Wednesday, June 24, 2015


Before I write, I want to make sure you know that our vow ceremony will be live-streamed this Saturday.  Even if you can’t be present physically, you can watch online from wherever you are!  Just go to at 4:00pm EST.  The live-stream should be right there on the homepage.


                What a special time this is!  I can hardly believe that I’ll be professing my first vows in three days!  Of course I’m filled with all kinds of emotions, but deep in my heart, I know:  I’m ready. Andrea I and have spent the last year in prayer, reflection, and conversation about the vows that we are soon to make.  It’s time!

You’ve probably heard the vows named: poverty, celibacy, and obedience.  But what do these vows mean, especially in today’s world?  If you’re at all like I was early on in my discernment process, you might wonder why anyone would want to make these vows!  My perception of the vows was a sort of black and white list of No’s.  You know the sign, “No shirt, no shoes, no service”?  I imagined a sign on the convent door: “No money, no sex, no freedom.”  Debbie Downer, right?!

Obviously, there is much more to the vows than loss and sacrifice, if women and men have joyfully built their lives upon them through the ages!  The theology of the vows has evolved with the time, but a whole-hearted commitment to God has always been at the center.  And that loving God to Whom we vow has always been there, calling and accompanying and loving, giving women religious all they need to live out their vocation.

Let me share with you a bit of my understanding of the vows.  It is, of course, far from complete, but it will give you some idea of what is in my heart when I say "yes" this weekend.

The vow of poverty expresses itself externally in that we sisters share all things in common with our congregation.  We don’t own property or have personal bank accounts at our disposal.  Any salaries earned go directly to central checking, and each local house community makes a budget for what they need from the “common purse.”  However, this vow is about much more than money.  Through our vow, we try to create a community in which everyone has what they need.  We attempt to model a system based on collaboration, sharing, and generosity instead of the prevalent culture of consumerism, greed, and getting ahead.
Beyond our community, we vow to work for the common good of all and to align our worldview with those people living in economic poverty.  We try to “live simply in a complex world,” interiorly and exteriorly.  Perhaps even more profoundly, this vow calls us to single-heartedness with God as our focus and purpose.  We vow to recognize our own poverty and weakness and our need for dependence on God and one another.  We vow to be deeply grateful for all that God has blessed us with, knowing that all is truly gift.

The vow of celibacy, of course, involves that we choose not to live life with a romantic partner but instead in community with our sisters and associates.  I rejoiced when doing reading about this vow through the year that the word “love” was mentioned so often!  Rather than being a vow that cuts us off from love, it calls us to love widely, embracing the whole human family and all of creation!  The vow of celibacy frees me to respond to the needs of the world.  The vow of celibacy means that we sisters aim to be in healthy, loving relationship in community, ministry, and personal lives.  We treasure friendship!  We treasure being members of our religious congregation and the whole world community of women religious!
The vow of celibacy says that our hearts are oriented to God above all else and to the whole human family and Earth through God.  Because my primary focus is not on a spouse or family, I vow to focus my energy in a unique way to be an instrument of justice and peace in society.   Although not sexually active, celibate people are called to give life and love in many ways!  Sisters are some of the most creative and generative people I know, channeling their sexuality into building the kingdom of God and giving of themselves generously.  In the words of Simone Campbell, I vow “radical availability” when I vow celibacy.

And last but not least, we vow obedience.  Our dear sisters gone before lived a very different model of obedience than that which has emerged since the Second Vatican Council.  Obedience in the past meant following the orders of the “higher-ups.”  Sisters would receive what was called a mission slip telling them where they would be going to do ministry (sometimes to do something they absolutely did not want to do) and when they would leave to go (sometimes the very next day!).  The way we live it has changed, but at the heart, obedience is still about vowing to do God’s will, personally and communally.  It is a commitment to listen deeply to God’s voice, in our hearts, in our sisters, and in the whole world!  Personally, when discerning ministry, it is now a much more mutual process.  Instead of being told what to do, a Sister discerns God’s call with the help of peers, mentors, and a membership of the Leadership Council.
The vow of obedience, however, goes far beyond individual ministry decisions.  As a congregation of women who vow obedience, we promise to listen together as best we can to make decisions, choose our direction, and be a presence of Love.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the central mandate of our lives.  We vow to follow Christ and try to do as he would do in the current times.  We vow a life of faithful discernment and of saying “yes!”

I am humbled and proud when I think about the women who have made these vows through the years.  What courage, what commitment, what love they have brought to the world!   These vows are indeed the way I want to give my heart and my life.  I am grateful for your prayers as I profess them on Saturday.

