On 29 April in St Dominic’s Parish, Tallaght, Sr. Eileen O’Connell spoke about her Dominican Vocation
Thank you Fr Larry for inviting me. I’m very glad to be here celebrating the Feast of St. Catherine with you. I am also a little nervous so please bear with me.
My name is Eileen. I made temporary profession as a Dominican Sister in February.
Despite always having belief and faith in God, I don’t remember ever wanting to be a sister or a nun. My sense of call came suddenly and to me totally unexpectedly. At the time, I felt it came out of the blue and I was somewhat up scuttled by its urgency.
Looking back, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise to me. It seems as if God had been gently drawing me to this way, long before it entered my awareness.
I had chosen, a Dominican, St. Catherine of Siena, as my confirmation saint. I had visited her tomb on a holiday in Rome. I had unwittingly been in the cathedral in Carcassonne where St. Dominic preached. As a child, we regularly visited St. Mary’s Priory in Cork city for confession because both my mum and her sister loved going to the Dominicans for confession! And, although I was taken aback, it certainly wasn’t surprising news to anyone else!
Before I say more of that, I would like to say a little about me. Sadly, I have no accent, but I am a proud Cork woman! I grew up in the countryside, just a mile from Ballincollig, so I had the best of both worlds – rural surroundings but not isolated. I have only one brother, a little younger than me, but we were lucky to have lots of cousins close to us in age and also living in Ballincollig. I went to the local girls’ National School and then to Ballincollig Community School, both of which had a strong Catholic ethos at that time. Growing up, our parents passed on a strong commitment to God and to the Church. We prayed the Rosary each night as a family and I enjoyed going to Mass and to the Church. Unusually, I suppose in our culture and times, I never lost touch with the Church and I have been blessed that my faith has not left me, nor I it. I have always known God to be with me, even when I felt God might have been better off elsewhere.
While I was still in school, I met Sr Elizabeth, an Infant Jesus Sisters (in Cork, at least, many know them as ‘the Drishanes’). Sr Elizabeth knew my mother from a parish retreat and invited me to work with her in one of her parish ministries. We worked together on various things for over 25 years until I moved to the novitiate. Sister Elizabeth is not someone you say no to! In later years, I did various things with our parish sister, a Bon Secours, and with the priests in our parish. While we became good friends and I enjoyed working with them and admired them, I didn’t have any sense of wanting to be what they were – at least not for a long time.
For some reason, things began to change for me around the year 2010. While I always had a sense of God’s presence, the desire to know God better became increasingly strong, almost urgent. I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, ten-days that proved life-changing. There, I had an experience that left me feeling God wanted more from me. I had no idea what that more might be so asked advice from a good friend. He suggested make a commitment to remaining open and give God time. How would I do this: by saying ‘yes’ to whatever I was asked – in as far as it was practical – in this way, I could become aware of what God might want of me – Wise advice. I had always been a thinker. Now, I began to go with my instincts – I made decisions and said yes to things without thinking them to death! I followed my heart! For example: I applied to do a Certificate in Holistic Spiritualty in Ennismore Retreat Centre, Cork, without knowing what the course would entail, because I knew I had to do it. I had never done an Alpha course; now I agreed to be on the Alpha team running a course in my parish. In Alpha, they say that the small group discussions are where God really works. I found these incredibly exciting and life giving. Courses on Scripture and the programme in Ennismore had a similar effect on me as the discussions at Alpha. I couldn’t get enough of them. I began to attend more and more courses and talks on scripture and various faith-related topics. There was more going on than I had free time for! It felt as if my desire for God and ‘God stuff’ was becoming greater and greater and my hunger for knowing God seemed insatiable. While doing the programme in Ennismore I realised very clearly that I had fallen in love with God and that I was no longer satisfied with a life that wasn’t very full of God. Then, I began to really spend time asking God to show me in some very obvious way what to do. It seemed as if God answered quite quickly and clearly – the wish to ‘check out the Dominicans’ came into my head. At the time, although I knew the friars in Ennismore, I didn’t really know of female Dominicans. I tried to ignore it, but the idea wouldn’t let me go. It was so strong and unrelenting that a few weeks later, I contacted the vocations coordinator and subsequently arranged to meet her.
After our first meeting in March 2011, I returned home knowing that I needed to meet again. In some way that made no sense, everything I learned about the Dominicans seemed to make sense to me and I felt I needed to continue exploring.
That July, I asked to begin the pre-novitiate programme, which started that September. Over the next 15 months, I attended Assemblies, a Congregation Course, visited various houses and stayed with several communities. Repeatedly, I was struck by how at home I felt. The sense that this might be right for me grew stronger and surer so that the decision to ask to enter novitiate became inevitable. I knew leaving my family and my home would be difficult, but I knew also that I had to try, that if I didn’t I couldn’t be at peace.
I began my novitiate in January 2013, with little idea of what was ahead, but with a firm trust that whatever it was, God would be with me in it.
Recently, I read this description by a novice with an English congregation – I quote:
“Entering religious life was a decision born of love. It was an acknowledgement that my life has slowly and concretely rearranged itself around the love of God, and around that relationship as the one I prize above all else.”
Novitiate is a very special time. For us, novitiate is two years. While no two days are the same, every day is framed by praying of the Divine Office together, Mass and personal prayer. It is a time to embrace Dominican life, with its four pillars – prayer, study, community, and ministry. Perhaps, the greatest way of growing as a Dominican is through the everyday living out of Dominican life with one’s sisters in community.
The novitiate provides the opportunity to see that we are Dominicans in every part of our lives, be these ordinary or extraordinary, and in everything we do, including the everyday tasks of living: cooking, shopping, household duties.
An American Dominican novice describes it as “the opportunity to fall in love with Christ and to allow that to permeate every part of my life and not just a section of it.”
For me, all of life in the novitiate, both the extraordinary experiences and the sometimes mundane daily living, were my discernment. This time allowed a deepening of my relationship with God and gave me the space and opportunity to listen to God.
During my novitiate, I was privileged to receive many enriching opportunities. I also faced times of loneliness, struggle, worry, questioning and doubts. Yet, even then, I knew that I needed and wanted to stay. For me, the sense of call, of being where God means me to be, and where I need to be, changed and deepened and grew stronger.
Over this time, I learned more of my love of God and more about myself. It became increasingly obvious to me how at home, happy and content I was living this life.
In my head, it didn’t make much sense, but, in my heart and deepest self, it made absolute sense: I had a strong desire to continue in Dominican life, to serve God in the way of St. Dominic. I made First Profession with both joy and peace – and also with the hope that I will continue to grow into my relationship with God.
In March, after I made profession, I left Tallaght; I moved to the Northside, changing community, ministry, parish, surroundings. Please God, this is the first of many moves – as followers of St. Dominic, we are called to be mobile for mission, to be willing to go where God and the world needs us. This transition time is not an easy one, but I find myself carried both by the familiarity of community prayer and Mass and by the prayers, support and love of my sisters. I am sustained also by trust in my God who walks with me always, who always has and who always will – so I will finish with these words from Deuteronomy
“Remember how the Lord your God has carried you, as one carries a child, all along the road you have travelled to reach the place you are now”
Sr Eileen O’Connell O.P