Sister Maria Terezinha Bezerra dos Santos, OSB
Self-Discovery in the monastery
I have been asked to give a testimony about my experience of monastic life, but I would prefer to call this a sharing in what the consecrated monastic life means in my human journey, both Christian and spiritual. I am a Benedictine nun of the monastery of Encontro at Mandirituba in the State of Parana in Brazil. I was born at Palmeira dos Indios, Alagoas. I have had fifteen years of monastic life, nine since solemn profession. We know that the Christian life is marked out by words of movement; even if it is lived in a monastery it is a continuous search. As we know, in the Rule of St Benedict the first criterion of discernment of a monastic vocation is to seek God in the divine Office (Rule 58.7). Our first service is to seek God in the divine Office, and on this the whole organisation of our life depends. In discovering this I realised that my work would not be seen or appreciated by many people, that it would not merit any eulogies or praises. At first, I must confess, this was not easy, but in the course of time I came to understand that my service, our service, in the monastery of Encontro, even if it was not as recognised as one might hope, is a grace received. I know that our life of prayer, of intercession for the whole Church and the world, brings fruits, but that it is the Lord who harvests them.
I must in all sincerity say that I never thought of becoming a religious, still less a nun. But God guided my life in such a way that it was impossible to refuse his call. I knew nothing of monastic life, but I had a friend who was a Benedictine monk, and I had been to his monastery at Santa Rosa, on the Rio Grande do Sul, to make a retreat in preparation for entry into a congregation of the apostolic life. When I participated in Vespers with the monks for the first time I don’t know what happened, but it became clear to me that God was calling me to such a life. By the time I left I had decided to enter a monastery, but I did not know where. My friend had given me the addresses of several monasteries, among them Encontro. When I arrived here my first desire was to run away immediately. I thought that there was no place for me here, but nevertheless I stayed for the eight days which had been arranged. At the end of the stay I asked to try it for three months. And I am still here fifteen years later. My acceptance has passed and continues to pass through many purifications. Thanks be to God!
When I entered I thought that in religious life holiness was automatic. I was very turned in on myself, and thought that in the monastery I could life tranquilly in my corner. I must admit that it was not easy for me to accept that monastic life was not just praying and living in my own world. Little by little I discovered that monastic life was just the contrary: continually coming out of myself, meeting with others, whether in prayer or community life or in welcoming those who came to the monastery. The name of the monastery says it all, the Monastery of the Meeting, especially when one considers that Pope Francis insists strongly on the culture of meeting. I can say that I have experienced this several times and in different ways, but I must underline three experiences which I have had and continue to have in living out this mystery of Meeting.
The first was with myself. From the beginning I discovered a Sister Terezinha whom I did not know. This does not mean that she did not exist, but I remained hidden from her under different appearances. I had always lived my feelings and my relationships very superficially, being afraid to expose my weaknesses. I was also afraid that people would be able to discover a Terenzinha capable of shameful thoughts. I did not want anyone to touch my anger, my jealousies, and I did not want to face a Terenzinha who had human and spiritual limitations. In fact I came to face up to my humanity. This meeting was indispensable in my journey of self-acceptance and reconciliation with my own history of salvation. In the monastery I had the experience of finding myself loved for what I discovered myself to be, but without any need to show myself differently. I was able to be myself, with my qualities and my limitations, and this gave me courage to continue my way of conversion.
I experienced the patience of my sisters, even in silence, discovering that they believed in me. That was the second meeting, the meeting with my community. The experience of being accepted and welcomed by my community enabled me to discover how much I needed others who dared to stand up to me and helped me emerge from my comfort-zone. At the same time I discovered in myself gifts that I had not recognised and which I was able to develop. My experience in the community has been a re-birth. Every day I feel that the Lord is creating me anew from the matrix which is my community. He teaches me to begin again. He heals my wounds and shows me his love by people whom I would never have expected to meet. I must learn to create relationships with different people who do not always agree with my views, nor I with theirs, and I must respect them for what they are. This is not an easy road, but the process teaches me to seek the true sense of life and remain in the monastery. With community life I learn more and more that I cannot walk alone and that I need real relationships to live out my consecration as the Lord demands of me. When I realised that I could not live out my consecration within the reserves of my own private world and that I needed to walk with my sisters, often slaying my own will, I discovered what is meant by being consecrated for the Kingdom of heaven, to build up the Kingdom here and now. In living, walking and serving the community I am truly responding to the desire to be faithful to the Lord alone.
The third experience of meeting is with those who come to the monastery. St Benedict says that those who come to the monastery must be welcomed as Christ (Rule 53.1). In practice day by day it is not as easy as that. At first I did not understand why I must welcome those who arrived at inappropriate times. I did not understand why I should leave my work of prayer to go and meet those who came. Little by little I have come to understand that those who came were seeking peace. They wanted to be welcomed, listened to, feel loved and valued as persons. Many of the people who come have everything the world and money can give, but lack the essential. Then I realised that those who come are seeking Him who can satisfy their hunger and fill their void. These people are looking for God, and my way of welcoming them can help towards this encounter. Today I know that every time I welcome someone I can be an instrument of God for that person. God can use us and make use of others, our brothers and sisters, to show his grace and his presence in our lives.
I cannot end this sharing without thanking the whole team of the AIM who, since the beginning of my monastic life, have been present with their help for my initial formation, and have helped by enabling me to share in the school of formators, and most recently in the course for Cistercian monastic formation in Rome. The Lord acts in us by his grace, and I know full well that I must open myself to everything that he offers. So many thanks to the AIM for its devotion in furthering our formation, giving us not only the means but also the tools for living monastic life fruitfully.