By a nun of the Abbey of St. Walburga
“My dearest daughters, the two of you give witness today, in the midst of the darkness of the times, to the truth of the light of Jesus Christ. You are light and salt in the time in which we live.”
These words, spoken by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, were directed at the two newest solemnly professed members of the Abbey of St. Walburga, Virginia Dale, Colorado, during his homily during the Eucharistic Celebration on August 15, 2021, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Sister Maria-Raphaelle Lee, OSB and Sister Fidelis Bartle, OSB, professed their fidelity to Christ as His brides forever, and received rings on their fingers, crowns on their heads, and custom-made monastic robes (cucullas, we call them), to be truly clothed with the splendor befitting spouses of Jesus Christ. Outwardly transformed, to be sure, but how much greater the inner transformation that occurred on that day.
They proclaimed their great “yes” to God, following in the footsteps of Mary.
Archbishop Aquila explained that Mary opened her heart and said “yes” in her fiat, “let it be done to me according to your word,” even though she didn’t fully understand, but she had trust and confidence and she listened to the words of the angel: “For God, nothing is impossible.” Archbishop Aqulia continued, “We know that it’s impossible for you, it’s impossible for me, for any of us, but for God nothing is impossible, and we too say ‘yes,’ knowing that He will come.”
We find ourselves blessed, as Elizabeth pronounced Mary blessed, when we open our hearts to believing that whatever the Lord has promised will in truth be fulfilled.
“Elizabeth affirms the great truth, ‘Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.’ And I encourage you, my sisters and brothers, let those words of confidence penetrate your hearts. We become blessed precisely when we believe that the words spoken to us by Jesus in the Gospel will be fulfilled. And when we pray with the Gospels, we can see the numerous promises that Jesus makes. They are wondrous promises. And even though there may be times of trial, times of suffering, times of challenges, and I assure you there will be, we know that the Lord is with us as He promised. ‘Know that I am with you until the end of time.’ My beloved sisters and daughters, you are called to become saints. And yes, that is possible for every one of you sitting here. You are called to be a saint, if only you open your heart to Jesus Christ as Mary opened her heart, as Elizabeth opened her heart, as those who have gone before us opened their hearts,” the Archbishop eloquently said.
What seemed impossible for Mary—to have a child without relations, and to avoid being stoned to death for having a child out of wedlock—was made possible by God’s grace. What seems impossible today—for someone to vow one’s life to another for a lifetime (especially when a whole community of women also comes lumped into the package of becoming a spouse of Christ)—is also made possible by God’s grace.
Mother Maria-Michael Newe, Abbess of the Abbey of St. Walburga, will tell you that it’s not only possible, but a true joy and delight to be possessed completely by Jesus.
In a speech to her community of nuns on the vigil of Sister Maria-Raphaelle’s and Sister Fidelis’ Profession Day, she said, “May the ring you receive remind you each day that you are espoused forever to Jesus Christ, and stand firm in this community which embraces you and loves you dearly. You now take on the concerns of the heart of your Spouse. Prefer nothing to Him. Stand firm and prefer Him. May you wait each day with the Blessed Mother to hear the words, ‘The bridegroom is coming. Run to meet Him.’ Make sure you’re running for Him; for light will be your steps when you love. And remember that you are loved as you are. You are acceptable as you are. And nothing can take that away. You belong to Him.”
About Sister Maria-Raphaelle and Sister Fidelis
Sister Maria-Raphaelle, daughter of Davin and Janet Lee, grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. She has one sister and four brothers, one of whom is a monk at St. Bernard Abbey in Alabama, and was able to serve as deacon at the Mass on her Profession Day. Previous to Sister Maria-Raphaelle entering the Abbey of St. Waburga in 2013, she was a firefighter and emergency medical technician for a fire department near her hometown. Sister Maria-Raphaelle is the guest dining room manager, in charge of the coifs for our whole community (the part of our monastic habit that goes around our heads, connected to the veil), mowing/yardwork, painting paschal candles, playing the psaltery, helping in the infirmary, and many other unnamed jobs. Her ingenuity and thoughtfulness have contributed greatly to the joy in our community.
Sister Fidelis was raised on “the island,” as she calls it, referring to Vancouver Island, Canada, with her parents John and Marie-Emmanuelle Bartle and five siblings. Sister Fidelis graduated from the University of Vancouver with a degree in art history, and was a technician for ophthalmologists before entering the monastery in August 2013, one month after Sister Maria-Raphaelle. Due to travel restrictions, her Canadian family members attended her Profession Day Mass via live-stream video, which they had projected into their TV at home. Among her responsibilities at the abbey are gardening, cooking, cleaning, playing the organ and harp, painting, and sewing, to name a few. Her creativity, kindness, and gift of music are an enormous blessing for all who know her.
