This Easter season is the first that Ane Kirstine Wynn has spent, as she hopes to spend her life, at St. Joseph’s Monastery in Whitesville. It is a life she describes “at the foot of the Cross with Mary, the Sorrowful Mother, an oblation of love poured out at the fountainhead of mercy, united with the precious blood flowing from His most sacred wounds.”
Since early January, when Wynn began her postulancy with the Passionist nuns at the monastery, she and Herald-Leader reporter Amy Wilson have been regularly corresponding by e-mail. The conversations were sanctioned by Mother Superior Catherine Marie for this story. The order is otherwise an enclosed and largely silent order devoted to prayer and contemplation.
WHITESVILLE — Ane Kirstine Wynn once asked a friend in her seventh grade math class if she believed in God.
No, the 12-year-old friend said, then slightly changed her answer. "Only when I'm depressed."
The two girls laughed, Ane Kirstine agreeing with her. Then they went back to the assignment at hand.
The next summer, the Wynn family moved — not uncommon for an Army family — and began attending a Lutheran church in Winchester, Va.
Ane Kirstine, 25, remembers walking in that first Sunday, singing the first hymn and "being struck by a sense that here is something truer than anything I've ever encountered before. God is here."
Ane Kirstine was raised Lutheran but became a Catholic on Dec. 13, 2003.
In January, Ane Kirstine moved to her tenth — and she prays, her final — earthly home: St. Joseph's Monastery, a 170-acre clearing just off a rural road in a town of fewer than 600 outside of Owensboro, where she lives the cloistered contemplative life of a Passionist nun.
This is not a life her family would have chosen for her.
But neither is it a life that she chose without doubt and pain and an intense and overwhelming joy.
Mother Superior Marie Catherine is welcoming. Her face shines. Her smile, beatific.
It's 5:15 a.m. at St. Joseph's Monastery and Ane Kirstine is explaining her love for God and how she is trying not to continue to wound her parents.
"They worry that I am wasting my life," she says. "In the end I have to trust what He is asking me to do."
"God's gifts," says the Mother Superior, "are God speaking His will. The religious life is a gift from Him to you. The price tag is about bucking against the odds. Every one of the sisters walks that path."
"Do you give everything?" asks Ane Kirstine. "Yes, but you receive everything. In a sense, that can't be expressed. It's easy because it is easy. It's a love story."
At 25, she is in as deep as any woman has ever been, pursuing Him as she must, she says, to the ends of the earth, if He wills.
Now it is her face that shines. Her smile that changes the light in the room.
"I am running after God. The choice is easy."
Ane Kirstine attended St. Olaf College in Minnesota, a liberal arts college run by the Lutheran church. There, her friends "hailed from every walk of Christianity and agnosticism, but we loved to sit around and banter about religion in the evenings."
It was during her freshman year that she found herself "siding" with the Catholics in debates. In January 2002, she began to pray the Rosary. By spring 2003, she was thinking of converting.
"At some point," she says in an e-mail, "it occurred to me: I'm going to become Catholic. Catholics have nuns. I could be a nun. That box had emerged from the back of my mind and I enthusiastically searched the Internet for orders of nuns that looked good. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing, and after a few weeks I decided I had better focus on the more pressing issues of 'Who is God?' and 'Where do I belong in His Church?'"
In the summer of 2003, Ane Kirstine says she told her parents of her decision to become a Catholic. She recalls the conversation ending with them saying that was fine, "but if you decide you want to become a nun, we'll have to have a very serious talk."
By August 2004, Ane Kirstine says she knew "I couldn't keep running away from His invitations into a deeper intimacy with Him. There was an evening, right before I returned to Minnesota for my junior year, that I prostrated myself before the image of my crucified Lord which hung on my wall, promising Him that I would consecrate myself. I didn't know what they meant. I knew I had to find out."
By that Thanksgiving, she knew she had to tell her parents more. She wrote it out so she would not forget anything when she spoke.
"I'm not sure that either of them heard much beyond, 'I am thinking about entering a convent.' It was a tough evening for all of us, I think," Ane Kirstine writes.
She said her family had a hard time understanding the idea of consecrating one's life to God alone and thought she was "throwing away" her life. "Their pain comes from their great love for me, and that evening their pain began to be mine, as well, as it began to hit home what a rift this decision might end up causing between my loved ones and myself."
"I don't think I had ever cried like that in my life," she writes.
Her sister, Whitney, scooped her up that night and has been a constant source of support ever since.
During her two years at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where she earned a master's degree in Catholic Studies, Ane Kirstine lived in a "women's discernment household" run by the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, living with women also considering entering a convent, experiencing three-times-daily prayer in their own chapel, working for the Archdiocese and a local seminary. She spent six months in Rome and even went on a "nun run," a blazing 10 days-10 convent tour of American monasteries that would welcome novitiates.
