- By Flor Santamaría
And Sta Catherine of Sienna sent the invitation letter
When I came to live in Oslo in the winter of 2012, I approached the Catholic church to find it was very active, more than I could ever imagine or expected from Norway, been the country mostly protestant. So, I felt very happy. I could attend mass in my own language and find a place where to land smoothly in cold and dark Oslo and relate to people who was nice and welcoming.
The same year, looking for some activities on the internet I read about the convent Sta Katarinahjemmet, they had a place for volunteers, and I offered myself, but at that time, it wasn’t the moment for me. Their answer to my mail was kind but a rejection. I felt sad but I moved on. God had a plan, I guess it now.
After a year, in the winter of 2013 things started getting difficult for me, the language was impossible to learn, I lost my enthusiasm and I started rejecting everything about Norway. Why do I have to learn this language if I speak English? I said to myself. Why I can´t communicate the way I know. Why do I have to change my personality? Why I don’t fit in here? I was so miserable, and I would travel all the time I could. Although somehow, when coming back for the trips, it felt coming back home. And it was home, it is just I didn’t know it yet.
I started feeling lost. I refused to engage in the activities of my community in the church and a gloomy darkness was taking over my natural positiveness and confidence above all, in God. My daily prayers and meditations will be now like sorrowful psalms. I cried a lot.
I refused to get to know my way around and I would not have the will to live. It doesn’t mean I wanted to finish with my life, but I was just spending my days. One day, I took down some stairs and there it was a church. It was closed but the schedule was posted outside, and I started coming in. I would stay sometimes after mass just to hear them singing the Vespers. (I didn’t know what Vespers were at that time). But the psalms were calling me into the mystery.
One Sunday morning after mass I was feeling utterly sad, I was in despair and I saw a nun afar. She was walking fast, I accelerated my steps, I said: -sister, and she stopped. She looked disconcerted, as it is true, in Norway you don’t stop unknown, (or even known people in the street)- I didn’t even know what to say, I felt like a fool, but something stronger than me made me ask for help.
I remember I said, after I presented myself, something like this: sister I would like, if it is possible help in the convent. And she was not in charge of the volunteering so she couldn’t really help me just like that, but I looked at her and beg. Please give me something to do or I will become crazy. I would do whatever. With tears in my eyes, that day, in front of that pale skin, and blue eyed nun with cold pink chicks, wrapped in her black cape as my ego of the size of the rock of Gibraltar was wrapping me, started to melt.
She showed so much mercy to me. Then we had an appointment with another nun, and I started volunteering for the convent. So, formally around the year 2013 I met Sta Catherine of Siena through a small community of apostolic nuns of the Dominican order in Oslo.
From the very beginning
I attended kindergarten plus second, third and fourth grade in a Dominican school “Our Lady of The Rosary” in a medium sized city in the center of my homeland. I took my First Communion there in May 1988 and then I moved to the capital city in July.
My relationship/ connection with the Dominican family stopped, (for the moment). But I never heard about Sta Catherine of Siena as in America we learned about Sta Rosa of Lima. But the best memories I treasured in my heart was the ones with the nuns in my good old school.
There were two Spanish sisters one was named Manuela, who was a bit rough but not so much and Sour Maria, who I admired a lot and was an incredible and smart woman. (“sour” as we used the French word). Also, my teacher who was from the Dominican Republic who was the most cheerful and fun and charismatic person I knew, and I loved her. She took vows and I was there. Sour Aurora, the one in charge of the kitchens and the interns, native young girls who were not very visible to us, but very smiley, and sweet when we met them by chance. They didn’t understand Spanish as they spoke native dialects.
When I had to move, I felt a deep vacuum in my heart, but I was decided to keep studying with “The nuns”, but It was not possible. I was only 9 years old and I was not in position to change my fate. So, I was sent to a secular school. Although by the entrance, a statue of Mary holding Jesus baby was standing in the middle surrounded by roses in a small court, and I looked at her and told her “At least you are here”. This because by the gates of my old school, there was a small court with a white statue of May holding the baby too. Very similar to the one in the new school.
