Sacred space in an empty place

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

First Christmas at the convent reveals a lesson in hope in a makeshift chapel
Cholewinski Elise Sr 2016-400px

My favorite theology teacher once told our class that every time we read or hear the Gospel we should ask ourselves two questions:

  1. What in this passage disturbs me?
  2. What gives me hope?

It is disturbing that there was no room for Jesus the night of his birth in Bethlehem. Someone finding a place for him gives us all hope.

This Christmas, as the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross conclude a year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of their beginning as a religious community, I can’t help reflecting on my first Christmas in the convent. As the season approached that year I was feeling very disappointed. Our convent chapel was undergoing a renovation, and it became clear that the project would not be finished by December 25. Our large community room had been made into a makeshift chapel. Rows of folded chairs took up one-third of the room. When it was time for Mass or community prayer, the doors to the small television room were opened, and we sat before the altar and tabernacle. As we entered into the fourth week of Advent we were told that the TV room was much too small for Christmas trees or the Nativity Scene.

I remember so well that morning of December 24, 1964, when I sat in our “chapel” meditating on the sacred story and focusing on the innkeeper. I kept asking myself if he really knew what was really going on that day. By that time a scrawny tree had appeared next to the altar. In the evening, when we gathered to pray Vespers, there was a manger with the Christ Child in front of that tree. That was it – no statues, no lights, no additional decorations. But something lit up inside of me. To be with a community of Sisters, each one having committed her life to God, to be praying and singing with them in the context of the story of the Incarnation, touched me very deeply. It far exceeded my expectations of Christmas in the convent. I was becoming aware of what was really going on within me.

A couple of days after Christmas our parents came to visit us. My father took me aside and told me that he thought I would never be able to be away from home for Christmas, but now that I had done it, he thought I would stay in the convent. He was right; I was home. That empty place in the building had opened a space in my heart.