My name is Sister Maria Bernadette and I would like to tell you something about my vocation.
My vocation is one that I can compare so much to that of the great Apostle Paul. Like him, I persecuted God’s Church; like him, my conversion was quite radical. No one could have foreseen it and certainly not that I would give my yes to the good God. The Holy Apostle Paul did not feel worthy to be called an apostle but by the grace of God he was who he was. I too feel unworthy of being His but I am grateful to God for His mercies toward me. I did not deserve His love!
I answered the Lord’s call but saying “yes” to Him was not so obvious! As an only child of good Catholic parents, I was baptized, made my 1st Holy Communion and my Holy Confirmation but after my Confirmation came a reversal…I became a convinced atheist! I developed a huge dislike (and that’s putting it mildly) for anything to do with the Church, the Pope and God and refused to go to the Holy Eucharist. In order not to give my parents grief, I would cycle around on Sunday mornings until about Holy Mass was out and then come home “merrily” again. But eventually I got tired of cycling and confessed the truth: I don’t go to Church anymore. A direct slap in the face for my parents, of course. Well, and when you drop faith, morals fall too…..
I was a child of my time. I loved the music of the 1960s (even though I am of the 1971 vintage) but especially that of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I also became particularly interested in drugs but never used them although I did consider it and had plans to do so. I did smoke cigarettes regularly. I met a Rolling Stones fan with whom I went to live. But in 1992 there was a sudden turnaround in my life, a positive turnaround! My parents were used to going on pilgrimages to Lourdes every year. Once, in 1991, they showed me postcards of Saint Bernadette and a videotape about Lourdes. I thought Saint Bernadette was a beautiful girl and became interested in her. I started reading a book about her and strangely enough, I suddenly had an intense desire to go to Holy Mass. The Lord then began to pull considerably in my soul without me really being aware of it. I could not explain this intense longing for Holy Mass, could not place it. But I did not dare to take that step even though I drove to the church: I remained standing at the church door and did not enter the church. Something stopped me, or rather, someone stopped me. The Lord wanted me to convert at Lourdes. That was in His Plan. But I did not know that at that time.
When my parents booked another trip in 1992, it was canceled by the tour operator: too little participation. My mother insisted on going, but my father couldn’t go the following time. If I didn’t want to go along. I felt like going, but only to see this Bernadette, just pure curiosity. For the rest I had no interest at all. My boyfriend had no problem with me going. Just before my departure for Lourdes, I watched a videotape about Lourdes. When I saw those images of Saint Bernadette’s still intact body, I spontaneously began to cry without knowing why. I really felt ridiculous!
Then came the day when I went on a pilgrimage with my mother on August 3. I never imagined then that this pilgrimage would be so profound that it would turn my life (as well as the lives of others including my parents) upside down. On August 4, we made a stop in Nevers where Saint Bernadette lived in her convent and where her still intact body is laid to rest in the chapel. It is as if she is still lying there praying, very serene. When I arrived there I thought, I’ll just walk past the reliquary, we’ve had that, then back to Lourdes and then to my friend. But when we got to the convent square and I saw an immense white statue of Saint Bernadette standing there, it was like my stomach turned over. All I thought was: this is not going well….
I didn’t understand any of it. I did have a nasty premonition that something was going to happen. Once inside the chapel I fell into a trance. I no longer perceived what was happening around me and instead of just walking past her reliquary I slammed down on my knees in front of her. It felt like someone was giving me a big push (which wasn’t in fact the case) but I just couldn’t help but kneel down and I cried bitterly for 20 minutes, suffering from severe breathlessness: I was gasping for breath! My mother didn’t know how she had it and just kept an eye on me because they could steal my luggage without my knowledge.
After those 20 minutes I sat down in the pews and unconsciously said: Bernadette, I want to become like you. Not knowing what consequences this could have. Further along the journey I suddenly started talking about the Bible, faith, etc. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. A man told me I had been converted but I didn’t understand a thing! It didn’t penetrate at all what had happened to me. My fellow pilgrims who had witnessed the whole scene were also very impressed. Their reaction, however, was: beautiful isn’t she? One thing was certain, Saint Bernadette and Saint Pastor of Ars on whose day I converted have been up there in heaven brooding out something to catch me! On the way to Lourdes, a man gave me a book of prayers from Saint Birgitta. I didn’t pray from it but I was very curious. I could not have imagined then that 3 years later I would become her spiritual daughter.