Years went by and the Dominicans were sweetly cloistered in my heart just like a childhood memory, until 2009 in the solemnity of the 150 years of the death of St. John Marie Vianney, my uncle, a Dominican fray together with another uncle a diocesan priest, were moved from the cemetery to the church of Our Lady of Mercy in the same town. I started praying to my uncle José Antonio very often. I don’t remember him as I was too small when he died, but my mother said he was very fond of me and he would be very glad when I came to visit him.
Who would think that my uncle would become my brother in St. Dominic? Sometimes I think, perhaps he knew.
And one day God wanted me to see
Back in present time. With the sisters in Oslo, little by little I learned about Sta Catherina, first visiting the convent, although the sister never preached about her, I would ask small things, and read. I would be looking at the paintings and small statue at the entrance of the chapel since I liked to come by and pray.
Then, I would like to spend time in the convent, helping in small tasks time after time. I would feel more and more present. In the morning prayers, even if I didn’t understand it. Attending to mass and participating again to the activities of the main parish.
Then I would offer to help in the convent of brothers of St Dominic, but I never did. I never returned with an offer for help. But I would start taking confession with them. And I also met another face of priesthood. Something more, familiar, as I found Jesus familiar despite his majesty. Close, despite his Glory. Merciful despite his authority. So, I started understanding the Gospel. Of course, the process was happening and every person I met was key also in the Diocese.
But it was not just so simple for me. I felt for long time like a street dog with the sisters, my dear sisters, coming to eat from their kind and hardworking hands and knowing I was not going to be rejected. That I could be at ease, after all, Jesus lived in that convent. If no person was there, he was there, with his eternal red-light beating flaming heart, always welcoming me to chat, for me to cry or to just say hi. Step by step I felt I was kind of fitting in the pack. All those sisters were so different. What is uniting them?
In 2015 I started working in the Diocese in Oslo by recommendation of the Spanish speaking priest of the time and getting more involved in the affairs of The Church. In the mean time I felt an increasingly sort of call. What is this? I was wondering day and night. But it was a fog over it. You know the sea is close when you see the seagulls and you smell the breeze. But it is night and there is no lighthouse so you can be very close to the cliff. I think now. For good or for bad.
So, in Oslo there is this special day a moth to pray for calls. I normally wouldn’t attend mass on weekdays but that Tuesday, the Dominican family in Oslo had the turn to pray and specially because in 2016 the Order of Preachers would have been celebrating their 800 years of foundation.
I went to the mass but even if I really didn’t know much people or understand what was going on, I went to the meeting room in the brother’s convent and there she was, a dear nun to me, she was speaking about calls and vocations. With the enthusiasm of an explorer telling about the last adventure. I prayed, please God let me understand what she is saying and then I got it:
It is like a whisper, like the buzz of a bee, it increases, and it is impossible to silence.
Inside something started to boil, and I wanted to scream Yes! Sister! It is true what you say, and I have that whisper. I have been listening the buzz. It is buzzing. But I just reminded silent and all this inside. When she finished, I stopped another nun I never had seen before. She was from the contemplative sisters in Lunden.
And I asked her, do you speak English, and presented myself, sister, I hear the buzz, it is true! I am ready! (didn’t know for what, but for exploring my intentions and leaving behind another spirituality I was sort of following from before and that, at the time was already abandoned me). I said to the beautiful nun, I know now I just can not go on my own. I am sailing alone but it feels to me I want to join a fleet. Alone I am just a bush, but I feel I want to be in a wood. Alone, any wind will make me bend, and I want to be part of a beautiful garden.
And I had it clear.
The same year I visited the convent of Sta Catherina of Siena in Italy and prayed to her and at the end of the year I was a postulant to enter the Lay Dominican fraternity in Oslo. The journey just started.