If you have any more questions, please feel free to let me know!  And if you’d like to read more of my and Andrea’s thoughts on the vows (some of these same thoughts fleshed out in different ways), check out these 3 articles:

Friday, June 12, 2015

Some "Splainin"

"What are all these
steps for?!"
This blog is mom-inspired!  As she and I talked about vows last week, she shared that it might be a good idea to write about the different steps of the journey I’ve been on and about what it means to make first vows as a religious sister.  Considering that I knew almost nothing about the process before I entered, I imagine that many of you, too, might be wondering about all the steps and would appreciate a little “splainin.”

The process of becoming a sister varies from congregation to congregation, but many of the elements are the same.  I’ll tell you about the process we follow as Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, and I’ll try to relate it to more familiar dating terms.  Of course, you understand that this journey is very different and can’t be compared exactly to the development of a romantic relationship.  It can help to frame and clarify.

The Sisters of Charity outline this process on our website here.  I’ll use some of that language and then add my own.

Step 1:  Pre-entrance “is a period of preparation…which enables the individual and the Congregation to become acquainted and mutually discern her call and readiness for affiliation with the Sisters of Charity.”

To compare it to a romantic relationship, this is like the time when two people are into each other but not formally dating.  They spend time together to get to know one another, and there is clearly some mutual interest.  A woman in pre-entrance is interested in the Sisters of Charity.  She has a contact sister from the congregation with whom she talks on a regular basis to learn more about the community and explore her possible call.  The length of pre-entrance varies from person to person but is usually six months to two years.  I did my pre-entrance in New Mexico in 2012.  It only lasted three months because I had already lived with the Sisters there for eighteen months as a volunteer.

Step 2: Affiliation “is a period of gradual involvement in the Congregation. As an affiliate a woman lives in a Sister of Charity community while continuing to work and discern her readiness for further commitment.”

Affiliation is like “going steady,” or whatever the cool kids call it these days.  The woman has decided that, yes, this is the congregation she wants to discern with.  She formally enters the congregation and moves into our Affiliate House in New Mexico, where she lives for a period of one to two years.  This is an important time in which she learns what day to day life is like as a Sister, participating fully in the house community and doing ministry.  In most cases, she is still financially independent.  She meets bi-weekly with her Affiliate Director to reflect on how God is calling her.  Andrea and I began our Affiliate year on June 24, 2012.  We will always count our years in community from that date; we’re almost to three! :)

Step 3: Canonical Novitiate is a special year in which the novice’s focus is “to learn more about religious life, to deepen her connection to the Congregation’s roots and history, and enable her to develop an integrated apostolic spirituality.”

Novitiate is a period of two years that could be looked at like engagement.  Novices move to the Novitiate house community on the Motherhouse grounds in Cincinnati.  At the beginning of the novitiate, women forgo their financial independence and assume the title "Sister."

This first year is a sacred year rooted in prayer and solitude, allowing for time to deepen one’s relationship with God.  There are a few days of classes each week on spirituality, theology, congregational history and values, Church history, and more.  There is one day of ministry and one day for prayer and reflection.  During this time, novices participate in the life of their local house community and the congregation at large, getting to know Sisters in the Motherhouse and Mother Margaret Hall, our nursing facility.  Novices also meet each week with their Novice director to process the journey.  Andrea and I began our canonical year in June 2013.

Step 4: Apostolic Novitiate “is a time to integrate full-time ministry or study with living religious life in a local community.”

This is a continuation of the “engagement” process with more focus on a novice’s call to ministry as well as preparation for vows.  An apostolic novice does ministry a few days a week; I’ve been at the Catholic Social Action Office at the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.  The novice meets with the novice director bi-weekly, and there is still a day for prayer in the week, allowing for deepening spirituality and balancing work, community, and prayer.  This year also encompasses what is like Pre-Cana for women religious.  Andrea and I read various articles about the vows and reflected on them with our house community and other sisters.  We wrote about our experience of each vow and kept them in our hearts through the year, aware of our evolving feelings, questions and joys with each one.  Andrea and I began our apostolic novitiate last June, 2014, and have just a few weeks left until…

Step 5: First Vows!  For the first time, a woman professes “the vows of poverty, consecrated celibacy and obedience.  [This] allows a woman to live as a Sister of Charity for a temporary period of time. During this time she discerns the call to life commitment as a Sister of Charity.”

When Andrea and I profess vows on June 27th, we will become consecrated women religious!  This is a monumental day that could be compared to a wedding; although we do not vow our lives to a person, we vow our lives to a purpose, to our God and God’s people, and to our congregation.  According to canon law, a sister must be under first vows for three years before she can profess final vows.  This doesn’t signify that first vows mean less.  The intent is not temporary.  No, on our vow day, we profess those vows because we believe that we are called to live them our whole lives.  If, within the three year period, we feel God calling us differently, we can leave the process more easily than if we had professed vows for life.

