It was 10:50 PM when I returned to the monastery on my first night in Rome. Tired after over 36 hours of flights, buses, and a leisurely evening out, yet energised by the adrenalin of starting a month-long adventure, I shared the highlights of my evening with Sister Leopoldina, the elderly nun serving at the desk until 11PM. Diminutive in stature, but gigantic in spirit, we picked up the threads of our earlier conversation.
Excusing herself at 11:30 PM, she served a new family that had just arrived. Without the stimulus of conversation, sleep threatened to overtake me, but I didn’t want to leave without saying goodnight.
Upon her return, I asked if she would be at the desk in the morning. “Oui, après la culte,” she confirmed, then corrected herself – she might not be back from an appointment after church before I left. Seizing the opportunity, I asked Sister Leopoldina my usual question – what was her definition of peace? As she expanded on her earlier response, that it was a gift of God, I turned on the voice recorder to capture the source of her joy.
“I am so happy to hear that you are seeking peace," she began. "Peace is a gift of God, and God gives it by the Holy Spirit. Peace is the Spirit of God, who lives in our hearts. But to receive peace, you must ask for it. In order to receive peace, you must also open your heart to receive peace, because it is a gift of God. To receive peace, start by looking for it in your heart, because God is in your heart.”
“Yes. Thank you, Sister Leopoldina. It’s a wonderful beginning to my search for peace to start with you, here, in Rome. I carry peace in my heart, but I find with the busyness of daily life, I have to find quiet moments to find it anew.”
“Yes, and it’s true that we are always pressed with work. Because we want to do things well, we are always, always, occupied with things. But, even so, it is necessary to find time to look within yourself to see how your life ressembles the gospels, how your life is like Jesus’ – how he worked, and how he lived – simply, speaking, doing, praying, and how you can plan your time. The gospels say that when Jesus healed people, like the mute man, Jesus went away alone, which says that he needed times of silence, away from the noise of the crowds, to hear the voice of God. Which is to say, in faith, Jesus always needed to leave the crowds to find silent places to hear God. Jesus always sought to heal the soul, then the body, to heal people and give them peace. After the resurrection, Jesus always greeted people by saying, “Peace be with you.”
“Yes,” I replied.
“And Jesus said, ‘I don’t give you peace like the world gives; it’s the gift of the Holy Spirit; it’s my peace that I give you, the peace of the Holy Spirit, of God, true peace,” Sister Leopoldina continued.
Reflecting on the Bible passage that she was referring to, John 14-17, in which Jesus shared his final words of instruction to the disciples before his arrest and crucifixion, I answered, “I find it incredible that Jesus said, ‘If you have faith, you will do the same things that I do.’ I find it incredible that you can find the gift of God within yourself to do the same things, fulfil the same mission, as Jesus. So I am trying to find God anew in my heart so I can share God with others, even in this journey.”
“You see,” said Sister Leopoldina, “you can be a witness of peace, with words, or without words, because you carry peace in your heart. People will see it, like Saint Francis, who invited the brothers to bear witness in Assisi. After they returned from walking around the town, a monk asked, ‘We aren’t going to preach?’
’No,’ Saint Francis said. ‘We will be witnesses with our lives, without saying a word.’"
Sister continued, “And you yourself will find people who are very important to you, and you won’t know why. People whose hearts are so filled with the Holy Spirit, like Saint Francis'. You are going to Assisi [where Saint Francis was born and founded a brotherhood of religious followers]. Saint Francis was a man of peace. It’s important that you pray the prayer of Saint Francis there:
‘Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me be love.
Where there is falsehood, let me be truth,’ and so on.
Wherever there is darkness, to be light. You can search for this in Assisi with the peace of Saint Francis.”
“May God make it so.”
“God can make it so.”
We talked much longer about faith; how people of “faith as small as a mustard seed” can do great things through prayer and penitence. She shared how touched she was that morning by Pope Francis’ sermon, who had preached on mercy, the theme for the next religious year. Pope Francis said mercy is another word for love. He exhorted people from every country to be kind to refugees. Sister Leopoldina shared her thoughts upon hearing this: if every religious person did so, how would that change the world? We would be like the early church.
Here, Sister Leopoldina was referring to the book of Acts in the Bible (a very exciting read). Thousands of people, who had just condemned Jesus to death as a traitor, accepted him as Saviour through a powerful movement of God’s spirit. They radically changed their lives, then the world. Acts 4:34-35 says there was no needy person among them, because everyone with excess lands or possessions sold them to help the poor. They organised so many charitable works that the Romans independently documented the impact they had on social structures. I’ve also occasionally wondered if western Christians could renounce their materialism and individualism enough to live like that again, and have such an impact on the world again.
“If we all lived like that, regardless of whether we are Christian, Muslim, or any religion, we would change the world,” finished Sister Leopoldina.
With final exhortations to keep my heart open, so that both God and myself could enter it, and a promise that she would pray for me, the aged nun had mercy on me, and sent me to bed.