Darien, Conn. — There are six sisters of the Order of the Most Holy Savior in the United States, and not one of them was born in the United States. Also known as the Sisters of St. Bridget, or the Bridgettines, the six hail from India and Mexico, with some time spent time at the motherhouse in Rome. The order, founded by Saint Bridget of Sweden, a patroness of Europe, was almost lost to history during the Reformation. In 1911, Maria Elizabeth Hesselblad, recently canonized a saint by Pope Francis, reestablished the order of women religious. Their most obvious distinguishing characteristic is the crown that tops the veils of these brides of Christ. It is marked by five red dots, signifying the wounds of Jesus on the cross.
Welcome is a big part the Bridgettine life, with more than 50 guesthouses in a number of countries of the world. Their semi-cloistered lives (some communities are more active, teaching and doing other work that takes them beyond the convent grounds) are centered around prayer, reparation, and hospitality. More than cheap stays in Rome, or wherever a given guesthouse may be, their homes are invitations to peace and quiet, to silence and prayer, to a participation in that which they have dedicated their lives to.
I first encountered the Bridgettines not in Darien, an hour’s Metro-North ride from Grand Central Station in Manhattan, but in Assisi. And if there were more Bridgettine houses around the U.S., they’d keep me off Hotel Tonight in perpetuity, or at least whenever my travel days for speaking and reporting end.
Perhaps the house takes on a little bit of the character of where they find themselves planted. In Assisi I was struck by what a woman of peace their mother superior there is, Sister Marcellina. “When the people come here, I want them to sense the presence of God in the life of prayer and sacrifice,” she tells me. But it’s more than that. You can see in her bones, as it were, a peace that surpasses all understanding. And when evil things happen — of the kind we see at baseball practices where a congressman is shot and during terrorist attacks and the like — you see how their hearts are pierced by the news. And so they are here, welcoming, as a counter-witness to the madness.
In Darien, I’m struck, too, by the hospitality. The welcome. Not far away, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is wont to say: “I spend most of my time saying thank you and welcome.” In big cities perhaps especially, and in New York in a heightened way, people need gratitude and a home. In Darien, it’s almost as if these walls have absorbed the burdened busyness of life outside and it is transformed here. It’s all seen in a different light, becoming a lighter load, because it can be seen in a longer-term — eternal, maybe — perspective. You look up here at the sky at all the various moments of the day and sleep in a heavenly peace on the Long Island Sound. You can listen here — whether it is to the bird providing background music as I type this column or the voice of God in the silence between morning and midday and evening prayer.
On a recent day, a group of homeschool girls were visiting, asking the sisters questions about their lives. Before cupcakes, one asked how they knew they wanted this life for themselves. Everyone had a different story about her first encounter to the vocational call to religious life. One of the sisters, from Mexico, said that when she realized that Jesus had died for her, she felt this deep desire to give her life back to Him. (She came to this life closer to 30. For others among them came to it much earlier, entering at 18.)
If there were more Bridgettine houses around the U.S., they’d keep me off Hotel Tonight in perpetuity, or at least whenever my travel days for speaking and reporting end.
As we approach Independence Day, I couldn’t think of a better — albeit, these days, unconventional — snapshot of freedom. She saw this great wonder and had to respond with her free will in total love. That’s been called “the law of the gift.” It’s also good stewardship. It’s the ultimate exercise of liberty — free will — and in a way it’s so perfectly American when you consider the gift of freedom both given in exchange back to God for life itself and shared with others — with everyone they pray for, in addition to anyone who cares to stay a night or two for peace and closeness and the ability to listen to God with few distractions. That is, they share their gift with you and me and the rest of the troubled world. Thanks be to God. That gives me hope for peace and solicitude even in these challenging times.
The Church is a place that provides all kinds of services. At these Bridgettine houses, there’s no mistaking the reason. A Divine person who loves his creation and wants to draw us back to Him. All are welcome. The more disquieted they are and the more desiring of silence, the more urgent is their welcome.
As the girls visit, a newborn sleeps peacefully in his mother’s arms. Which is one way of capturing some of the welcome here, too, as people are renewed for the ongoing mission of life, where people need us full of love and bold courage now, it seems, more than ever. Or at least, now is the time for all of us to use our freedom for good, in the face of evil and confusion and despair. Welcoming people to something better than watching the spectacle around us.