During this time, there will still be a flexible process of discernment and formation; we’ll each choose a mentor sister to be our companion.  For the most part, however, we will be living as vowed Sisters of Charity, ministering full-time and living community.  We will have a “voice and a vote” in the congregation.  After at least three years, if we and the congregation feel so called, we will profess final vows as Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, confirming that the commitment made this June 27th is one for a lifetime.

Hopefully that was helpful!  Please feel free to ask any questions you may have.  And stay tuned for another blog explaining a bit more about each of the three vows we will be professing.  I’m looking so forward to sharing the special day with those who can come, and I’m grateful for the prayers of those who will be here in spirit!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Birthday Blog: Begin Again

“Begin again.”

My orchid saying, "Happy birthday!  Celebrate life!"
These two little words bursting with Buddhist wisdom popped into my mind this morning as I awakened to my 28th birthday.   When I came downstairs, I saw that a third blossom had opened on my recently dormant orchid.  A birthday is always a good reminder of life’s goodness and generative possibility!  As I look back over the last year and give thanks, I am also grateful for the way life always lets us start over, reinvent, recreate.  I am humbled by God’s refreshing love and excited by the new being born in and around me.  I suppose the phrase is also appropriate encouragement for a negligent blogger.  Today I "begin again" with high hopes for more consistency next year in this Diary of a Sister-in-Training! J

Happy Novices after
completing our Canonical Novitiate
More than my birthday, this week also marks a new beginning on my journey of religious life.  Andrea and I finished our canonical novitiate last Friday and are now onto year two.  Just as a refresher, the canonical novitiate is a year-long process that all religious experience in their formation.  It is a time focused on solitude and prayer and becoming deeply rooted in God’s love.  Over the last year, we have had classes three days a week in Spirituality, Theology, Scripture, Church History, Sisters of Charity History, and much more.  On Tuesdays, we each served at a ministry site, and Fridays were set aside as our Sabbath Day – a time for processing, relaxation, and prayer.  We’ve also spent time visiting Sisters at the Motherhouse, participating in congregational events, and cultivating intentional community here at our home, Bayley House.

Since I last wrote in March, we’ve followed the above rhythm with just a few additions.  In May, we participated in the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon with other religious in the name of Peace, Justice, and Vocations.  Later in the month, we went on a week-long silent retreat at Milford Jesuit Spiritual Center.  On Memorial Day, we participated in a Choral Reading about the Sisters of Charity who nursed in the Civil War.  Throughout June, we finished up with several evaluations that encouraged us to reflect on where God has led us throughout the canonical year. 

Andrea and myself go back to the 1860's with some of the
other participants in the Civil War Commemoration Service
Sisters and future Sisters at the
Flying Pig Marathon, May 2014
It was a year filled to the brim with wondrous learning experiences and people who shared their gifts and love with us.  It was also tough.  The time and space spent in prayer lends itself to much introspection and reflection, and lots of “stuff” quite naturally can arise.  Externally, I have been fed by the wisdom and love of my Sisters.  Internally, it’s been an intense journey, but one that has taught me more about God’s incomprehensible love.

I do feel ready to begin again!  We are a few days into the second year of Novitiate, called the Apostolic Novitiate, which will also happen in Cincinnati.  Not all congregations have a second year; it isn’t required as the canonical year is.  Our congregation has found it to be a helpful time of discovery and transition into full-time ministry.  As you probably guessed, the word "Apostle" comes from the idea of being sent, so the apostolic year is more focused on being out in the world.  The year will center upon ministry and discovering further how God calls us to serve as Sisters of Charity.  We’ll also still have a Sabbath Day to continue integrating the gifts of contemplation and action.  If God keeps the call comin', we’ll make first vows next summer, so we will also spend intentional time in vow preparation throughout the apostolic year.

God has stirred up some exciting opportunities in ministry for next year!  I’ll be working as an intern at the Archdiocese of Cincinnati Social Action Office.  Each year, the Office offers this position in conjunction with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD), the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ anti-poverty campaign.  I’ll be helping to administer CCHD grants, supporting local grassroots groups making change in their communities, educating about Catholic Social Teaching in parishes, working for immigration reform and care for creation, and perhaps other things!  I’ll also be writing a once a month for the Global Sisters Report, a project of the National Catholic Reporter.  Three other young Sisters and myself make up the Horizons column, a place for newer religious women to share their thoughts, reflections, and experiences.  You can read my first two (and future) columns here.

