So you’re probably going to become a nun, right?” my best college girlfriend said casually as we chatted about my post-grad-school plans.
“I don’t know for sure,” I replied, “but it’s a distinct possibility.” The question surprised me both because it was so nonchalant and because it had come from a woman with a fairly comprehensive view of who I am. She has seen the good, the bad and the un-nunly. Yet there was no trace of “Are you sure?” in her voice. Were we really past the point of endless questioning? Was my future as a woman religious more or less settled?
Not quite. A nun friend observed that I would drive myself crazy until I made some decisions. God’s timetable is a little different from mine.
Last spring I knew it was time to give serious consideration to the niggling feeling in my gut. I was in a relationship with someone who had been a dear friend for several years and was, by all standards, a fantastic boyfriend. Ending that relationship was painful, and on several occasions I found myself shaking my fist in God’s general direction. Life suddenly seemed less predictable and a whole lot scarier. “Please help” and “this better be good,” were sometimes the only prayers I could muster.
In spite of this, I felt a sense of purpose for discovering what was in store. Unexpected angels provided tips. A friend from my parish offered to connect me with a young woman who had recently entered religious life. Another told me about a group of Ignatian sisters in Georgia she thought I might like to meet. Old friends responded with support and encouragement.
You will know, say most of the wise women I talk with as I ponder a religious vocation. There will come a point when you have an answer. I’m holding out for that.
The groundwork for my vocational questions was laid early. My parents taught me to value justice and community and to take responsibility for my own life. They instilled in me appreciation for the dignity of all people and taught me about God’s love by offering me their own unconditional love. I grew up learning that we are put on earth to do good, help others and be happy. While my parents support my quest, they have concerns about the possibility that I may join a religious order. I am an only child, and it is an adjustment and a loss for them to imagine a future without grandchildren. More than that, they are disturbed by attitudes and actions in the church that contradict the spirit of humility and transparency the Gospel teaches. They balance support and skepticism, but offer love and respect.
Two Years in Bolivia
Experience also leads me to believe an answer will come. I spent two challenging and invigorating years after college in Bolivia with Jesuit Volunteers International that grew my faith and informed my sense of global community. Right through the orientation process, however, I was consumed with uncertainty as to whether I was truly called to Bolivia.
On a silent retreat, a part of our orientation, I was anxious and uncomfortable, not knowing how I would stay quiet in the company of the 20 amazing people I had just met and dreading the prospect of spending the time alone. What if I discovered something I didn’t want to know? I stocked up on spiritual books from the library, but as I flipped through them I realized that I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I met with one of the spiritual directors, a quiet, funny nun and excellent listener. She gently asked if perhaps I was trying too hard and suggested that I try “wasting time with God.” “Go for a walk, take a nap, pray, just invite God into it.”
Her advice changed the whole experience. It was permission to allow God the space to work, and it reminded me to have some faith. I asked God for guidance and trusted that I would get what I needed.
Eventually, an answer came. Walking in silence one night, I saw a future community-mate seated at a piano, improvising a beautiful song. I listened and something fell into place: I had a breathtaking sense of being loved and provided for and was acutely aware of God’s closeness. Never before and never since have I felt so completely blessed and certain that I was precisely where I was meant to be. I decided to say yes to going to Bolivia. I had fallen in love with God and with the life I was offered. I had no idea what that life would hold, but I was certain I would not be alone.
In Bolivia I worked with Jesuits and an inspiring group of sisters from the Misioneras de Cristo Jesús. They appeared completely alive, and they had a global sense of community. Their faith was constantly evolving, which I found exciting and admirable, particularly among older women. The experience of immersing myself in a new culture was humbling, exciting and deeply spiritual. I imagined what it would be like to live as the Misioneras did.
When I returned home five years ago, dating, work, exploring a new city and friendships occupied my time and energies. I craved spiritual community, found a vibrant parish, became part of a small faith group and began spiritual direction. I continued to meet women religious whom I admired. I coordinated an adolescent mentoring program in Boston and collaborated with other youth advocates to strengthen supports for the young people we worked with. It was powerful work that I found fun, gratifying and full of small miracles.
Steps Toward Discernment
The steps of my current discernment process have included conversations, reading, prayer and visits to religious communities. I have visited two orders and spent two weeks over the summer with a community in Georgia. On that visit, I participated in a weekend discernment retreat and worked alongside a small community of sisters. I marveled at the energy to serve that they drew from prayer and their sense of mission. This spring I am visiting their novitiate and spending time with the women in formation.
I have also sought mentors. Many women and men (vowed religious and lay) have been generous with their time and stories. I have connected with an accomplished, vivacious sister who revealed that she had never wanted to enter religious life as a young woman and had been a “grand failure” as a young nun, only later coming to understand her own path to the convent; with a mother, educator and parish leader who decided to live in a troubled area of Boston and build partnerships to increase community empowerment; with a Nicaraguan priest who has learned that the point of life is to arrive at the end having poured oneself out; and with my father, whose Buddhist practice opens up fresh realms of conversation about prayer and compassion. These conversations have given me a sense of companionship.
Last November I began the Spiritual Exercises in daily life, a retreat over many months aimed to help participants grow closer to God and learn to discern where God calls us.
Drawn to cross-cultural work, I am also looking at orders with international communities that have other young women in formation. I grapple with the role of international aid and mission and my own place in it, but I think there is much richness in learning and sharing across borders. I seek peers who understand this path.
The women religious who have most inspired me balance reverence with brave willingness to question the status quo. They are grounded in humility and a sense of their own humanity; they embrace critical thinking and dialogue about the church and its evolving mission.
Currently, I take care of an old rectory at St. Mary of the Angels parish, study social work at Boston College, work as an intern at two nonprofits, mentor a group of undergraduate students, continue my Spiritual Exercises retreat and spend time with friends and family. Living at the parish has been a gift. I moved in to save money and because I thought it would be an adventure. Lovingly referred to as a little United Nations, the parish is diverse and has a proud history of community involvement. During Advent, I was struck by how tangible the idea of community had become for me since moving to St. Mary’s. My own vocational discernment becomes most clear among a group of people who worship, argue and work together, a group that welcomes newcomers and strives to respond faithfully and lovingly to God’s call.
I graduate in May; the unknown thereafter is both exciting and daunting. I will have loans to pay off, so I may not be able to enter any order for several more years. Yet my vocation is already underway, even in this time of uncertainty.
Reflecting on the last five years, I feel my heart swell at how God has revealed Godself to me over and over through relationships, readings, conversations and prayer. Patience and trust seem like small things to ask. Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit author, notes that “grateful people are happy people.” I agree. As I grow into an understanding of my vocation, I try to make daily use of his formula.