An old lady (who really did realize that more was taking place) told me to break up with my boyfriend. Once in Lourdes, I didn’t feel like going to Church. My mother said: you can understand that: well in Lourdes and not going to Church! Let’s go! On my Lourdes trip, it became clear to me: I wanted to become a nun. I felt that the Lord was asking me to follow Him closely.
When I got home I immediately called my friend without thinking further about it. The next day I picked up my things and threw myself completely into faith. I went to Church daily if possible, learned to pray the rosary and went to confession which I had never done before in my life. A great love developed in me for God, for the Church and especially for Pope John Paul II whom I had despised so much at the time, and not so sparingly! I also once had an experience that – listening to the St. Matthew Passion and looking at the crucifix – I fell down on the ground and wept bitterly. In retrospect, this was for me the beginning of my love for Jesus Crucified. I remember my father hearing me crying in my room and then coming upstairs to see what was wrong. Then, in tears, I pointed to the Crucified One. Just as my surroundings did not expect it, my parents did not expect me to become a religious. It was quite a shock for my parents when they noticed that I wanted to become a nun, especially my mother who had to give up the dream of becoming a grandmother. She had quite a struggle with it. My father was very proud of me that I answered the Lord’s call and that the Lord chose His only daughter in particular.
I loved Carmel immensely, and especially St. Therese of Lisieux was my great example. I got this from my father through his love for her. But God did not allow me to become a Carmelite. I watched video recordings of the t.v. series Abbeys in the Low Countries and the people who live there that my father used to record once in the 1980s and every time I watched the series I experienced deep in my heart that the Birgittinesses in Uden was the place where God wanted me. It was a certainty that I could not explain.
I called for an appointment. In this chapel I immediately felt tremendously at home and in my heart I knew that this was where I needed to be. I was deeply touched by the high altar in the presbytery. The painting touched me deeply. Yet I was influenced by others not to go here after all. I wrote to the sisters saying that I still had to think about my choice with in the back of my mind that I would not do it anyway. After reading the letter, the then abbess threw it in the trash with the thought: it won’t come again. When the then prioress and novice mistress asked the abbess if a letter from me had come in yet, the abbess said that I no longer needed to be counted on. It was in the wastebasket. The prioress wanted to read the letter and took it out since she felt that I had been persuaded not to take the step. She was totally convinced of my vocation. She wrote me a letter back. About the content of that letter I became angry and threw it away. I felt that I could decide for myself whether to come or not. But I found no peace, saw me in the spirit walking through the corridors all the time (I was allowed to attend several times to see if this was really something for me and the superior could get to know me and see if I could possibly have a vocation).
After some time I contacted the abbey again (in the month of St. Joseph in March) and after several times of living with them I made my request – after praying at the postponed Blessed Sacrament and asking for strength to ask to join the community. This request was granted and, after 1 more visit to Lourdes, entered on September 8, 1995. After 8 months of postulancy, 2 years of novitiate (here, of course, I took the name Sr. Maria Bernadette with the byname of the Sacred Heart of Jesus) and 5 years of being under vows, I was able to say my final yes on May 13, 2003, from the hands of Bishop Hurkmans, Bishop of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. It was the most beautiful day of my life.
So you see: man chooses, but God disposes. Not for one moment did I regret my yes to the Lord Jesus. Whatever state of life you choose, it is not always rosy. Not with me either. But I know that God guides our lives and that so much beauty comes from adversity. God has something so much more beautiful and bigger in mind than we can imagine. I do not regret surrendering to God’s loving guidance. It is through that guidance of the good God that I have found my happiness and my place in the Church where I feel so at home and love so much. As St. Therese said and this is also my own motto: in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I want to be love.
Sr. Maria Bernadette of the Sacred Heart of Jesus O.Ss.S