When Martina Purdy quit BBC to be a nun people thought she'd had a breakdown
Martina Purdy only thought she was 'living the dream' as a political correspondent. Now, as Sister Martina, she really is
I’m Sr Martina of the Blessed Sacrament. I used to be Martina Purdy the BBC’s political correspondent
I also used to be taller and blonder but even in these flat shoes, it’s way better working for the Lord!!
As the apostle Peter said at the transfiguration on Mount Tabor: “Lord, it is good for us to be here!”
I’ve been to a lot of places in my life. But I never thought I’d be standing here in St Anne’s in a brown habit talking about my life as a sister of Adoration.
Contemplating this moment, approaching the microphone, I can hardly believe myself what has happened over the past two years.
And it actually occurred to me that perhaps this incredible journey has just been an amazing dream: maybe the First and Deputy First Ministers are about to stand up and throw some awkward questions at me before I wake up in a cold sweat?
But thank God, I’m not dreaming – I’m wide awake and I hope you are too.
Thank you to Brother David Jardine, Fergus McMorrow and all at Divine Healing Ministries for inviting me and to Dean John Mann and all at St Anne’s for facilitating this evening. Thank you also to Bangor West choir for the incredible music.
It’s an honour to be here.
I feel I am fertile ground because so many people - from all walks of life and over many generations - have ploughed a rocky field; and have worked and prayed for moments like this, moments of Christian Unity.
Not least - Brother David who with Cross and Passion Sr Margaret McStay helped begin Divine Healing Ministries. What a witness! This ministry has interdenominational healing services here at St Anne’s every Monday since 1993.
So to be here tonight is incredible. Christian Unity is very close to the heart of our congregation.
It was in our chapel in Lyons in the 1930s that Fr Paul Courturier, the Apostle of Christian Unity started to pray daily for the unity of Christians. His efforts, along with Christians, sowed the seeds for the annual week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We continue that tradition of prayer for Christian Unity every Thursday night in our chapel. We also recall the prayer Jesus himself spoke in John 17:21 at the Last Supper when Jesus prayed for those who believed in him, and asked the Father: “…that all of them may be one.”
That hour of prayer in our chapel every Thursday is challenging.
Some of the sisters and I agree it seems very long. We’re well used to silent adoration for an hour; it usually passes quickly. But that Thursday night hour is peculiar. And some of us wonder is it because we feel the burden of time passing, of having to wait for unity?
Sr Kathleen our novice director is from Cork – and she can’t wait.
She takes to heart the words of Fr Paul Courturier: the Walls of Separation do not reach to Heaven.
So Sr Kathleen regularly leaves the Falls Road with our dog Joy, and crosses the peace line, where she works hard to build relationships on the Shankill Road where she has loads of friends.
I did start to worry the other day, though, when she told me about a reunion her old friend Charlie who she hadn’t seen for a few weeks. She said Charlie had just run into her arms! “Charlie doesn’t see flags or division, Charlie sees only love,” she said.
I thought this relationship is getting intense …but then I remembered that Charlie was in fact a dog. And he belongs to her good friend Valerie!
Valerie and Sr Kathleen are part of an informal cross community group who gather in the Woodvale Park for a walk and a chat.
Sr Kathleen is not here but four sisters have come along with me – our Sr Marie Dolores, originally from County Wexford who is our former Mother General; Sr Maire from Tyrone who she loves to pray for young people so if you know any that need prayer, speak to her after. Sr Anne is our new novice from Tipperary. She’s Sr Anne of the Divine Mercy and prays especially for the dying and those most in need of God’s mercy. Sr Elaine is of the Heart of Jesus. She is from Belfast and is a former barrister.
Sr Elaine entered weeks before me…after receiving her call in our chapel two years ago. She’s a rational woman – most of the time – but after receiving the call to be an adoration sister she left her big job, her big money and her big jeep to follow Jesus.
And, we’re both still amazed and amused that the Lord called two professional talkers to a life of silence.
What’s even funnier is that Sr Elaine was paid more than £250 an hour to give her opinion and now she is expected to keep quiet about it
Of course she doesn’t always manage it: and every so often even though she is supposed to be silent, she is so full of joy and wonder that she puts her two hands in the air and says: “This is amazing – we are living the dream.”
It’s true! It is amazing!
But if you had told me a few years ago that I would be joyfully living the dream on the Falls Road in a brown habit as a sister of adoration, two doors down from where I used to interview Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, I would have said you were crazy!
