, I kept my husband in my prayers every day, praying for him to become dry and each year this was my intention for my pilgrimage to Walsingham. After several years, not only was he finally dry but he had also been admitted to the Roman Catholic Church having never gone to church before.
My children were growing up; my daughter was already at university and my son preparing to go while I did three part-time jobs to pay the bills. At this point I started thinking about where my life was leading. I looked at full-time jobs, but this would mean I couldn’t go to Mass every day and I was still feeling that was where God wanted me. So that year I came on pilgrimage to Walsingham to ask God where he was leading me; did I carry on as I was, doing part-time jobs, struggling to make ends meet? Or did I apply for the full-time job I had seen advertised and give up the daily Mass? Then at the Saturday evening Liturgy I saw two Sisters, and suddenly heard God saying to me, ‘that’s what I want you to do, leave everything and follow me, and become a Sister.’ Well that definitely wasn’t on my list of things to do!
I went home from that pilgrimage full of all sorts of excuses as to why I couldn’t become a Sister: I’ve been married; I’ve got two children; I’m too old; surely only 18 year old virgins can do that? But God kept on, as someone once described it to me, it is a bit like a tooth ache which doesn’t go away until you do something about it. Readings, hymns, everything seemed to be telling me to leave everything and follow Him.
So two and a half years later I entered the Society of St Margaret at Walsingham as a postulant, the first stage in religious life. After six months I was clothed as a novice and then two and a half years later I took my First Profession. The last stage will be for me to take my Life Profession. At Profession we take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and charity, giving our whole life, our time, our talents, all that we have and are, to follow Him.
Prayer is the heart of our life here. We have our own chapel where we say the five-fold Offices: the Office of Readings, Morning Prayer, Midday Office, Vespers, and Compline. We also have a daily Mass and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament each morning. The sisters spend one and a half hours a day in private prayer and Bible reading and set time aside for spiritual reading.
Our ministry is mainly at the Shrine; assisting with laying on of hands at the Healing Liturgies, doing Welcome Centre duty, attending and leading Shrine Prayers and being around for anyone who wishes to talk or pray with us. Groups or individuals, whether they be pilgrims, guests staying in our cottage or local people often join us in chapel for our Mass and a coffee and chat.
Each year we select a charity and raise money for it with the help of Associates and friends, making and selling cards and small gifts which we sell in the Shrine and our cloister. I also go into the local primary school weekly with a group leading collective worship and listening to children read. I act as a Street Pastor at the annual Youth Pilgrimage, being a praying presence and a listening ear.
All of our ministry flows from the life of prayer, as St Bernard said:
“The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without loss to itself ... You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.”
Sr Carol Elizabeth SSM (Walsingham)