5 Things I’ve Learned About Holiness In the Convent

5 Things I’ve Learned About Holiness In the Convent May 1, 2015
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When I entered the convent I had a pretty self-confident, completely unsophisticated idea of what holiness would look like. I expected to be able to identify the holiest sisters because they would have a retinue following them, hanging on their every word and helping them with daily tasks.

Hey, that is what Padre Pio pretty much had right?!

I was expecting holiness to have clear outward markers. I thought I would be able to identify the “holiest” of sisters immediately. It didn’t really work out that way. I began to learn from my sisters about real holiness, the kind of holiness that is hidden, disguised, confusing, and sometimes, well strange.

Here are some things I have learned about holiness from my sisters:

1. Holiness is Eccentric: Holy people are different. My sisters’ personalities are really developed. It reminds me of the quote from St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” Well, these women are fully alive. They are uniquely themselves, so much so that it makes me want to become totally myself. Each of my sisters is so different from all of the others because each has been transformed under the loving gaze of God into the unique and beautiful creature he intended when he created.

2. Holiness is Generous: All of my sisters are different and holy in their own way. But the ones who are noticeably holy set themselves apart in one major way: they are generous. They are really, really, silly generous. I have seen sisters stay up all night to care for a sick sister, sisters who drop whatever they are doing to drive someone to an appointment, sisters who give up their plans and their schedules to serve, and perhaps most noticeably sisters who see other people’s flaws and failures with such generosity that it sometimes seems ridiculous. These sisters do not act this way because they are codependent or fake. There is no inner bitterness and resentment building up because they are always doing what others may not even notice. No, these sisters are living in the generosity of our Savior.

A holy nun… (But don’t tell her I said so, she’d give me a good, Italian-style knock on the head.)

3. Holiness is Hidden: I know I just talked about sisters who are “noticeably” holy but holiness is actually pretty hard to pinpoint. Outward conformity to the rules and the traditional expectations of holiness does not always a holy sister make. Sometimes, the sisters I least expect to be really holy are actually quietly living a deep suffering with such grace and kindness that it astounds me. And occasionally our familiarity with each other can cause us to lose sight of the wonder that each of us is in the eyes of God. When I see the admiration of a stranger for one of my sisters, it sometimes helps me to see her holiness through God’s eyes.

4. Holiness is Disguised: For some reason I have found that many holy sisters often struggle with one “thorn in their flesh” that can keep others from seeing their holiness (2 Cor 12:7). It can be a bad temper, loquaciousness, an off-putting personality, a lack of discipline or a tendency to work too much. Whatever it is, this one difficulty in their life can disguise their holiness. It can give others an excuse to write the person off. I know I have done this. But whenever God helps me to see my sisters as he does, I often find that the least likely sisters are really very holy. Sometimes they don’t even know it themselves. But God knows.

5. Holiness is the Perfect Balance of Assertiveness and Charity: I don’t know about you but it’s hard for me to know when it’s time to draw the line with someone.  I have noticed that holy sisters draw boundaries very clearly. You know that they will do anything for you but at the same time you know not to mess with them. They call people on their issues with the most startling tactfulness and care, but they will call you on your issues if it needs to happen.

and a bonus…

Holiness is LOVE: This may sound obvious but the way that I have seen it played out is not so obvious. Holy people make other people feel like they are the center of the universe, not in a obsequious way but in a self-forgetting, non-envious, totally centered on God way (very key!). Holy people see others like God sees them. So, when you walk away from interactions with a person who is holy you often feel like a million bucks. Sometimes normal people experience this radical love from another person and wonder, “What is this person’s agenda? Why are they being so nice?” But over time they come to realize that, like God, this person just loves them and really thinks they are wonderful.

– – – –

Needless to say I have a long way to go on each of these points, but I am glad that I have some pretty awesome role models.

Please add anything else you have noticed about the holy people you know in the comments!

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  • disqus_Kw6FkrnE6a

    Thanks for a very perspicacious post. I just recently started following you and I think I made a good decision.


    I think you may have said this, but the holiest people I know are self-forgetful.

  • Fascinating. You opened a window for me to see something I’d never normally see in my personal life. Thanks.

  • Siwash

    Great column. I’m so actually jealous of those who have the religious call.

    • LW

      don’t be. religious life doesn’t automatically = holiness. God is giving you the opportunities to be holy exactly where you are now!

  • Billiamo

    My life changed permanently when I became friends 30 years ago with a woman who’d recently left a Carmelite convent after a spell as a novice. Her generosity was so matter-of-fact but had so obvious an origin that I decided I wanted it for myself.

  • Sophia Sadek

    I like the part about holiness being disguised. It reminds me of the Pagan stories of the gods appearing as beggars. The sisters who work best with the homeless in our town do not appear to be women of the cloth.

