Ask Amanda Avery about the eight months she recently spent in a convent, and a lot of adjectives tumble forth. “Boring” isn’t one of them.
“Absolutely amazing. Wonderful. Stressful. Anxious. Any emotion you can think of, I’m sure I experienced it—and then some,” she says.
Avery, a children’s program director and part-time MDiv student from Halifax, lived at the North Toronto convent of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine (SSJD), an Anglican religious order, from September 2016 to April 2017.
She was one of the first-ever participants in the sisterhood’s Companions on the Way program, which launched last year. Intended to give young women a taste of the monastic life, the 11-month program allows a small number of women to work, study and pray at the convent. (Of the five who began the program this year, two stayed until the end. Avery had to leave the program early to take care of pressing family matters.)
Though to many people the idea of monastic life might conjure up peace and tranquility, Avery says, she herself found it an emotional rollercoaster. It wasn’t always easy, especially at first. Getting used to being away from family and friends was difficult, she says.
A big source of anxiety—but also very rewarding—was learning to slow down and be mindful, or intentional, about what she was doing.
“So much of the time we just kind of ‘do’—we don’t think about it,” she says. “Being there has taught me to slow down even now and think about what I want to say and do.”
Living at the convent, she says, also taught her “a new way of hearing and seeing God.” Before the program, Avery says, she experienced God through music and her fellow parishioners, and the excitement of doing things with people. At the convent—during the two hours of prayer with which participants would start every day, for example—she learned to simply “sit with the Holy One,” she says.
“The old adage, ‘Be still and know that I am God,’ really spoke to me there, because once I learned how to be still and be quiet, then—you hear God in a whole new way, I guess. I did, anyway. So yes, it was really amazing.”
Once she got accustomed to the different rhythm of life at the convent, Avery says, she was loving every moment of it, and is still trying to find ways to bring the quietness and stillness of convent life back to her life in the world.
Another companion, Sarah Moesker, a student at Canadian Mennonite University, says she found adapting to the communal life of the convent challenging and rewarding at the same time. “I had no idea what I was doing, and so learned several things about healthy boundaries, interaction generally, and a great many things about my own needs in relation to others,” she says.
“I absolutely loved living a prayerful, contemplative life with others,” she adds. “It was good to pray together and share silences. I will miss that most of all.”
Moesker says she realized at the convent how much she had been in need of “substantial” prayer—substantial, she says, in terms of both quantity and quality—in her daily life. Some of the forms of prayer she learned there, she says, reminded her of ways of praying she had practiced spontaneously when she was younger, but had later abandoned. “Re-implementing them made prayer much more of a joy,” she says.
She found the fullness and strictness of the daily rhythm at the convent challenging, although it was exactly what she needed at the time, Moesker says.
Christine Stoll, a teaching assistant at a B.C. college, says she found the experience healing. “When I left the convent, I had very much the sense that I had grown (this is not something I noticed while I was at the convent),” she says in an email interview. “In a way, I feel like I have found a larger freedom within me.”
Living at the convent, she says, made her want to live her life according to a different rhythm from the past. She wants to continue keeping regular contemplative time in the mornings, a form of night prayer and a silent retreat day once a month. It has also, she says, given her a longing for community.
Stoll says she is continuing to discover other ways the experience changed her.
Canon Sr. Constance Joanna Gefvert, who co-ordinates the Companions program, says its first year appears to have been a success; the participants seemed to meet many of the goals they set for themselves—and the sisters enjoyed having them in their company, she adds.
“They were a breath of fresh air for us, in the sense that they were younger than any of us and had different perspectives, different energy,” she says.
The sisters accepted one applicant to the program for the coming year, and have decided to temporarily roll the Companions program into a similar one, the Alongsiders program, which is for women of all ages. They plan to continue offering Companions next year, she says, and will use the current year to publicize it and possibly adjust it with a somewhat less rigorous schedule. It sometimes seemed as though the young women who took the program this year found they needed more time to process the things they were experiencing, Gefvert says.
“I think they all found it a little exhausting, and one of our goals as sisters is to help them achieve a good rhythm of life, a good balanced life,” she says.