I would have said that’s impossible - which brings me to my favourite piece of Scripture: Luke 1:37. “With God, nothing is impossible.”
But when I quit my job as the BBC’s political correspondent two years ago to become a sister, more than one reporter in Belfast thought the story was a hoax.
And when they checked it out and realised it was true, they thought I must have had some kind of mental breakdown!
In fact a couple of friends from the media came to the convent a few weeks later to stage an intervention. But when they saw how happy I was they decided not to bother.
They couldn’t argue with the joy. I’m not sure they understood it but they couldn’t argue with it.
Of course some people still think I’m crazy!
One morning last year I was coming back to the convent from the corner shop, carrying the messages when a man in a flak jacket, riding a bicycle slowed down and shouted as he came towards me on the footpath:
“YOU WERE MAD LEAVING THAT JOB IN THE BBC TO GO IN THERE!”
I just put my hands in the air and quoted Sr Elaine: I AM LIVING THE DREAM. IT’S AMAZING.
NO BOOM MOMENT
But the man on the bike was partly right. I was mad - madly in love with the Lord and I would have done anything for Jesus. But unlike Sr Elaine I didn’t have a boom moment; it was more of a slow burn for me. I resisted Him until he became irresistible…until that fleeting thought that came into my head every so often became a burning desire.
And when I quit the BBC to become a sister of Adoration, I know some of our local comedians tried to blame the politicians. They said that I just couldn’t take another row on flags, parading and the past.
But this time, you can’t blame the politicians. You can’t blame Martin McGuinness or Peter Robinson or Arlene Foster. Because it’s all God. It’s all God and his amazing grace.
I’d like to tell you all about it – but I don’t have all night so I’ll give you a condensed version!
Let’s just say a lot of things happened to me on my way to “living the dream.”
I grew up in a Catholic family. My father was a convert, an Englishman from a long line of Methodists and Anglicans. He became a catholic when he married my mother.
I was born in Belfast but we left in the 70s due to the Troubles so I was raised in Canada. My family always went to mass, and prayed the rosary and I was sent to convent school as a teenager
So when I left convent school did I want to be a nun?
No, I absolutely did not!
If the Lord wanted me to proclaim the “good news,” all I heard was “news” and after university, I headed to my native Belfast to follow my dream of being a journalist.
And you know I got what I wanted. I worked for the Irish News, the Belfast Telegraph and eventually I got my dream job reporting on politics for the BBC.
And I really enjoyed it – for a long time. But in more recent years, I started to think my life was too easy, too self-centred, too materialistic, not nearly challenging enough and not centred on God. I guess I wasn’t satisfied.
St Augustine says we all just want God. I’m sure you’ve heard his famous quote… We are made for God and our hearts are restless until we rest in Him.
And so we fill ourselves with very poor substitutes for God: money, power, pleasure, prestige. And there is nothing wrong with those things as long as you don’t get too attached to them.
But I was increasingly filling myself with poor substitutes for God so I wasn’t satisfied, because only God satisfies the human heart.
And looking back the seed of my call was taking root in me around ten years ago when I was on holiday in Peru, and doing a lot of shopping and having fun and going to nice restaurants in a very poor country.
I had this sense that I’d like to do something about that. I was very conscious of being named after St Martin de Porres who was from Lima and I prayed at the church in Lima.
I prayed that my life would change.
And the Lord heard me because my life started to change – slowly, thank God because I wasn’t ready for anything too radical back them. I kind of thought I’ll be an aid worker, in nice clothes, some day.
But doors started to open on my path to change, my path to a deeper relationship with God.
That deeper personal relationship with Jesus- that’s for everybody. That’s not just for Mother Teresa, your minister or your priest or those guys who stand on street corners preaching.
No a deep personal relationship with Jesus for everybody!
So when I asked the Lord to help me change, He started to open doors to a deeper relationship with Him
These doors were the doors to prayer, to scripture, the doors to the sacraments and the Door to Adoration.
DOOR OF PRAYER
I’ve always prayed and gone to church but I started to pray a lot more often and talk to God a lot more often.
As time went on, I started to pray more for other people. I would pray for strangers who I would pass on the street – asking the Lord to bless them in their life. And that gave me a lot of joy.
And that’s a great way to stop thinking about yourself.
I started to get closer to God – because if you want to have an intimate relationship with God, you have to talk to him
Now I talk to him all the time. Sometimes he’s the only person to talk to as we have so much silence in the convent. But he’s a great listener!