When Dan and Patty Kemme first held me in their arms on June 30, 1986, they could never have predicted that I would be here on my 28th birthday!  This gift of life is full of God’s surprises, and all of them way better than we could’ve conjured up on our own.

Bayley House with Novice Director during the last
night of Canonical Novitiate: Sisters Andrea, Donna, Tracy, Nancy,
Maureen, Terry, and Carol
During the closing of the canonical novitiate last Thursday night, we prayed with a reading that was included in the Opening of Novitiate Ceremony one year ago:   For this reason I bow my knees before the Creator,  from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that God would grant you, according to the riches of God’s glory, to be strengthened with power through the Spirit in the inner self,  so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3: 14-19)

 As I embark on a new year of life and a new step toward becoming a vowed Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, I am reminded that all of life is really a love story, leading each of us more profoundly to the heart of God.  It is God’s love that brings us into being, that sustains us, that calls us forward.  It is God’s love that wakes us up each morning with opportunities for new growth and new birth.  A fellow Sister gave me a card this morning that reads, “Today is the beginning of the best part of your life.”  True dat, Sister.  This day and every day, God, give me the grace to “Begin again!”

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sister: Who, me? Yes, you!

It’s a funny and wonderful thing, being young and being “Sister” in today’s world.  Take this scenario for example.

“What do you mean, honey?  You work for the Sisters of Charity?” the receptionist asked.

She looked at me with questioning eyes, and I could sense both of us growing impatient.  I had just moved back to Cincinnati and needed to find a new doctor’s office.  Here I was, trying to register at the nearby practice and finding it more complicated than expected.  The confusion started when I handed the receptionist my insurance card and told her that the policy is under the Sisters of Charity.

The first incredulous look. “The Sisters of Charity?”

“Yes…I’m in the process of becoming a Sister.  I live right up that hill.”

“Wait a second.  Are you employed by the Sisters of Charity?  Or are you a student at the College?  What are you telling me here?”

“Well, no, I’m definitely not a student at the College.  And I’m not technically employed by the Sisters…” (I rolled my eyes inside.  My feelings in a hashtag = #youngsisterproblems).  “I’m here because I’m in formation to become a Sister.  Like, I am going to be a Sister of Charity.”

"You don't look like a Sister!"
Disclaimer: Although the expression is
similar, this is NOT the actual doctor's office
“Hmm…we have lots of Sisters that come in here, and they don’t look like you!”  She squinted.  That’s when she asked again if I meant that I worked there.  I agreed to let her hold onto the card and “check on it” while I filled out the paperwork.

I thought to myself in disbelief – Do you have a history of young women coming in here and claiming to be nuns?!  Honestly!

Of course, when she checked it out, she discovered that I was not a Sister-impostor (nunpostor? J).  This time, she smiled at me with a kind eyes and a fascinated grin.  “Glad to have you with us, Sister!”

I winced a little bit, my feelings shifting from aggravation to discomfort.  I felt this urge to have my identity understood and well-received, but I was so not used to hearing the title.  Maybe I was confused about who I was, too.

 It was just a few weeks since I went from being Tracy to “Sister Tracy.” Andrea and I won’t make our first vows until summer 2015, but the title change coincides with the beginning of Novitiate.  In the months leading up to the ceremony, I felt joyful anticipation for what the new prefix would represent.  It seemed to express well the serious step I was taking, and I was ready!

Once it happened, it seemed surreal.  The Sisters around the Motherhouse enjoyed playfully addressing us with our new titles that week.  It was a thrill and at the same time quite strange. From one day to the next, this identity that I felt burgeoning within over time was articulated quite decidedly in the reality of 6 letters.  Surely an automatic transformation didn’t accompany the momentary change that allows me to put “S.” before my name.  “Sister Tracy?” I said to myself sometimes, swishing it around in my mouth to see how it felt. 

It's sort of like how that flashy red shirt looks great on the rack but feels a little different once you're staring at it in the mirror on your body.  I didn’t expect all of the questions that arose in me along with becoming “Sister.”  What does the word bring with it?  What implications does it have on my sense of identity?  What does it mean to adopt such a title?    I suddenly became unsure of how to introduce myself.  

Many of our more experienced Sisters grew up in a world where it was normal to be Sister ________.  These women are often comfortable being known as that, and I am comfortable addressing them as that.  In some cases, the title “Sister” is used almost as if it replaced the religious woman’s first name and comes usually with respect and love:  Thank you, Sister.  What do you think, Sister?  I find myself doing this in our Motherhouse nursing area (confession: especially if I can’t actually remember her name!)  

For myself, I'm hesitant to throw it out there and uncertain when it applies. Do I change my name on Facebook (funny and honest question)?  Do I write it on nametags?  I'm very comfortable with it in formal settings, when everyone is "Mr." or "Ms." or whatever.  I'm okay with kids calling me Sister Tracy when they are referring to other adults in the same way.  But there is lots of grey area.  In a ministry setting, it might establish appropriate boundaries, or it might make someone uncomfortable to share with me.  

A few times I’ve been called “Sister" in fairly casual conversations when others are called by their first names.  To me, that feels weird and like a reinforcement of old, erroneous thinking that religious are somehow different.  Why I am Sister Tracy if she isn’t Mrs. Ann?  I'm also hesitant to elicit special treatment.  I hope that I would be responded to with the same esteem whether I am "Tracy" or "Sister Tracy."  Unfortunately, that isn't always the case.  I would never want to perpetuate ideas that keep religious on an imaginary pedestal.

Occasionally, instead of inflated admiration, the title could create other kinds of discomfort at the outset of a conversation.  People may (unnecessarily) worry about judgment and feel that they have to act or speak differently.  Or they may (unfairly) expect me to act or speak differently.

I do see goodness in using the title at times.  Especially because there are so few young religious, I want people to know that I have chosen this and am happy!  I like the shock value and the conversations that it can spark about the religious life or faith in general.  “You’re Sister?”  Yes!  And there are others like me!  And more on the way!  Calling myself  "Sister Tracy" can help put it out there forthright and whittle away at stereotypes.  Perhaps in the future young Sisters won’t hear:  Hmm…you don’t look like a Sister.  

So, there are complexities attached to the word.  I've only said “Sister Tracy” a few times when it seemed appropriate, like at a vocation dinner, or at the beginning of a formal presentation, or when another Sister in the conversation did so before me.  Many Sisters say that in most settings, they introduce themselves with their first name and then share that they are Sisters of Charity as the conversation progresses, much like someone might share their profession or how many kids they have.  I like that.  Hi. I’m me and you’re you.  It establishes an equal playing field off the bat.

Some of the amazing women I get to share this with:
Novitiate community mates (at our super-fun
Valentine Party!)
Of course, it's not only the title that comes with connotations.  The title is a symbol of the identity.  At some point, when it surfaces that I'm a Sister, any number of conversations, positive or negative could ensue.  So apart from the word, perhaps the most important question is:  What do I believe about being Sister Tracy?  Being “Sister” is a humbling, marvelous gift.  When I am introduced as Sister next to fellow Sisters who have celebrated Golden Jubilees and touched countless lives through the years, I wonder for a minute how I could ever share the same title.  Certainly, I am not as much “Sister” as they are, right?  If that is a doubt in me, I am never made to feel that way by my fellow Sisters.

Mostly, I feel like and want to be called Tracy, but there is a newness and a profound acknowledgment of the commitment I am making.  My heart skips a little joyful beat when I am signing my name on something official and remember that I get to add the “S.”  It is a jubilant reminder of what I am on the way to.  I am growing into it, as would be expected for a novice.  I imagine that those who graduate med school don’t feel like “Doctor” in a day; I imagine that being a “Mrs.” evolves and deepens through each passing day of marriage.  I’m figuring it out, just like the doctor’s office receptionist.   From time to time, there will be #youngsisterproblems, but mostly, there are #youngsistergraces.

Happy young Sisters!  Andrea and me with Tracey
and Arrianne of the Sisters of Providence
I can say, on this last day of National Catholic Sisters Week, what a treasure it is to be linked with a word, whether uttered or not, that carries such a powerful legacy.  If being “Sister” means trying to love radically, walk with those who are suffering, confront injustices, and respond to the needs of the times, as Sisters have done faithfully through the years, then how I desire to be Sister Tracy!   It is an honor to share this life form with so many inspiring women. 

It seems that titles in themselves are not so important in the end.   At times, I might shout it from the rooftops.  At times, I might say it only in my actions. When it comes down to it, I'm Tracy, y'all.  It's the witness of our lives that defines us (all of us!).  I am proud to be a young Sister, excited for the future of religious life, and so grateful for God’s call that got me here.

  Happy National Catholic Sisters Week!

Yes, you  
(by: me -- 3/13/2014)

Who, me?

Yes! says God.  It’s who
I call you
to be.

The ones gone before
made it up as they went,
I filled each woman with her Yes
Just as I breathe life

Be who you are -
It is written on your
Little Sister, you are becoming,
and you 
have more than made a start

Carrier of a wondrous history
Dreamer of a future hopeful and new
Change-agent in our world today
You are all of these: 
Yes, you! 

Claim your Sister-hood with Love
Live into your call

“Sister” isn’t a title
but a


after all.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Getting Thin in 2014

Photo: Merry Christmas from Bayley House!
Bayley House Christmas, clockwise from back left: Carol,
Maureen, Nancy, Terry, Andrea, and me!
It’s the last day of 2013, which means that tomorrow, after stuffing our faces for a few weeks, many people will start talking about getting thin.  Although being healthy is a good thing that contributes to overall wholeness, I’ve got an idea for a different kind of “getting thin” resolution this year.  It comes from a reflection Sister Nancy led during our house community Christmas celebration (thanks Nancy!).  She invited us to read and pray with an excerpt from a 2012 NCR article by Jay Cormier (full text found here) called “The Thin Places Where God Speaks.” 

The article reads, “The Celtic Saints speak of ‘thin places’: locations in time and space where the things of heaven seem to touch the things of earth.  To be in a ‘thin place’ is to be in the real, present world of God.  Christmas is the ultimate thin place: God touches human history in the birth of a child…In Christmas, the boundary between heaven and earth is at least blurred, if not breached, forever.”

It seems that each year at Christmas, I’m amazed by something new about the boundary-breaching mystery of the Incarnation.  Last year, I reflected much on the idea that Jesus gave God a human face.  For centuries before Christ, our ancestors prayed to a God that they had read about in the scriptures but that remained an ethereal presence.  Jesus came, and God could be touched and held!  We have a deep sense of who our God is in Jesus – we can see actions, hear words, observe and imitate the radical love and compassion that he embodied.  Jesus’ birth is God saying to God’s people:  I love you, and I want you to know me.

This year, praying with Emmanuel, I was touched by our God’s intimate knowing of the human heart.  In taking flesh, Jesus lives in our world, breathes, eats, and sleeps.  As a baby, he depends on his parents for sustenance and love.  He lives times of great joy and great struggle.  He loves, cries, laughs, and feels the whole gamut of human emotion.  Now, God didn’t need to take on human form to understand us; God created us!  But maybe this is a reminder for us when we need one:  Jesus really understands it, all of it.  It’s like God’s saying: I love you, and I want you to know that I know you.

Sometimes, our life seems full of “thick places.”  God may seem too distant, too big, too incomprehensible, too mysterious to be knowing and knowable.  There are moments when I look up into the vast sky and wonder, “Who is this God, really?”  A God who created all we see and who finds a way to speak to little me is tough to grasp at times.  But Christmas reminds us in a powerful way that it is true.  My spiritual director often begins prayers with, “God of the universe and God of our hearts…” God is mystery, yes, but God is oh-so-close, with, among, and in us.  We’re always in a thin place.

At the beginning of December, Andrea, Donna, and I went to Nerinx, Kentucky, to spend a few days at Cedars of Peace, a retreat center run by the Sisters of Loretto.  We each had our own little hermitage for the weekend.  I spent hours just sitting in the comfy chair in front of the large picture window, watching the squirrels and letting the silence seep into my bones.  Winter has its own beauty, and it spoke to me of Advent.  The tall, bare trees sing of being naked and vulnerable before God who knows us so deeply.  There was a freedom in their leafless splendor, all of their branches stretching out, as if unabashedly reaching for God with every fiber of their being. There was nothing superfluous about them, just a simple be-ing.  They invited me to simply be, too, making space for Jesus’ love and new life to grow.

 I felt God’s healing love in an undeniable way.  There was that Incarnation insight that’s been with me: know you and love you as you are.  I prayed Maranatha, and I knew that Jesus was there. 

Not my photo...but just as beautiful as the deer
in Nerinx.  Aren't they always a delightful,
surprising sign of God's presence?!
On the last morning of retreat, I had just finished cleaning my cabin and packing up.  I had about ten minutes to spare until departure, so I plopped down in the big chair one last time, sad to be leaving and hoping I’d be able to carry with me the Presence I’d felt.  I didn’t feel much like praying and certainly didn’t expect anything miraculous.  Well, right when I looked out the window, three deer that I had encountered throughout the weekend came bounding out of the woods and began playing. Right then!  Andrea could see them from her cabin, too.  I was overcome with prayer, the best kind, the kind that catches you off guard and reminds you that it is God who does the praying in us, anyway.  It was a reassurance: I was with you here on retreat, but of course I’m with you always.  How did you know I needed that?  I thought.  And I felt God’s intimate, knowing smile at me in the wonder of nature around me.  A thin place.

