August 20, 2012

Going Deep with the Carmelite Sisters in Christoval, Texas

Sister Mary Theodore Therese

At first glance, Sister Mary Theodore Therese is ageless. Small, wire-framed glasses sit on her nose. Her smooth face is cut in half by fierce cheekbones. Only the cropped gray curls that peek out from under her black habit hint at her 60 years. Sister Mary Theodore Therese came to her faith early, seeing flashes at age 7 of God calling during a service by evangelist Billy Graham. Throughout her life, following that faith remained her only constant during her frequent changes in cities and careers. By 54, a pattern of “faith, action, faith, action,” brought her to the Our Lady of Grace Carmelite Monastery in Christoval, where she immediately inquired about their cemetery plot, knowing that “this was the place I was going to spend the rest of my life.”

“You can love God in the world, too; I just do better at it in here,” she says. “I tried it out there and it’s wonderful, but it wasn’t enough. … I needed to give my whole being to it.”

As a cloistered nun, Sister Mary Theodore Therese’s life is scheduled; she carries a stopwatch within the folds of her gown. She prays seven times a day, with the first prayer at 5 a.m. when the sky is still spangled with stars. It is only during group prayer that her voice blends in song with the other sisters, echoing inside the church.

“It hasn’t been easy,” she says. “There have been times when I felt that this is just too hard.” The biggest challenge about living in a monastery, she says, was learning how to live in community with the four other sisters. “Here you go deep, not just in prayer, you go deep in relationships,” she says. “Because if you’re going to sustain being here with a small community of people, you can imagine nuclear explosions, right?” Sister Mary Theodore Therese mimics the sound of an explosion, her hands breaking open an imaginary mushroom cloud. She repeats the sound, over and over and over again. Her laughter is uninhibited and shakes her shoulders.

This is the side of Sister Mary Theodore that surprises, that busts myths about cloistered nuns. “The things that impressed me the most about these women is that they were powerful women who had powerful ideas,” she says. “They talked on top of each other and they didn’t mind, they just kept going, and I thought, these women know who they are.”

To an outsider, the five sisters seem to balance one another. While Sister Mary Theodore Therese is energetic and heart-achingly sincere, Sister Maria Teresa Borden, the youngest, seems introspective. Sister Maria Teresa is also a rare exception to the trend of women declining religious life. At 27, she joined the Carmelite monastery after two tours of duty in Iraq, where she served in the armed forces as military police.

“Death was everywhere. Terrorists were running rampant in the streets of Baghdad,” she says. “When I redeployed, I hit rock bottom. Physically and emotionally, I became an angry person,” Sister Maria Teresa says. “I sat down one night and said, … ‘Jesus and Mary, if you really love me, take this anger from me.’ In 15 minutes, I started to feel at peace.”

The power of prayer is a central belief among all of the sisters, and one they say keeps them relevant in the world outside the monastery. Proof? Sister Mary Theodore Therese jokes: “Well, we could do this two ways. First, we could have you call all the people who call us all the time requesting our prayers and then call back and thank us. They’re evidence of the power of prayer.” And then, after her shoulders stop shaking, she becomes contemplative. “The world is in each one of the sisters that’s here. … We’re representatives of the world in the church. So we can pray for everybody,” she says. “And that’s really important for me to know that, somehow, this is how I’m making a difference.”

The Austin American-Statesman

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