THE WORD OF GOD.
But we are also called to listen. And if you want to know God, to know Him intimately, you also have to read his word.
It’s hard to love and trust someone if you don’t know them.
A big of my transformation came from reading the word of God.
Now I quote Isaiah all the time. I’d rather quote Isaiah than the Secretary of State!
Here’s what God says to each one of us: "Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine!”
The text goes on: “…you are precious in my eyes, and honoured, and I love you!”
“…I am with you.”
We are living in a Spiritual famine and so many people need to hear that message today: that they are loved, that they are beloved children of God, that they should not be afraid because no matter what happens in your life, whatever trials you are going through, God will not abandon you.
And we need to learn to trust in that love, that perfect love, that self-sacrificing love, which casts out all fear.
So that’s a big part of my story. Reading the word of God and praying more.
So talk to God, but also listen.
I knew I was called to “feed his lambs.”
I thought that meant helping the poor.
So I started doing some charity fundraising.
And, that led me to St Michael’s Church in West Belfast one Monday night to sell some tickets. Mercy Monday I call it now.
And, there was mass, and a special healing service going on, and there was music and it was very prayerful and I could really feel God’s presence. I felt his Spirit moving all around
So I thought I’m going to come back here. And so I started going back whenever I could and I started to stay for Adoration afterwards. That’s silent adoration of Jesus’ real presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
And the more I went. the more I liked it - because God was drawing me to himself in Adoration. And then it got to the point I didn’t want to miss it. And I was really disappointed if it was my turn to do BBC’s Stormont Today.
Because I had found something better than being on TV discussing politics - that hour with Jesus was better than anything. It brought me a lot of peace, and a lot of joy.
And that time with the Lord helped me to see where I was going wrong, and you know I started admit my many sins, and my faults. And in humility, I decided to go to confession – never my favourite sacrament. I always saw it as a torture chamber,but it’s not. It’s an embrace from the Lord!
And when I went and made a good confession, I got hit with a tsunami of mercy - and amazing graces began to flow when I took Holy Communion.
I would either be very joyful or be very tearful and I thought what’s wrong with me I can’t go to church now without taking a hanky? But someone said to me the Lord is touching your heart.
And, as that amazing grace grew so did my call to religious life. That desire in me started to grow and I had to wrestle with it for a while: I enjoyed my job, spending time with family and friends, shopping and champagne. I was quite rooted in my old life.
But the Lord doesn’t give up.
I had a growing desire to do God’s will. I had been listening to our politicians for years, and I seemed to know a lot more about political will than God’s will - which actually is true freedom from all the things that enslave us.
And around three years ago, I was asked to go to the Living Church event in the Waterfront Hall. And to be honest, I didn’t really want to go because I was going on holiday to Italy the day after the conference and I needed time to pack.
But I agreed to go and ended up chairing the event.
And, when I was there, I heard a priest who worked with the poor in Dublin talking about the Gospel and he said something that really struck me: “ If you want your share in the Kingdom of Heaven right now, you don’t have to wait for the next life, you can have your share right now, if you are willing to give up everything and follow Jesus.
And I was like, ‘I wouldn’t mind having my share now…but I got a lot of stuff!’
But I felt the call strongly as I left Italy and by the time I got back I was feeling like my possessions were weighing me down - choking me almost.
And the call was growing so strong that I finally gave in and went to speak to a priest who was in charge of vocations. I remember saying that even if I wanted to give up everything to follow Jesus, I didn’t see how it was possible. I had a life and everything. But he told me to pray and signed me up for retreat.
Six months later, I was still torn between my old and new life. I’d just come back from Washington.
But I went on that retreat. And I got hit with a bow and arrow and as Van Morrison sings, “I was real, real gone.”
I was meditating on the Gospel passage in John Four where Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman by the well.
Jesus told her that he would give her “living water” and said to her …”if you only knew the gift of God…”
And as I walked around the garden at Drumalis retreat centre in Larne, I was trying to work out what Jesus meant by the gift of God. What was I being offered?
It was late March and I came upon this tree which was quite amazing, and even though it looked dead, with no leaves, I thought it was majestic.
But I also realised that I knew what that tree could be: in a few months’ time that tree would haves leaves and bear fruit. And I realised: that tree can be transformed.
Through my heart I heard the words of scripture: I am the vine you are the branches…whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me…
And I knew I had a choice to make.
And I thought: “Yes Lord, I’m in. I want to be transformed!”
