I spent this past year living with The Sisterhood of St. John the Divine [SSJD] is an Anglican, Benedictine-style monastic community located in Toronto, Ontario.
The Sisters are an open community, welcoming people to join them for their chapel services, occurring four times daily, typically followed by a silent meal. They run a Guest House ministry, providing a quiet place for a variety of individual and group retreats. Some Sisters also provide spiritual care to the patients at St. John’s Rehabilitation Hospital next door to the convent.
“Why,” you ask? Now that is a great question!
Truth be told, I think I was beckoned to the convent by a God who called a timeout on my somewhat floundering efforts to do life.
God was like, “Yo, Sarah…” and there was a bunch more, but I had some trouble hearing it. I did manage to catch the gesture toward SSJD when I found myself pensively gazing, back and forth, between two things: a feeling of “You are not returning to CMU next fall” in one hand, and the emptiness of the other hand.
Seated in the ambient sanctuary of St. Benedict’s Table’s evening service, the list of songs and announcements found its way into that empty hand, and I came across an advertisement from SSJD, calling young women to join them for a year. I sat holding those two things in my hands for the next two weeks, though the setting changed sometimes. Cue the cataclysmic word: Yes.
As for what I learned, in Mere Christianity C. S. Lewis offers a perspective on what it is like to let God into one’s life, where the life is the house and God the renovator:
At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of.”
So I guess I learned pretty quickly that there was a lot more on God’s agenda than on mine.
I learned a lot about how prayer is not just a thing one does but a way one lives. I thought, “oh la dee da, I will just go there and learn how to pray more regularly”. God responded, “Your whole life is a prayer. Come; let me show you how to be attentive to that reality.” Stepping into contemplative prayer has been like coming home to myself—the way God intended me to be, on my own, in prayer, and in relation to others.
Through simply living the lifestyle of the Sisters, I also learned things about self-compassion, time-management, self-discipline, and the healing mystery of having structure. I developed a better sense of what a balanced life of prayer, work, leisure, and rest feels like—now I just have to remember to apply it.
There was also the healing experience of living in community, which normalized a lot of the elements of socializing and relationships that used to provoke tremendous anxiety.
Another area of growth and learning was my work as a Spiritual Care Provider at the rehabilitation hospital next door, visiting patients and helping out with the services in the hospital chapel. This experience provided some insights into not only the sort of work I would like to do but might also be good at.
These inchoate learnings are some of the things I will be taking back into my life as a student at CMU and into the community I will be living in this next year.