by MINA AMSO
Newly-professed Carmelite nun, Sr Catherine of Christ, lacked the words to
articulate what it felt like on the day she made her final solemn vows.
“There’s actually no word,” she said. “It was the happiest day of my life, by
a long shot. And I suspect on this side of eternity it will remain. I was just so
“After the profession, when I sat down again, I just was so happy. So happy and at peace, and I just felt loved and blessed by God. And I didn’t expect that. I didn’t know what I expected. Because your feelings are kind of all over the place. I suppose I know a little bit now what it is like for a bride.”
The occasion made Sr Catherine feel nervous, but all God’s love and blessings and the joy of giving herself to God totally eclipsed that, she explained.
But even though it was a joyous occasion, Sr Catherine felt a deep ache inside.
“What was difficult for me at the Mass was that my family are not Catholic, and have found my vocation very difficult.
For that reason, there was an element of pain, actually. I didn’t know how they were feeling. I didn’t know how it was going to go for them.
“I realised I couldn’t look at them during the Mass, because I thought I would break down in tears. I knew they were suffering.”
However, after the profession, she felt at peace and at the sign of peace, she
was able to turn toward them and smile, she said.
Despite that, the 34-year-old looked composed and poised at the ceremony
at the packed-out Carmelite Monastery Chapel in Hoon Hay in Christchurch.
Bishop Paul Martin, SM, was the main celebrant at the Mass, accompanied by 15 priests and Bishop Basil Meeking. One of the priests was Sr Catherine’s former spiritual director from Washington, DC, Fr Clarence Trinkle.
In his homily, Bishop Martin spoke of one being called to a Carmelite life as being called to join a prayer “powerhouse, a calling into the “the desert of calm”.
“Yes, a calling to the desert, but remember that, for the exodus pilgrims, the
desert was the place of hope-filled transition.
A place where the traveller was drawn from superficiality to depth, from
fantasy to reality and from resistance to intimacy,” Bishop Martin said.
“And this is why the daily calling of God for most of us is most often a gentle, persistent alluring, an enticement, a deep traction. And the desert, where adventurers discover freedom from the attachments and preoccupations that prevent our response to the love of God, the desert is a welcome home for those who realise that all the successes, relationships, and possessions of the world can never satisfy the longing of the human heart.”
Bishop Martin said all who seek to mature in the faith will realise that the only way to really live a happy life is to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“This divine relationship must be the first priority for every one of us for every moment. Whether in home, family, workplace and social life or in a monastery.”
St Padre Pio
Sr Catherine knew that God had called her to the desert of calm, but her childhood and early teen years never would have predicted such an outcome.
She grew up a Presbyterian in Kurow, a small town halfway between Timaru and Dunedin. Her father was a Presbyterian minister. But she wasn’t raised with “an active prayer life”; in fact, she stopped attending church services altogether when she was 10 years old.
“It was boring,” she recalled, “we never said a prayer at home, not once.
Although we did say grace when my grandparents came.”
It was her best friend in high school, Caroline Bishop (née Lucas), whose influence propelled the young Catherine to reawaken her faith and love of God.
Caroline gave her a book about St Padre Pio to read.
“The first Catholic teaching I understood was the communion of the saints,
because Caroline’s mother had explained it to me in a long car ride back from their holiday house. So, at the end of this book, I said ‘Padre Pio, pray for me’.”
“It was at St Hilda’s High School (Anglican) I became interested in the faith, in the Christian faith and then the Catholic faith.”
After attending a discipleship training school in Sydney, doing a mission in
India and attending Otago University for a year and a half, Sr Catherine travelled to the United States to join the consecrated women of Regnum Christi, where she worked in youth ministry.
Spending eight years there was her foundation to entering the Carmelites
later on. When she felt that something was missing in her life, it was Fr Trinkle who suggested to her that she might have a contemplative vocation, which she had never considered at the time. But with that seed planted, Sr Catherine continued her discernment and decided to give the Carmelite community a go. She caught a plane back to New Zealand to discern entering the contemplative and enclosed order in Christchurch.
Life at the Carmelites wasn’t always a walk in the park, she said. The
three years between her first and final vows were quite testing. That period
was purifying, yet confirming of her calling to be a Carmelite, she told NZ
“Everything about this life recharges me and gives me life, and it’s enriching,” she said.
“It wasn’t about doubting that I had a vocation, it was working through the
struggles of community life, things come to the surface, and you’ve got to start facing your issues, it’s more working through that and just asking yourself ‘can I live this life?’ Because sometimes you would like to run away from that — the weaknesses which everyone else sees, but you hadn’t — and it is painful. Those had been my crises more than vocational ones.”
Two saints who were very present for Sr Catherine, from her initial conversion to accepting her vocation, right up to days before her final profession, were Saint Padre Pio and Saint Therese of Lisieux. While on an-eight-day silent retreat before her final profession, Sr Catherine experienced “heavenly signs”, which helped confirm everything.
“The night I began my retreat, on the 22nd [of September] somebody gave
us an alms of 900 Masses [to be said] at [Padre Pio’s] shrine [in Italy]. We’ve never received that as a gift before.”
“That, for me, was a sign from heaven,” she said.
The first day of the retreat fell on September 23, which is Saint Padre Pio’s
feast day, and the day Sr Catherine made her final vows happened on the feast day of Saint Therese of Lisieux. It was all coming together.
“That [Tuesday, October 1] was one of the only days Bishop Paul could do. She [Saint Therese of Lisieux] is a Carmelite, I love her. She’s helped me many times in the past with little things, so I felt [she was] very present when I was saying her novena.”
“These were some of the little signs from heaven, on the day of my final vows, that made it seem so blessed by God.”