July 14, 2013 11 Comments
The morning of July 13, the Feast of St. Teresa of the Andes, found the mountains of central Pennsylvania wreathed in thick clouds of mist, as if Nature herself had some inkling of the wondrous thing that was about to happen and had adorned herself with a veil of white of her own in honor of the occasion. The rain, which had fallen unabated since I had left my home in Virginia several hours previously, finally ceased as I wound my way through the curving roads that led to the tucked-away little monastery in Elysburg, PA. I had come to bid a fond farewell to one of my dearest friends and sisters in Christ, Channing Dale, who in a couple hours would pass through the enclosure door of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to begin her new life of prayer and penance as a Discalced Carmelite nun.
I arrived about twenty minutes before Channing got there, and already a number of other family and friends were milling about outside and in the small public corridor at the front of the monastery. After praying for a spell before the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, I joined those who had already arrived and began to (slowly) introduce myself and socialize. I also took the opportunity to go to Confession, so that I could say goodbye to Channing with a clean soul!
There was hugging, warm words, introductions to her parents, etc. Actually, her dad and step-mother were already familiar with me from my Twitter interactions with Channing, which I realize some people might find a little creepy, but since I have always kind of wanted to have a reputation that precedes me, I did not mind in the least. ;-)
The assembled well-wishers enjoyed about forty-five minutes of socializing and photo opportunities with our soon-to-be nun, and then we all filed into the chapel for the Entrance Mass. It was celebrated, as are all Masses at the Carmel of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, in the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite. Two seminarians from the Diocese of Harrisburg, one of whom, Ivan, shares a deep friendship and spiritual bond with Channing, served at the altar.
Mass was beautiful and incredibly moving (about the time of the Prayer of Consecration, I had my moment of emotional catharsis and sobbed until my sides ached and I had nothing more to give). As per the norm, the curtains were shut over the enclosure grille, so we could not see the sisters, but the voices of their chanting wafted through clear as a bell and could easily have been mistaken for that of the angelic choirs. Father preached a wonderful homily tying together several themes. He drew a connection between the routine of Jesus’s life in Nazareth and the routine of life in Carmel, and how routine, in our modern lexicon, is almost a dirty word, synonymous with boredom. This could not be father from the truth. Boredom, Father said, is a selfish, childish emotion that demands that life continually entertain us, and that the constant pursuit of stimulation is an enslaving gremlin. Routine, on the other hand, is the mature embrace of the duties and responsibilities which God has bestowed upon us, serves to free us from the human tendency to constantly pursue novelty and external stimuli, and allows us to instead pursue the quiet voice and hidden face of God. Though austere and, in the world’s eyes, incredibly dull, the routine of Carmel opens the lives of the nuns to the workings of God’s grace, and allows them to spend their lives being continually surprised by His joy. After all, what could be more externally boring and dull than Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, with nothing to excite the senses? And yet here are contained infinite treasures with which to set the soul on fire! Father closed his homily by noting that it is through the Blessed Sacrament that we can continue to be connected to Channing in a real and profoundly mystical way, citing Catholics like J.R.R. Tolkien and St. Teresa of the Andes who arranged for common Holy Hours with family members who desperately missed them, as a way of being spiritually united over great distances through the common adoration and worship of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I asked Mother later that day, and found out that if one desires to be thus united with Channing, the nuns make a Holy Hour each day at 6 AM and at 5 PM.
After Mass was over, everyone filed outside and Channing went over what would happen next, regarding where and how she would pass through the enclosure door and what would follow after that. We all exchanged final words and hugs with Channing, and then we filed into the narrow hallway at the end of which was the enclosure door through which our friend was about to pass.
After receiving a blessing from her father, and then from the priest, Channing knocked three times on the door. It opened, and she knelt before Mother Stella, who presented her with a crucifix to kiss. Then, Channing rose and went through the door, which was then shut behind her.
We all then returned to the Chapel, and watched (as much as one could) and listened as the sisters processed back inside their portion in a candle procession, with Channing entering last of all. She knelt at the enclosure window and prayed silently before a small crucifix while the sisters sang in Latin, and then she prayed a prayer of consecration in English, dedicating herself to the Immaculate Virgin Mary and the new life she is to lead inside of Carmel. Then she processed out with the sisters to change into her postulant’s garb, while the rest of us remained and were led by Father in praying the Memorare for Channing and her vocation.
According to the plan, Channing was then to have been joined in the speak room (a room with a large window covered with two grilles that allow for face-to-face visits to occur) by just her immediate family members and the other nuns, while everyone else went on their way. However, perhaps impressed by the number of people who showed up (they said it was the largest group ever for an entrance), Mother Stella-Marie showed the rest of us an enormous kindness, and invited EVERYONE into the speak room to see now Sister Channing in her new garb and visit with the whole community! It was so wonderful! Sister Channing looked utterly radiant and almost floating off the floor with joy. She now wears a simple brown dress with a brown mozzetta over the shoulders, and a simple long white veil on her head. The visit lasted a half hour and was delightful. I do not have any pictures from that visit, because the rules of the enclosure expressly forbid photographs of the faces of the sisters. I will say, one is definitely struck both by how young and how happy the sisters are. What a lovely, holy, joyous group of women the sisters of Carmel are!
Finally, the time came for the rest of the nuns to depart and for Sister Channing to have a final private conversation with her family. The rest of us filtered out, continued to converse, laugh, and share in fellowship until at last, I departed, filled with joy for Sister Channing, tinged with some measure of sorrow for myself, consoled by the knowledge that this is a friendship that has not ended, but rather has become materially poorer yet mystically richer in ways I cannot yet understand, and above all, clinging to the hope of an eternal reunification with my dearest sister in Christ and the loving Jesus who has captured the hearts of us both.
Please remember Sister Channing, her family, and all the sisters of the Carmel of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in your prayers. If you feel called by the Holy Spirit to assist with the material needs of the nuns, so that they can continue to pray and sacrifice unceasingly for our priests and the priesthood, you can do so through the Friends of Carmel JMJ. And if you ever find yourself passing through central Pennsylvania, consider making a side trip to spend some time on what truly seems to me to be Heaven’s front porch.