Q&A with Sister Maria-Raphaelle and Sister Fidelis
Q: What is your vocation story, in a nutshell?
SMR: I promised to live for God when I was 14, and as I got older I developed some plans about how I would like to live this as wildly, ruggedly, and adventurously as possible. I joined a local fire department and became an emergency medical technician. I loved it, but more and more I felt I was only helping the surface injuries of people in need of tremendous spiritual healing. I also felt the voice of God in my heart telling me “You have not yet given yourself completely.” I started to actively discern religious life. I did not know much about Benedictine spirituality then, but I felt drawn to this Abbey by the spirit of obedience, intercession, and intent focus on seeking God in everything. I entered at 21 in 2013. I suppose now my “vocation story” begins in earnest!
SF: I knew of Benedictines growing up, and was very inspired by my parish priest’s deep love for Christ, His Mother and His Church. It was not until I was 26 that I felt a sudden desire for holiness. I came for a live-in at the Abbey, and this line from Psalm 81 struck me: “A voice I did not know said to me: ‘I freed your shoulder from the burden.’” I wanted to know that Voice, and He led me here. The story is on-going.
Q: How did your life at home prepare you for monastic life?
SMR: In too many ways to easily sum up. We tried to do a lot together, including Mass and prayers…good preparation for monastic community. Though [my family is] not demonstrative, fraternal/parental love was strong. We read a lot of saints’ lives. Pleasing God was very important to my parents, and they passed that on to us. They tried to give a good example of integrity and living the faith.
SF: I had a very stable, loving family life, growing up on a small fruit farm, and that taught me a love of place and responsibility, and the rhythm of work and prayer. My grandparents, parents, siblings, and eventually their spouses and children formed a small community of faithful love. This was perfect preparation for my monastic life.
Q: What is one thing you have learned about prayer so far during your time as a contemplative nun?
SMR: The Lord prefers to be addressed with honesty and love, to speak face to face as one friend to another, in the midst of all your concerns and the messy things in life. If you just say it like it is and entrust it to Him in love, He will work marvels with that sort of prayer. It doesn’t take away from reverence: Even if you think you’ve prayed poorly, it changes your life, because when you realize your frailty, you are ready to behold His power.
SF: It has become more and more a conversation that can happen all the time; it is welcoming Christ into our hearts, our past, present, and future, so that He may show us the Father and heal us through the Spirit.
Q: Do you have any “Lectio Divina” tips that might be helpful for others?
SMR: I have nearly every lectio word I’ve received since the first week of my monastic life in a journal. A journal can be helpful if the user suffers from spiritual dementia: kind of like the Israelites using stone tablets for the 10 Commandments. It helps remind you the Word of God addressed to you is precious, and not to be flippant about it. But lectio journals have their pitfalls too, and aren’t for everyone.
SF: I often catch myself searching for the “right word,” in Scripture, as if it depended on me and my “talent” for Lectio Divina. However, if I’m honest about going back to the first tiny whisper of a surprising or at first even unappealing word, and take time with it, I know I have found God’s word for me and I become open to His teaching.
Q: What are your favorite hobbies?
SMR: Craft projects, amateur painting/sculpting, and being in nature.
SF: Growing in the garden, either plants or myself; music, listening to birds.
What advice do you have for someone discerning a religious vocation?
SMR: If you give yourself wholeheartedly to God, you won’t regret it. Don’t be afraid to give God everything. It’s hard to be open sometimes, but keep trying because you don’t have to be perfect already for God to be able to work with you. If you’re trying to be open, trust Him; He can work with that.
SF: Don’t wait for a “sign” – take the first step as an act of trust in God, then let Him guide you. I waited for years until I realized God was waiting for me, too. It is the most exciting thing to take that step – like walking on water.
Q: What was going through your mind on your Profession Day?
SMR: Well, I was trying to keep my mind on Him. I don’t recall many profound thoughts. Sister Fidelis?
SF: Hodie! This is the day that the Lord has made!
Q: What was the most memorable part of your Profession Day?
SMR: Signing my card and kissing the altar, and especially, receiving the ring with the words “you are betrothed to Jesus Christ.”
SF: Kissing the altar after signing my Profession card on it – this truly felt like joining Christ in His total self-offering to the Father.