What I found in the saint was her honesty. How she knew what was right or wrong. How she was determinate to walk Jesus way until the end. And she was a woman of her time but also of my time. She had so much to teach me, not like an old lady like but a modern woman like.
In 2017 I was accepted as a novice in the fraternity and I went to Rome for the first time. I never had been in Rome despite I had been traveling around half of the world, but people of my “now more integrated catholic circle”, were almost ashamed of me not been setting foot in San Peter Square. By those days I was feeling rather weak and my health started clashing but I made it into the papal audition.
At the end I was exhausted and thought I was dying there and said, well, what a way to die, alone in St. Peter square among a bunch of Chinese taking pictures. It was fun, but God had another plan again. When I recovered my strength, I wanted to take a bus to Sta Sabina. The order´s headquarters. I was decided to it when a voice in my heart said, take this bus. And I complained: but this is not the number I am waiting. Take it. So, I did. But then, ok when do I suppose to get off. I have no idea. And then, get off now. So I did. And now? What do I do? Walk straight, while I write I can sort of travel in my mind to that moment again and how, without knowing where I was going I got to the right place.
After some steps, I started to realize I was looking for Sta Catherina. And I met in front of me the Palazzo Sta Chiara. I was informed about it from before that inside there was a Chapel there dedicated to her. But I really needed to pee.
I asked the girl about the bathrooms, but I was not allowed to use the service since I was not attending any show there, then I asked about the chapel and she indicated me. I step a foot in there and started crying immediately. And then I left. The girl, when I came back to thank her for allowing me visit the chapel she said, please use the facilities and you can stay as much as you want here.
Then I told her I was a novice and then she told me that the chapel was called “Di transito” as in the room where she spend her last time on earth. I couldn’t believe it and I cried again. After about forty minutes I spent there in prayer I left the Palazzio Sta Chiara, but before I asked the friendly girl if she new where the church Maria Sopra Minerva was because I was planning to visit Sta Catherina, and it was just across the street. Two hundred meters away.
I didn’t really know what was going on, but I felt more than welcomed to the Order of Preachers. After this experience, I thanked God and her for extending me the invitation to continue in my process of formation. And then, I kept the track until I made my first promise as a tertiary the 9th of February.
For a while, my studies lead me to learn about other preachers and other amazing saints and inspiring people of the order and Catherina got a bit back in stage until today.
But it results that few weeks ago, during Palm Sunday, I was gloomy, thinking about the sufferings of the world, meditating about society and stuff and was praying in front of the Tabernacle. Then I got invited to investigate the painting over and I noticed for the first time the stigmatized hand of Catherina.
There was a thin red line in it that to my eyes got brighter and more noticeable while more I saw it. Then I read about it, it was invisible, for a while but it doesn’t mean it was not there. Same for me, it was invisible until God wanted me to notice it.
And it started to give a message to me that made it louder and clearer. And then a deep process of a second call started. First a doubt, and today on her day, a certainty again that there is no re
ason to fear. God always want us to work for him. He is the light and the lamp to put in the top of a hill. His Word. He is the vineyard; he is the source and the seed and we his speakers. He is.
I came home and took her image from a post card I received from the girl from Palazzio Sta Chiara (as we became friends) and set it visible for me together with St. Dominic.
Then we receive the exhortation to pray for her intercession for Europe. And it comes to me again, she is not a saint of the past, she is a flash light leading the way to the safe port of Jesus amidst the storm. She, Sta Catherina of Siena is an ambassadress of God with a clear message, that peace is not achieved in silence.
There is so much to say in the spiritual ocean in the life of someone who has been called. May my brothers and sisters in Sto Domingo pray for me to keep the north, which is getting through the thin gates which lead to heaven.
“Start being brave about everything. Drive out darkness and spread light. Don’ look at your weaknesses. Realize instead that in Christ crucified you can do everything”. Sta Catherina of Siena