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My Turn: Remembering Cenacle sister who was a Long Island spiritual legend

Sister Joan Kellenberg, left, with Ann Amideo.

Sister Joan Kellenberg, left, with Ann Amideo. Photo Credit: Valerie Dunne

When asked about an interesting person, conventional responses jump to the spontaneous world traveler, the entrepreneur creating a million-dollar culinary show or the one risking hiking the El Camino de Santiago alone. Yes, these experiences are out of the ordinary, and I have known them. Yet, my intrigue lies in a strangely subtle human life, that of a hermit nun.   Upon contact with this 83-year-old wisp of a woman, you would have been drawn into her magnetic world of the divine. It was as if she just landed on Earth and missed all the high-tech excess of modern invention.   In fact, many who made contact with Sister Joan were drawn to her calm, radiant light. She strutted about in her petite, thin frame, soft curly white hair and a smile from ear to ear. She walked with the purpose and force of a divine human hurricane.

Sister Joan passed on to her desired home in heaven in 2014, yet the power of her unique lessons grows stronger each day of my life.

In an age when people avoid being alone at any cost, Sister Joan Kellenberg of the Cenacle embraced her solitary life as a hermit. How often do you meet a real, authentic hermit? I was stunned to learn she had lived on the East End of Long Island in a small, rustic cabin in the woods. You had to traverse a bumpy dirt road for a mile before spotting a glimpse of her home. I wondered if she had feared being an hour away from her family at the Cenacle Retreat House in Ronkonkoma. Her home was desolate and far from help during a winter storm.  Nonetheless, people traveled from the metropolitan area to Montauk to visit this spiritual guide.  

Only the bare necessities accompanied her modest life. There was no television; her only access to the outside world was a small electric AM clock radio. Sister Joan used a well-maintained IBM typewriter to complete her work and a landline phone to manage the masses of calls she received.   Her preferred method of contact was handwritten letters on designer stationery. Remember those?

I recall one day she took a cellphone from someone’s hand and held it up, “This little thing is robbing humanity of the necessary silence, reflection, creativity and peace required of the human soul.” She was on a full collision course with the generation of high-tech excess.

When I attended her silent weekend retreats, my friends teased me mercilessly. They danced around shushing me with their finger in front of their mouth. There would be no return texts or calls from me that weekend.   How can anyone be silent for an entire weekend? Quite the contrary, Sister Joan made it easy. Forty-five people were cautioned about making eye contact to avoid being seduced to speak.  We were instructed how to gently close and open doors to sustain the silent reverie.  

“You are living in a community of sacred, shared silence respecting each others’ conversation with their God.” Well, since she put it this way, no one wanted to interrupt a call from the divine. One time a person was caught speaking, and Sister Joan’s raised eyebrow was a gentle reminder.

Imagine dining around a circular table with six other people and no conversation. This was agony at first. “Savor the food, the texture, the nutrients and chew slowly,” she explained.   Be mindfully present to each detail of dining.  

The final moments of the retreat never ceased to surprise me. Sister Joan concluded with her ritual blessing of sacred, aromatic oil caressing each person’s head with prayer. We were stilled with awe.   The scent of oil permeated the room. Although no one spoke a word, a mysterious common bond was building as we gazed at her reverential movement from person to person.    There was a receiving line to say goodbye to Sister Joan. No one dared to leave without her generous hug and a whisper in our ear.   There are no words to explain this experience to the outside world. I simply knew that for a moment in time I was in the presence of a mysterious spiritual legend.

Ann M. Amideo,

Bohemia

The writer is a volunteer associate of the Cenacle in Ronkonkoma.

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