She had never heard of the Passionists before she arrived in Whitesville in the middle of the trip.
Ane Kirstine has kept a blog in which she has told of her personal journey.
In March 2007, she wrote in her blog: "I think I'm going to join this community. Like, seriously. When Mother spoke to us about the Passionist charism, my heart just started burning in me, because it was like she was describing myself to me! My spirituality, my understanding of God and prayer and my place in the world, every little thing she said resonated exactly with my own heart. They take five vows: poverty, chastity, obedience, enclosure and dedication to Christ's passion, death, and resurrection. They have a striking joy and vivacity that stems from contemplating the lifeblood of Jesus, poured out in love for the world."
There was fear and doubt.
At the beginning, the fears were mostly of the unknown, according to her e-mails. She was new to Catholicism, and "not much more seasoned in the spiritual life, and so the process of letting go of my own plans and letting God lead the way was really difficult," she recalled.
She acknowledges there have been moments she's said, "No, I can't do it," or, "I'm definitely not called to be a nun."
The latter was mostly at the beginning, she writes. And that was mostly her trying to "run away and hide from the bricks God was lobbing at me to get me to pay attention to His call."
Ane Kirstine says it's "daunting" to think about giving up a career in academia, the joys of marriage and children, the freedom to choose where and when and how she does things and also the prospect of seven-hours-a-day prayer. But "I am discovering that this is where the spiritual life truly begins: when we realize that of ourselves, we can't do it, and that we must allow God to enter and do it in us."
It was the dark cold night of Jan. 4, 2010 when Ane Kirstine arrived at St. Joseph's Monastery in Whitesville. She came dressed in brown snow boots and a plaid skirt. The next day, Ane Kirstine and the two dozen nuns celebrated the feast of the Passionist Saint Charles of Saint Andrew.
Now, the convent's only novitiate rises every morning at 5:30 for a half-hour of private prayer. At 6:15, there are morning prayers, part of a daily liturgy of the hours, a beautiful sung service of psalms, canticles and intercessions. At 7, there is a Holy Mass, followed by a 7:30 midmorning prayer, then breakfast. At 8:45, she has class, then work. At noon, there is a midday prayer, a meal, followed by dishes and an optional period of recreation. At 1:25 p.m., there is silence time where everyone may do as they please as long as they do so quietly. At 2:45 p.m., there is midafternoon prayer, followed by Offerings of the Precious Blood and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. At 3:15 p.m., another study period. At 4, she has novitiate recreation, then novitiate rosary prayers. At 5, the evening prayers and Eucharistic adoration until 6:25. At 6:30 p.m., there is supper, dishes and recreation. At 8, Office of Readings and night prayer. Great Silence begins at 9 p.m. and continues until 6 a.m. the following morning. Lights are out at 9:30 p.m.
The nuns get a daily newspaper and weekly world-news synopsis. Ane Kirstine says it's her "job description" to keep abreast of the news so that the community can pray for divine intercession.
Ane Kirstine says she certainly misses her friends and family. She has managed to keep relationships, though she says "they are just changing shape a little." She can write her parents every two weeks, her sister once a month and her friends at Christmas and Easter. She can receive mail any time.
She can also telephone home once a month "although through the gift of prayer," says Ane Kirstine, "we are closer than ever — for prayer knows no physical boundaries or distances."
There were other adjustments to be made. Ane Kirstine has no clothes to call her own now. Clothes are hung in a common closet and shared. She confesses that she will likely miss wearing colors. She has plenty of years to adjust to her new life. She has nine, in fact, before she will take final, permanent vows.
Once, before she entered the convent, when she was still trying to consider what order to join, she set down on paper her blueprint for a perfect order, created by her, for her. It included a lot of what she found in the Passionists.
But she added, it would be nice if they also made chocolate and fought crime.
"One of the most beautiful — and most challenging — facets of convent life, at least that I have noticed," she writes, "is its ability to foster a simplicity of heart. Nearly every time I speak with a sister who has lived her vocation for many years, I am struck by how unified her love is, indeed, how wholly she is God's. She has become simple, not so much in her mind or actions — for nuns have sharp wits and manifold pursuits, just like the rest of us! — but certainly in her being and in her heart.
"You see, the very life and rhythm of the convent is ordered toward inward and outward simplicity. Every word and action there is deliberate and meaningful, and the silence fosters an awareness of self as does no other place that I've encountered. One realizes very quickly, in such an environment so singly pointed toward God, one's own dividedness.
"I yearn to be undivided. I yearn to be perfectly ordered toward God who is Love, so that I can have the freedom to love everyone even more than I already do but without feeling torn and pulled in opposite directions by my loves. And so I look toward the beginning of my formation with relief, knowing that I am about to enter the purifying fires of love."