While in high school, I held an “alto” position in Special Chorus. Though I thoroughly enjoyed singing and the exposure to pieces I’d never otherwise have learned, it was our director’s demeanor that entertained me most. Sister Syra was a loud and somewhat eccentric proponent of all things music. Though she sometimes put off my classmates with her grandiose approach to everything we did, Sister Syra touched my heart. I was completely taken in by Sister’s deep affection for the cloistered sisters who occupied a monastery just north of the city.
Though I was unsure of how Sister’s relationship with the Discalced Carmelite Sisters began, I was quite certain that Sister Syra held them in great esteem. This became evident every six weeks or so when Sister Syra interrupted Special Chorus rehearsal long enough to pass an old coffee mug among us. As the mug moved from student to student, Sister strongly “encouraged” us to part with a portion of our lunch money or other disposable funds. Sister explained that the good Carmelite Sisters spent their lives in prayer for us and for the whole world. The sisters nourished themselves with an austere diet. Sister Syra went on to share that only on special feast days did the Carmelite Sisters deviate from their simple meals to celebrate with foods that the rest of us take for granted. “On Alleluia Days they get to have a little something special,” Sister Syra said. “I’m going to use all the money I collect to buy them a couple of half-baked pizzas. They’ll take them out of the freezer and bake them up for an Alleluia Dinner.” By the end of each appeal, Sister Syra convinced us that supplying the good sisters a special treat was indeed our privilege. As a result, Sister always secured enough money to by more than a couple of pizzas for her Carmelite friends. Afterward, Sister always made a second request: “Do any of you girls have a boyfriend with a car who wouldn’t mind helping me deliver these pizzas?”
It was senior year, and I happened to be dating a boy with a car, so I offered his services to Sister. After school a few days later, we picked up Sister Syra and headed off to the pizzeria where a stack of twelve half-baked pizzas and other freezable goodies awaited us. By the time we arrived at the monastery, I’d learned that one of the Carmelites was a childhood friend for whom Sister Syra had the greatest respect. I also learned that my companion and I would be allowed to carry our Alleluia Food into the vestibule. Only Sister Syra would be able to see the Carmelites whose cloistered home was off limits to lay people. After bringing everything in, my boyfriend went to park the car and I was directed to a bench where I could wait for Sister Syra to emerge from the cloister.
I admit that I was terribly disappointed at not being able to meet any of the Carmelites. Since I have three aunts who are sisters, I guess I thought I was somehow qualified to make their acquaintance. Apparently, Sister Syra’s Carmelite buddy didn’t realize that I was in such close proximity. When she buzzed the door to allow Sister Syra in, I saw the good sister standing in all of her glory. She wore the same habit that St. Therese of Lisieux wears in her photographs, holy cards and statues. I couldn’t move as I was taken aback by both the lovely image before me and the certainty that I’d committed an unforgivable wrong by inadvertently peering into the cloister. Fortunately for me, this dear Carmelite Sister recognized my distress. Before she closed the door to visit with Sister Syra, she offered me the most comforting and beautiful smile which remains with me today. As I moved toward the bench where I’d wait for Sister Syra, I prayed that this kind sister would thoroughly enjoy her pizza on the next Alleluia Day.
I share my monastery adventure with you because when Jesus became transfigured before Peter, James and John, he offered them an amazing glimpse into his true identity. Though the disciples came to know Jesus through his teaching and his work among the people, that day became an Alleluia Day when they caught a glimpse of his true identity. This Feast of the Transfiguration is an Alleluia Day for you and me as well. While the disciples witnessed Jesus’ glory for only a few moments, you and I witness that glory forever in the promise of eternal life that comes with Easter.
©2011 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved