Faith Matters

Elaine Kelly was a leading Belfast barrister until God called her to become a nun

Elaine Kelly was a leading barrister until God called her in an unexpected direction - to become a nun and join the Adoration Sisters, based on Belfast's Falls Road. Here, Sister Elaine of the Heart of Jesus describes the moment her life was irresistibly changed and explains why prayer is so powerful

Sister Elaine Kelly answered God's call to leave the Bar and become an Adoration Sister. Pictures by Hugh Russell

I was brought up in the Catholic faith in Turf Lodge in west Belfast by my parents Gerry and Edna Kelly with my three brothers, Gerald, Kevin and Damaen.

It was my parents who first passed on to me the gift of my Catholic faith. I was baptised at St Teresa's Chapel on the Glen Road and as I grew up my parents blessed me in everything I did.

They clothed me in prayer. They gave me a rich formation in the reality of the religious calling that I am living now.

From the age of 12 I really wanted to be a lawyer. I read law at Queen's, and qualified as a barrister.

Looking back, my faith was important to me when I was young. I got a great Catholic upbringing but during my university years, I confess I fell for the allure of other attractions and temptations.

Gradually I fell away from practising my faith, and eventually I stopped going to Mass altogether.

Eventually, though, at the age of 29 - and thanks largely to my mum - I was back practising my faith in a big way.

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament became increasingly important to me. I started going to the Adoration Chapel on the Falls Road, and would sit before Jesus, especially after work in the evenings.

But I never thought I would be living there - cleaning the chapel and the toilets, and helping to make the altar bread.

I definitely had no desire to enter religious life. I can't emphasise that enough, I really thought that eventually I would get married and have a family somewhere down the line.

Back in my school days, I relished the joy and freedom of being young, and becoming a nun was the furthest thing from my mind.

Adoration Sisters Elaine Kelly and Martina Purdy. Picture by Hugh Russell

But we do have a God of surprises, and to quote Sr Martina Purdy's favourite Scripture passage from Luke 1:37: "With God nothing is impossible."

And it's true, nothing is impossible with God.

At the time of the call to religious life I was yearning for something new but I didn't know what.

I thought should I take a sabbatical, tour overseas, do something dramatic; I felt inside that I wanted to give birth to something new in my life but I didn't know what it was.

My response to that deep yearning was to turn more to God through prayer - for what is prayer?

In my experience, it is the desire and need of the soul to get to know God more, to communicate with Him in every way we can, to develop that loving relationship we all hunger for, and to ask him to provide all our needs for we are his children, and he our loving Father in Heaven.

God is the initiator, the lover of my soul, who wanted to draw me to him at a more radical level.

I, for my part, was becoming more aware that to be happy I had to make more of an effort to know God, to respond fully to these yearnings for him - for as Scripture says: "Draw close to God and he will draw close to you"; and in Psalm 41: "Like the deer that yearns for running streams so my soul is yearning for you, my God."

He was always there calling me, I just had to make more of an effort to get to know him for it was finally beginning to dawn on me that he, the Almighty, is my all.

I remember that in the months before the call came I went on pilgrimage to Knock three times to ask Our Lady to help me with these sighs in my heart and to show me the way.

It was my parents who first passed on to me the gift of my Catholic faith. They clothed me in prayer. They gave me a rich formation in the reality of the religious calling that I am living now

Then, at Mass on February 11 2014, the Feast of our Lady of Lourdes, the Gospel passage was the wedding feast of Cana.

I was struck by how Mary pressed Jesus into his ministry on earth by pointing out that the wedding couple had run out of wine; and how, on her say so, Jesus responded with a hugely generous miracle of the best wine ever; and it especially struck me that Our Lady did not do this to cure anyone of deadly sicknesses or bring anyone back from the dead, but just to save the young couple's embarrassment, and also to give joy to all the wedding party, and that they would have the best of everything.

I took Our Lady up on this amazing act of her thoughtfulness and I started to pray, saying: "Mary my mother, I have no wine left; please give me the new wine of Christ."

This became my very simple but heartfelt prayer for many days after that.

Just four weeks later Our Lady surprised me with the answer to my prayer for the new wine of Christ - and it came in a way I did not expect.

When I received the call to be a Sister of Adoration it was just an out-of-this-world experience.

On Sunday night, March 9 2014, I was sitting at home when I felt a real draw in my heart to go to the Adoration Chapel.

But I had already been there the previous day for a few hours, and so I told the Lord: "No way, I'm not going. I've already been, and I'm too tired."

But the Lord wouldn't give up.

The more I resisted, the stronger the desire grew - so much so that I gathered myself up and left for the Adoration Chapel in haste.

I realise now that it was a divine invitation; the Lord had a great new plan for my life that he wanted me for.

I joined the night Rosary and was asked by the Superior General of the sisters to read a meditation on St Joseph by their foundress - which I did, and was really moved by.

I went back to my seat, and knelt down in adoration before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament on the altar.

Night prayer ended and it all fell silent in the chapel... and it was then and there in that silence and adoration of Jesus, that it all happened.

Without warning, I felt a strong touch on my heart and I knew immediately it was the Lord.

I had felt his touch before in adoration, but this time it was greatly magnified; I felt his life and presence surge through me; and inside, I heard these seven words spoken to me: "You will be a Sister of Adoration."

Back in my school days, I relished the joy and freedom of being young, and becoming a nun was the furthest thing from my mind. But we do have a God of surprises...

I was just transfixed. I felt a supernatural life, a joy, and an overwhelming love that was beyond words explode in my heart and it just took my breath away.

I felt like I was falling in love - falling in love with God. That had never happened to me before.

That's the only way I can describe it: I was overcome by this wonderful, amazing feeling of falling in love, in love with God. I was just in a swoon, and in those few moments I lost my heart to Jesus.

I stayed on my knees in adoration, just captivated but my mind was trying to take it all in; God had turned my life upside down, just like those disciples in the New Testament who had an encounter with Jesus, jumped out of the boats and left everything and followed him.

When I left the chapel that night, I was preparing in my heart to answer the call and leave the Bar.

The next day I went back to the Adoration Chapel to speak to Mother Mary Josephine, the Superior General, to pour out my heart to her because I believed she would understand what had just happened; and she did.

I entered on August 6 2014 as a Postulant. Two years later I became a Novice and in 2017, in St Peter's Cathedral with Sr Martina, I took the next step in my vocation - making vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as I became a professed sister in temporary vows.

I cannot emphasise enough the miraculous power of the Word of God and the Blessed Sacrament to move mountains, and in Jesus to obtain all we ask for or need of God in accordance with his will, especially through the intercession of Our Lady.

As Scripture says: "Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened."

God has not asked that we ask or seek him in vain, and Scripture further assures us though we may be unfaithful, God is always faithful to his promises, for he cannot deny himself.

I officially entered the Congregation of Adoration Réparatrice on August 6 2014, the Feast of the Transfiguration. It was on that feast in 1848 that our congregation was formed in Paris.

Our foundress, Venerable Mother Marie-Thérèse du Coeur de Jésus, and her first daughters dedicated themselves to a life of love and sacrifice: a Eucharistic life of perpetual adoration and reparation of which the Blessed Sacrament was the centre and the source.

In 1981 our congregation came to live on the Falls Road, with the mission of 24 hour Eucharistic Adoration with the sisters living the life of Nazareth in imitation of the Holy Family.

That was the year of the hunger strikes when there was murder and riots on the streets of Belfast, just like there had been in Paris in 1848.

In those dark hours, Jesus came to the Falls Road, to live among his people in all their trials and sufferings.

