I make another visit to the Surrey-Hampshire border and to the Sisters of Our Lady, Star of the Sea. An estate agent in the village of Grayshott would probably describe the convent as “A former presbytery built in the early 20th C with adjoining integral church set in attractive grounds with extensive views over the churchyard.” The beautiful church still hosts a Sunday Mass but the Sisters are the community living and praying there daily. The occasion for this trip is a Mass of Thanksgiving for the solemn profession of one of the Sisters.
The members of this newly established international order live in small communities practising a life of contemplative prayer and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Though immersed in silence and prayer, the Sisters do manual work and engage in crafts such as pottery to support themselves financially. They balance all this with involvement in evangelisation, especially of the young.
There is a youthful vitality and joy about them which is deeply striking, something more substantial than a friendly manner – because, paradoxically, it is revealed when they are least attempting to engage socially. They share that intangible quality contemplatives possess which I can only describe as integrity.
It derives from the discipline of trying to live for someone else: for the Lord. Those who draw closer to him also draw closer to the self, because he made and is redeeming us. This means that the Sisters’ personalities are revealed not just in the ways in which we imagine one comes to know another – for example, at the party they host after the Mass and thanksgiving – but in everything they do: the way they walk into church, the attitude of their bodies when they pray, the way they sing, the quality of their smiles, their voices, the way they listen to their guests. They are fully present because they are forgetful of self.
They wear full-length grey habits and white veils. This reveals the same paradox. The world imagines that to be ourselves we must express our individuality through the way we dress and style ourselves. As I see the Sisters in their habits, I am struck by how shallow such a conception of identity that is. Set against the uniformity of the habit, each Sister’s personality emerges more clearly precisely because it has not been reduced to a conscious projection of one aspect of it.
In his homily, Bishop Philip Egan provides a metaphor relevant to this paradox.
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