  • Barbgra Jensen

    In your article you do not define what exactly you mean by holiness. The attributes you list that a ‘holy’ person needs to have are only external manifestations. They do not touch the reality of the heart. I always remember what I read in the spiritual classic ‘He and I’ . Jesus told Gabriele that there were some souls who were very prickly on the outside, but who were succulent within. There is an old saying which says, ‘ In Heaven there will be many surprises’. We cannot now know the genuinely holy people, Appearances can be very deceiving. In the Gospel Jesus asked the Pharisees why they called him ‘good’. He explained, ‘One is good, only God.’ We are ‘holy’ in so far as we allow God to reign in us. A truly holy person may not exhibit at all the attributes you list. Only God can know a heart and whether or not He Himself reigns there truly and fully. St. Paul tells us that God sees all men as sinners so that He can redeem them. Jesus praised the sinner who did not go up to the front of the temple to enumerate all the good things that he does for God, but who rather fell on his knees in the back of the temple and asked God to have mercy on Him a sinner. Rather than try to pick out the ‘holy’ nuns in one’s convent, quiet reflection before our Eucharistic God asking Him, ‘Jesus what will you have me do?’ would be a better use of time.

    • pbecke

      ‘ The attributes you list that a ‘holy’ person needs to have are only
      external manifestations. They do not touch the reality of the heart.’

      This is true of pagans; of course, we cannot know each other at the deepest personal level – indeed, to have a pretty good knowledge of ourselves is considered no mean gift. But Sister is clearly speaking here of a more normal interpetation of outward signs that are perfectly instructive. We humans develop a considerable gift for discerning character, as well as an instinct not a million miles from that of a child, indeed, other mammals.

      Of course, a devout Christian will tend to err on the side of gullibility, rather than dismiss someone as a fraudster, trying to take advantage of them, but in the normal life of the averagely sensual person, human beings don’t miss much.

      Jesus said ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart is.’ An example, therefore, of Jesus advising us that a person who covets an opulent life-style and/or high status, is not on the high road to sanctity, is an example of learning about a person’s heart by his actions and attiudes.

      I believe you have misunderstood Sister’s article here, and missed some very intriguing although very credible insights. I loved her eye for the concealed holiness in ostensibly quirky, if low-key and totally unaffected attitudes and behaviours.

    • Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouve

      I agree that only God can see hearts. Yet Jesus also said, “By their fruits you will know them.” I’ve met some people who simply radiated such goodness that I could see God in them. It’s not that Sr Theresa is setting up some kind of judgment stick. I read this as simply her reflections on how God works through different people, drawing us to holiness through union with him.

  • Hank

    Thank you so much, Sister. I especially like the observation that holiness is eccentric, that people’s distinct personalities become very well developed, that they become more and more who they are. God bless.

  • Jack Mattimore, SJ

    Well said, Sister. My experience of holy people I’ve known has been the same as yours. St Ignatius Loyola would agree as well, I’m sure, since he composed a prayer for generosity.

  • SrKhristina Fsp

    I stumbled upon this article yesterday by Fr Raniero Cantalamessa: Holiness is like a sculpture… God looks at us and sees us as shapeless blocks of stone. He then says to himself: “Therein is hidden a new and beautiful creature that waits to come out to the light; more than that, the image of my own son Jesus Christ is hidden there, I want to bring it out!” (Source: http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/father-cantalamessa-on-pruning

  • Tammy Cote

    Hi Sister, I read somewhere that May 5th is thank a nun day. Thank you for taking the time and effort to write and share the blog and book with all your readers.My husband and I enjoy your intelligent and thought provoking blog. THANK YOU!

    • Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble

      Thanks Tammy, that means a lot to me.

  • pbecke

    What a thoughtful article, Sister.

  • Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouve

    This article made me think of Sr Susan Helen (RIP). I think she was really a holy person. Her struggle with rheumatoid arthritis was so amazing. Yet she was so down to earth and funny, and could have choice words at times. She had such a big heart too. She was always so grateful for any little favors I or anyone did for her. Sometimes she would come up to my pew in chapel and drop off a plastic bag with a chocolate bar in it. Yes-in chapel! She put it in a bag so I could take it out unnoticed 🙂

    • Sister-Lucia Richardson

      Your Sister makes me think of one of our (very holy) Sisters, Sr. Caroline. Everyday she swings buy the pantry and stocks the bag on her walker with snacks and heads off to her holy hour in the adoration chapel. Then she hands out the snacks to different people as they leave!

  • Brian_Hall_1900

    Eccentric? Unique but not eccentric as understood by secular definitions. If anything, I find them to be very straightforward and simple, to be really human as we should all be.