Our lives are thin places, whether we realize it or not.  Yesterday, I spent time doing little projects that have piled up in my room, awaiting some “break” to tackle them.  The afternoon project was organizing all the files on my computer and transferring everything from my old external hard drive to a newer (much smaller!) one.  As I organized, I stumbled upon pictures from the last ten years of my life, especially the last year.  It was appropriate, as 2013 comes to a close, to flip through them, giving thanks for the people and places that have shown God’s presence to me so clearly.  Here is a snapshot:

As we reflect on the year behind us and the new one about to dawn, I invite us to “get thin” in the spiritual sense.  What have been the “thin places” of your life in the last year?  If you look, you’ll find the Incarnation happening in and around you.  You’ll find that God who knows us and wants to be known by us touching the stuff of your life and abiding in your heart through “thick and thin.”

How will you be open to the “thin places” to come?  I ask God’s grace for you and me, that we might be awakened to the Christmas-infused nature of our whole lives.  God’s powerful love, gentle comfort, and deep joy are born in us each day.  God’s spirit of courage, justice, charity, and compassion urge us on like a fire within.  Jesus touches our lives and invites us to touch the lives of others. 

It’s probably a good idea for all of us to eat less cream cheese and cookies in 2014.  But let’s make sure from time to time to stand where we are, as we are, and behold how heaven is touching earth.  God is near.  Year after year, the place we are in is thin.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

No [Nun] is an Island

“Pope Francis!”
“Umm...Baby Jesus!”
“The Visitation!”
“No, wait....Sound of Music!”
“John the Baptist!”

If you had walked down the hall on the second floor of the otherwise quiet Sisters of Charity Motherhouse tonight, you would’ve heard female voices enthusiastically shouting these words and names, among others, interspersed with boisterous laughter.  You might have asked yourself:  What is this all this ruckus?!  Who are these people?  And why are they yelling out a random list of religiously-affiliated people and things...and then laughing?!?

The only answer (obviously) is that it was a bunch of young nuns playing Charades!

(Actually, the game was Fishbowl, which is like Charades, but I just said Charades since not everyone knows Fishbowl...yet.  It's truly the most fun party game.  Learn about it here).  Okay, I digress...

The women that gathered tonight are young Sisters and Sisters-in-training (and young-women-thinking-about-becoming-Sisters-in-training) from all over the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.  There were 17 of us.  This is the second time the group has met, and some people couldn’t make it due to the holiday weekend. We came from 7 different congregations and ranged in age from early 20’s to 50.

Who says religious life is dying?!
Our Cincinnati young Sisters group - photo courtesy of
Katie Hoelscher

We started the evening with a “speed-dating” ice breaker to get to know each other better.  (One of our Sisters joked, "It's been awhile since I've had a date."  J)  We took turns pairing up and responding to the question, “What attracted or attracts you to religious life?”  The word "community" popped up all over the place.  It seems that many of us were drawn by the chance to throw our lot in with people who have given themselves completely to the mystery that is God.  

We couldn't and wouldn't want to do this alone.  At the very heart of the call to religious life is a desire to share life with other women whose lives are totally centered in Love and driven by the Gospel.  We are women who want to pray together; who want to serve and minister to those most in need in our society together; who want to become the best, truest version of ourselves together; who want to work for justice and peace together.  Being a part of the deep-rooted and far-reaching network of Sisters all over the city, country, and world is a life-force.  I am energized and strengthened just knowing that there are so many others who have chosen and are choosing this path.  Certainly, no nun is an island!

In this season of gratitude, I've been especially thankful for the wider community of religious women.  A few weeks ago, I found myself in New Orleans for "Nuns Build," a week for Sisters from many different parts of the U.S. to come to Louisiana and do restoration work on homes destroyed by Katrina.  About eighty Sisters came for Nuns Build, some of them taking vacation to be there.   Nine of us from the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati participated, including Sister Monica who lives New Orleans and co-chaired the entire Nuns Build program.  We stayed with 11 other Sisters of Charity from different congregations at the House of Charity where Monica resides and hosts volunteer groups throughout the year.

Photo: Charity sisters at nuns build!
Charity Sisters in front of the House of Charity
In New Orleans, there are 8,000 families still awaiting to return home since Katrina happened in 2005.  They simply cannot afford to rebuild their houses.  Organizations like the St. Bernard Project that we worked with are striving to help people get back into their homes.  They have 130 families on the waiting list and 15 new applications each day.  Resilient and strong but hurting, the people of New Orleans still need much support.

