A life of dynamism and difference – Sr. Faustina of the Poor Clares community in Galway.
Sr. Faustina smiles when she describes the “well-meaning presumptions” that many make about the kind of person who might choose the life that she lives in the enclosed order of the Poor Clares in Galway.
“Some assume that I must be a ‘nice quiet girl’”, she says, or they feel that she could be using her gifts to good use out in the world.
In fact, Sr. Faustina is a lively, well-informed woman who sees her role as something different, yes, but no less full of purpose now than before she joined the convent. As someone who took a keen interest in social justice issues like the pro-life cause and the emerging gap between rich and poor, she wanted to change the world and her determination hasn’t diminished since.
Looking back, she can see that the idea of becoming a nun was there from an early age, and she can remember being inspired by the life of St. Therese of Lisieux.
“One teacher read an excerpt daily from the life of St. Therese. I was around the same age at that stage and maybe the ambitious streak was coming out in me too. I reckoned if she could do it, why not me!”
Growing up in Galway, she was familiar with the Poor Clares from childhood too, and can remember being impressed with the idea that the Sisters didn’t leave the convent but were dedicated enough to get up at night to pray.
Even so, life took a different path for Sr. Faustina. After school, she studied for a Bachelor of Arts in Law and French. It seems to have been during her gap year, spent teaching English in Quebec, that her journey towards a different kind of life started to develop in earnest.
“Although nominally a Catholic country, the Catholic culture had all but disappeared,” she says. “I had no choice but to examine my own faith, and I found that religion represented rules and regulations. I had no sense at all of a personal relationship with God.”
“I felt that the world was opening out before me but unconsciously, I began to feel that there was no need for God in my life at all.”
THE CHASE WAS ON
Sr. Faustina pauses to reflect on a poem by Francis Thompson called ‘The Hound of Heaven’. For her, it has always acted as a perfect metaphor for this period in her life because she really experienced the sensation of God in pursuit of her. Whether that meant bumping into inspiring people at Mass or having longer, more meaningful conversations about her faith, she felt a change within. This change led her to seek guidance from a familiar source.
“My mother had always recommended me to pray to Mary, the Mother of Jesus if I needed direction in life. When I felt that I needed help to show me the way forward, I started praying the Rosary hoping for some light. I prayed the Rosary for nine days and after that time, and I can’t explain why, my whole world took on a new colour. Everything looked different, not literally, but my perception of reality was changed dramatically. I suddenly had a strong sense of the nearness of God and my faith suddenly became fully alive.”
As with many people who experience a faith-awakening such as this, Sr. Faustina found that there was something she had to give in return. In her case, she describes it as a need to be ‘open’ to whatever God might ask. Even so, she says she wasn’t exactly elated when the prospect of joining the Poor Clares started to surface!
“I had been blessed with a happy home life and brothers and sisters and I hoped that one day I would get married and have the joy of my own family. I loved socialising and I had a lot of friends.”
This is perhaps the most difficult thing for many people to understand – how does one ‘give up’ the possibility of having a family in order to enter a community?
Sr. Faustina’s answer is one that can only be given by someone who has given the matter a lot of thought, and, one suspects, prayer.
“What I did sense…it was a kind of intuition…was that, beautiful and wholesome as marriage is, it wouldn’t be enough for me. I didn’t read that anywhere. I just knew it.”
A LIFE LESS ORDINARY
She sounds remarkably happy with the choices she has made in life, and that ease is also reflected in the enthusiasm with which she expounds upon the Poor Clares lifestyle, one which alternates periods of work with periods of prayer.
“Our ‘apostolate’ is to be a praying presence at the heart of the Church, and while work is obviously an important part of our day, we try not to compartmentalise our day between the two. As one elderly sister says about leaving work for prayer: ‘We leave God to go to God.’
The lifestyle involves regular meetings to keep up to date on religious life as well as meetings about administrative issues and the other practicalities of living in community. When asked about the best thing about living in a community, Sr. Faustina says there is a real sense of common vision. She likes the idea of not having everything her own way all the time as this helps her to face her complexities and not ignore them. And she makes an interesting point about kindness that surely applies just as much to the members of a public company as an enclosed convent:
“I believe that if I can forgive a sister willingly and wholeheartedly, if something has come up between us, this sends out a ripple effect of goodness into the world.”
One of the most interesting aspects of enclosed life is the idea that it is really is ‘enclosed’. The Poor Clares monastery is an enclosed monastery, which means the Sisters don’t go out apart from special reasons, for example to obtain medical treatment or to attend meetings of the Poor Clare Federation. That being the case, you might get the idea that the Sisters are very cut off from the world. In Sr. Faustina’s view, there is a balancing act to be maintained.
“The technological revolution has posed huge challenges to contemplative life. The whole idea of enclosure is symbolic of the primacy of God, but it is also intended to create a space where there is little or no distraction so that God can do His work in us. As a community we decided that we wouldn’t set up personal email addresses but we have a Facebook page, managed by a friend of ours, that shares news from the Community. Some of us listen to the news headlines on the radio every day so I would say that we are pretty well informed on what happens. It is through letters though, and people calling to the door that we get the real picture of what is going on in people’s lives.”
The monastery in Galway is also very popular for people in the area who call to the door or write with prayer requests and while the monastery is arranged in such a way that the Sisters are clearly living in what Sr. Faustina calls “a space apart”, they are very much part of the city of Galway.
Sr. Faustina strikes you as someone who is completely enthused by the life she leads and the challenges and opportunities it presents. Twenty years on from the day when she made her profession, her commitment to and enjoyment of this way of life remains unbounded. She cites Our Lady as an inspiration in this regard, pointing out that Mary’s ‘yes’ to God was something continual which was repeated every day of her life. She has no doubt but that she is achieving her longed-for life’s purpose in the best possible way.
“St. John of the Cross wrote that one crumb of pure love is worth more than all the apostolic works together…I’m paraphrasing now but it captures the raison d’etre of enclosed contemplative orders. Many sisters in the Community here were involved in hands-on work with the poor, nursing in famine stricken areas and active evangelisation. The conviction that if we give ourselves to God in this way, so much more can be accomplished is the common thread running through all our vocation stories. It is a calling for which I will forever be grateful to God.”
And with that, she takes her leave, having done enough talking and feeling the need to resume (as she puts it), ‘walking the walk’. It’s an appropriate turn of phrase, because one gets the feeling that Sr. Faustina is working on changing the world with every step she takes.