by Jane Christmas
What is a woman to do when she gets the itch to change direction; when the direction itself is as mystifying as the reason to change in the first place; and when her only certainty is that during the rare moments when she is still and alone she hears the Little Voice Within whisper, “Psst: Time to move on”?
A few years ago that was me: Hunched in front of the computer one night—a glass of pinot grigio might have been close at hand—I felt as blank as the subject line of the search engine and as impatient as the cursor blinking inside it. Something more was being demanded of my life though I was helpless to articulate it. Classic midlife crisis? Metaphorical brick wall? Instead of typing “little red sports car” into the search engine, I typed “Anglican nuns in Canada”. Seconds later I was trolling the website of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, reading about a program called, fittingly, Women at a Crossroads.
Since 1995, Toronto-based SSJD has been inviting women—regardless of age or stage—to spend a month pondering where God might be calling them, be it to marriage, to start a new business, to retirement, the priesthood, or to explore monastic life with the sisters. The bonus is that it is free, including room and board, thanks to the generosity of SSJD’s donors. Participants contribute through their manual labour, but most also give a donation at the end of the session.
Sr. Elizabeth, SSJD’s novice mistress and curriculum planner of Women at a Crossroads, says the Sisterhood saw the sense of making the program appeal to a wide audience. “Obviously, the hope was that some women would come through the program and join SSJD, but over time we saw that most of the participants just wanted to experience being in community for a month, learning to pray, and learning the tools of discernment.”
One of the first participants, she said, was a newlywed in her 20s who was discerning whether to start a business or have a baby (and ended up doing both). Further along the age spectrum, the program has resonated with women who have lost a spouse either through death or divorce, and several have entered the community proper via Women at a Crossroads.
While an all-expense-paid month in a convent in Toronto’s North York might not be every woman’s ideal summer getaway, for those with big questions and big decisions there is no better place. It is a perfect environment in which to ponder life without the antsy distractions of the secular world. That said, SSJD has WiFi, so the urban zoo is but a click away.
There were nine of us in the Women at a Crossroads program the year I attended: Small groups work best, says Sr. Elizabeth. We came from diverse professional backgrounds—two priests, teacher, student, risk management consultant, NGO administrator, secretary, hospital worker, and a public relations manager—but in the program we were all simply seekers. We spent a month immersed in new ways to pray—from the Ignatian method to creative forms using visual art, poetry, journaling, and a labyrinth—and how to incorporate historic and evolving spiritual practices into hectic modern lifestyles.
We came to appreciate immediately that the sisterhood was not some archaic monastic tradition. Preconceived notions of nuns in black habits and starched white wimples floating serenely along sun-bathed cloisters quickly evaporated, in fact SSJD sisters seldom wear their blue habits. The sisters served as our mentors and instructors, and were disarmingly candid about their past and current lives, and about convent life in general. As if blessed with the gift of knowing each of us intimately the sisters’ discussions could pierce through the layers of our being and resonate with the crux of our concerns.
On a typical day we arose at 6 a.m. in readiness to chant Morning Prayer at 7, the first Office of the day. Meals were taken in silence in the convent refectory. From 9 am until the noon Eucharist we attended class; afternoons were for quiet study followed by a couple of hours of manual labour (dusting library shelves, preparing surplus furniture for a garage sale) until Evening Prayer at 5. Supper and after-meal clean-up left us an hour and a half until Compline at 8:30. By then, we were utterly exhausted and fell easily into bed. It was a strict routine, especially for the more free-range among us, but we understood that discipline and discernment go hand in hand.
By month’s end it was difficult to detach from cloistered life, but we indeed all returned to our regular lives and workplaces. The brain babble that had clouded our thinking had been nicely reined in, but on a more profound level we also felt that something deep within us had been touched and stirred, and that the fog around our individual lives had begun to lift. Several of us returned to SSJD as guests to re-capture that feeling; two eventually entered the community as postulants, and one entered as an alongsider. I myself joined as a lay associate.
“The recent spurt in monastic and intentional communities worldwide indicates a definite and enduring hunger for a simple, God-centred life,” says Sr. Elizabeth. “Our aim in the Crossroads program is help women find ways to draw it into their daily lives.”
Jane Christmas is an associate with the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, and the author of several memoirs: Open House; And Then There Were Nuns: Adventures in a Cloistered Life; The Pelee Project; What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim; and Incontinent on the Continent. This article is published with the author’s permission. A shorter version appeared in Vol. 138 No. 10 December 2012 of Anglican Journal, the national newspaper of the Anglican Church of Canada.