And in that moment, I was full of joy – supernatural joy - because my faith was finally allied to God’s will.
And that is what moves mountains.
That’s what moved me fairly quickly into the Adoration Convent on the Falls Road where I’ve learned so much more about that gift of God.
What is the gift of God?
The gift of God is himself.
A share in His Divinity: everlasting life, everlasting love.
The kind of life that makes you fully alive.
And so now finally, I am proclaiming the Good news: and the good news is that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is risen - and he is alive and well and living at 63 Falls Road!!
He is there in our chapel every day waiting to be gracious to you.
I know that God is spirit and He is everywhere but as Catholics, as sisters of Adoration, we truly believe in his real presence in the Blessed Sacrament, body blood soul and divinity. I can’t explain it but I believe it because I experience it.
Because it is in keeping with the humility of our God, with his overwhelming love for us, so He can be with us, to sit with us, to nourish us.
He tells us: I am the living bread come down from Heaven. I am with you always even to the end of time.
He is himself the Good Shepherd who feeds his sheep. And, St Paul tells us God Himself is our peace.
And as those who come to our chapel know, there is a peace in Adoration. The peace of Christ. It is a peace the world will not give you.
This year, Easter Sunday this year coincided with the 100 anniversary of the Easter Rising. And, the Falls Road parade passed our convent and I went outside to mingle. I knew a good few of them from my BBC days. I was wishing them a “Happy Easter” and telling them the real rising is inside our chapel and to “come on in!”
And they laughed and went on their way.
But a few days later one of them, a veteran of the Troubles, came in and got a hop apparently because he saw another one of his old comrades in the corner, adoring the Lord. And as he left he said to our superior: “To be honest with you sister, I’d rather rob a bank than go into a chapel but there is great peace in there.”
I wish I had been there because I would have happily misquoted Gerry Adams: GOD HASN’T GONE AWAY YOU KNOW.
And his gift of love, and life, that gift of himself, it’s always on offer, no matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done.
Our mother Foundress said Eucharistic Adoration is not a devotion: It’s a work of faith, built on faith, to re-awaken faith
And that’s what silent prayer in Eucharistic Adoration did for me. My faith has been reawakened.
And of the great things about Adoration is you don’t have to do anything except approach in humility and faith and just be. And let God breathe His life into you.
I read recently that the word “adoration” comes from the root “ad ora” – to the mouth.
So Adoration is being aligned to the mouth of God, to the divine source of life and just like Adam in Genesis, God breathes his life into us.
The mission of our congregation came to our foundress in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament 150 years ago. Théodelinde Dubouché, now Venerable Marie –Thérèse, was a Parisian artist of some note who heard God’s call in a powerful encounter with Christ:
Jesus told her he wanted souls before Him always to receive his life and to communicate his life.
And she founded the congregation which eventually opened a convent in Belfast in 1981 to bring Christ’s life to the darkness of violence and bloodshed.
And that call to Eucharistic Adoration was heard then by our Mother General Mary Josephine who was a young girl at the time. It was heard by others both lay people and religious who come to adore. And it is still being heard.
We’ve had four vocations in just over two years!
I’m amazed that Jesus has called a journalist to communicate that His life.
You know I had a great job in the BBC, a very privileged job, a job that brought me to exciting places, the White house and Downing street, meeting President sand Prime Ministers, and I had the privilege of seeing history as it was unfolding. But the greatest privilege of my life is being at the Lord’s table every day in Adoration, sitting at his feet and adoring him.
So yes I am living the dream. God’s dream.
He has a dream for all of us, a dream to be lived out in his love.
And we still have a way to go on our journey, and there’s healing to be done. But that dream of unity is coming true, after so much death and division on our streets.
That prayer of Christ - God’s dream for us - that we will be as one and live in His love.
So that others will know we are Christians. By our love, and by our shared dream: that some day we will all break bread with one heart in the Father’s house.
And, I thank God for the Divine Healing Ministries, and all at St Anne’s tonight for opening yours doors and your hearts to me and for the great privilege of being here to talk about Jesus. Because Jesus came to bring us the fire of his love.
And, at the end of the day there is only God.
There is only God and God is love.
And love is stronger than death. So let us celebrate that love, that St John says casts out all fear. And let us not be afraid of anything - least of all each other.
There is only God. There is only love.
So, come let us adore him in spirit and truth. Let us build the Kingdom of God. Let us live the dream.
Thank you and God bless you all.