Our chapel has Eucharistic Adoration 24 hours a day. We are a family of adoration, we are a contemplative order, but not enclosed - there are no grilles between us and the people.

Inside, I heard these seven words spoken to me: 'You will be a Sister of Adoration.' I was just transfixed. I felt a supernatural life, a joy, and an overwhelming love that was beyond words explode in my heart and it just took my breath away

We pray and worship in the chapel with the people who spend time in our chapel to adore the Lord and join in our Divine Office, Rosary, daily weekday Mass and silent prayer.

Our chapel is a place of quiet outside of Mass and divine office functions.

I pray for and invite people from everywhere to spend an hour with Jesus, for I know he will bless them, their families and transform their lives, build up the Church, our local communities and the world.

I have watched in awe over the years how the Lord has transformed the lives of those who come to the chapel, in the presence of the Holy Eucharist, which has been rightly described as the Mass held in contemplation.

I am now just over four years into my journey as a sister of Adoration Réparatrice.

I try my best to offer my life and everything I do as a prayer to God for the whole of humanity in adoration to and also as reparation to him for my own sins and those of the world.

Venerable Mother Marie-Thérèse said that our real vocation consists in a loving self-surrender and sacrifice to Jesus, our loving spouse.

Each day in my own small way I try to empty myself and become a living prayer for God to help all of humanity especially the people who call to our chapel, who ask our prayers and for the needs of the whole Church.

I recommend each morning when you awake to make your morning offering, as a prayer to begin your day.

It means that anything that happens in our day, planned or unplanned by us, is offered to God completely as a prayer.

You may think, understandably, that it is a bit easier for me to pray, given my new station in life. And you would be right.

But it is also true that, like everyone else, I am not immune to being buffeted by the winds of daily life and tossed about by its unexpected events.

The key is to recognise them as an ongoing prayer, as part of the unceasing prayer St Paul asks of us and to be at peace that we have done our best.

Five days a week I rise at 6am and retire around 9.30pm. In that time I have on average almost five hours a day in chapel in quiet Adoration, Mass, the Divine Office and the Rosary, with other opportunities during the week for extra Adoration and prayer.

The weekend is slightly different but carries the same principle. Six days a week I work. We live a life of Nazareth, like the Holy Family we mirror their devotion to the dignity of work.

We join with the whole human family in performing our daily tasks to earn our keep, clean and maintain our home.

I recommend each morning when you awake to make your morning offering, as a prayer to begin your day. It means that anything that happens in our day, planned or unplanned by us, is offered to God completely as a prayer

Everything we do we offer as a living prayer in worship to God and in Jesus and Mary to draw down God's mercy upon ourselves and the whole world.

In our foundress's words: We do the honours at the banquet of the lamb where thousands of people a year come to slake their thirst with the living water of life which flows from the Blessed Sacrament exposed in our chapel 24 hours a day.

For me it is a joy that the Lord called me to be a Sister of Adoration.

It is not a path I would have chosen myself, but I am so glad he chose it for me.

It is a life with many challenges, for God has called me in a very real and tangible way to take up my cross every day, deny myself and follow him within the Congregation of Adoration Réparatrice; as St John the Baptist said, he must increase and I must decrease.

In these four-plus years of religious life I have come to understand that dying to myself every day and allowing Jesus to fill me completely is life and paradise itself.

Once I tasted the sweetness of the life that flowed from the Eucharist on the night of my call, there was never going to be anything else on Earth which could come close - there could only be Christ now for me.

As Jesus said in John 20: "Amen, amen, I say to you... unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit."

St Paul talks of making our lives a living sacrifice, a living prayer acceptable to God.

That's what my late parents Gerry and Edna Kelly became as a result of their fidelity to their vocation of marriage and parenthood, and it is my hope to walk in their footsteps and do the same.

Sister Elaine Kelly was taking part in the 'round table' gathering, held annually in All Saints' Parish in Ballymena, on the theme of 'Prayer Matters'.

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