At St. Hilda’s House

Prayer lingers in choir stalls and soaks into walls. When you can’t pray, enter a place of dedication to prayer and you’ll sense it. Centuries of prayer can make you feel weightless in medieval European cathedrals, and patience settles over you like a benediction when you kneel in busy urban churches. As skeptical as I tend to be when sisters tell me of the moment they knew they were “home” as they crossed the threshold of St. Hilda’s house the first time, I take them at their word. If I translate “home” to “sense of prayer” and “prayer” as portal to and from eternal source and end, that visceral sense of home comes clear to me.

I stayed the whole of this past week at St. Hilda’s house because the sisters were short-handed. Four elderly sisters, their aids, several young people taking turns cooking, the daytime staff, a beloved associate and myself remained busy keeping house. The sisters recently sold this rambling trinity of linked brownstones. Empty closets, daily assortments of give-aways displayed on the sidewalk steps, shelves of library books on the table in methodically labeled piles, the archives turned inside out, color coded stickers on furniture and lamps reminded me everywhere of the impending move. Still, the building itself imparted a sense of peace and an effortless kind of prayer I haven’t experienced for quite a time.

I visited the “new convent” further uptown – compact, efficient, pretty, the new library and the elevator will open to two glorious roof gardens.  Even without walls the building has a sense of holiness, thought-out-ness, imagination and care. I can tell it won’t be hard to pray the place up. Prayer already clings to the blueprints.

But the prayer won’t leave 113th Street and settle on Convent Avenue. Like love, prayer begats prayer exponentially, and never diminishes the source. 

At St. Hilda’s this week, I woke up in states of prayer. The anxiety I usually feel during the daily offices disappeared. My task was to stay in the moment and gently help the elderly sisters to find the right page. But the irony of guiding the “Giants” still guiding me in my life and spiritual development, moved me profoundly.

My own prayers of two decades also linger here, in the refectory, the library, the parlors, but especially in the stairwell.  My own subconscious erupted in revelation once on that back staircase heedless and open as I was that day.

I wonder if the new occupiers will experience prayer, or something like it, when they work or sleep here? Will life changing revelations come to Columbia University employees as they descend the stairs? I suspect so. They won’t know what hit ’em.

(About the pictures. The two photos are from the CHS website and I believe Erin Martineau took them. This week I kept a vase of white fresias on the table in the library that you see in the picture above. The lower picture shows the last turn of the last flight of stairs approaching the first floor.)

One Response to “At St. Hilda’s House”

  1. claire Says:

    This house sounds just like a beautiful place where it would be wonderful to stay and enjoy the prayerful silence. I am happy such a haven exists for you.

    Our house in France is a bit like this. We call it our ‘monastère à deux’. The kitchen is our holy place of sorts, since it is where my husband and I read the day’s mass together.

    May the blessing of this house stay with you for a long time after you return home,


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