Some of our SC group with Raymond
The Sisters of Charity (SC) group was assigned to work on a house belonging to a man name Raymond.  Katrina destroyed his home, and in the eight years since the storm, his parents and his wife have died.  He has struggled immensely and is anxious to return home. When we got to the site on Monday, the inside of the house was just a wooden frame.  By the end of the week, it was almost completely dry-walled.  I couldn't believe how hard the Sisters worked, some of them in their 70's!

Gabriela and S. Joyce
That spirit of a shared commitment to the Gospel we spoke of tonight at our young nun gathering was alive in New Orleans!  We started each morning with prayer together.  During the day, we faithfully employed tape measures and box cutters and drills.  Everybody wanted to be there to serve and did so (for the most part) with simple joy (there were only a few choice words uttered when the screw wouldn't go in, or the measurement was off, or the drywall broke...).   In the evenings, we ate together at the house or went on various outings.  We often ended the night playing goofy party games and laughing more than I have in a long time.  Many of the Sisters from different SC congregations had never met before, but there was a natural bond and quickly developing feeling of family.

I would not have traded my spot in that group of women for anything.
S. Donna and S. Carol
hang dry wall

Now, I would be painting a false picture if I told you that being a Sister makes me feel this sense of contentment and pride  I just described each and every moment.  Day to day religious life is not glamorous or romantic.  It's life - sometimes really good, sometimes so-so, and sometimes really difficult.  In fact, the first five months of Novitiate have been especially difficult.  I haven't written much about it because it feels too personal and too much in process still to put it into words.

But encounters like Nuns Build and tonight's get-together have given me a much needed shot of energy.

Maybe it's like when a couple finally gets to step out of their routine and go out for a nice dinner after running on auto-pilot for a few weeks.  They dress up and check out a new Italian place.  Maybe they laugh about stories from when they first met, dream about what the future might hold, and simply enjoy each other's presence in the present with intentionality and few distractions.

I feel that similar candlelit dinner glow in my heart when Sisters gather.  It puts me in touch with why I so passionately want to be here and why I could not not say yes to this path.

In our prayer tonight at the Motherhouse, we used the Gospel reading about "The Visitation," Mary's visit to her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist as she is pregnant with Jesus (Luke 1:39-45).  It's such a joyful encounter of two women rejoicing in the new life growing in each other.  As Sisters, we obviously don't relate directly to the sensation of an infant "leaping in the womb" as Elizabeth's did upon Mary's greeting.  But we are Christ-bearers and bringers of new life in many different ways, and something certainly leaps inside of us when we come together, embrace, and celebrate our unique and treasured vocation.

The Visitation, artist unknown
As we "speed-dated," prayed, ate, and laughed at our religious Fishbowl answers this evening, it struck me that the Motherhouse, our gathering space, dates back to the 1880's.  How many Sisters have gathered in that very room over the last 130 years?  Our energy seemed to brighten up the wise and quiet halls of the historic building, like we are somehow the new life leaping for joy in the womb of religious life.

I am grateful for the beautiful web of women religious that reaches into history, spans the globe, and leans into the future with faith and promise.  We're in this together, Sistas.

...Except if you're on the other team in Fishbowl.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Interview with the College Roommate of a Sister-in-Training

 Total writer's block over here.  I've tried to blog for the whole month of October.  I keep starting and stopping entries.  It seems that I'm still figuring out how to put the experience of Novitiate into words.  

Kaitlin and me before a UD basketball game, 2004
In the meantime, I interviewed my dear friend and former college roommate, Kaitlin (Moredock) DiNapoli, about what it's been like to have a peer and close friend become a Sister.  Kaitlin is a native of Springfield, IL, and a fellow graduate of the University of Dayton.  We met the summer before freshman year at an orientation and instantly clicked.  We lived on the same dorm floor the first year and then were immediate roommates for sophomore through senior years.  After college, she went to Notre Dame where she got her law degree and met a wonderful man named Jason.  They married in April in Philadelphia, where they currently reside and practice law.  And...they are expecting a little one in the spring!!!!  Despite the physical distance between us the last few years, we've remained an integral part of each other's lives.  I'm especially grateful for her support and enthusiasm for my chosen life path, and it's been a joy to watch hers unfold.  

So...what's it like to be 27 and have a nun-best-friend? :)  Kaitlin will tell you.  Read on:

Freshmen at UD
Tracy:  Alright, Kait, to start off, what would you like to say about how we met?
Kaitlin: I just like that we met even before freshman year of college, 9 years ago, and we knew automatically that we were going to be best friends.  (I laugh)  No, seriously, it was so easy!  We’re both so different now from who we were then, but it’s still just as easy.

Junior year  roommates: Christie, me, Kait, Clare
Julie, Rachel
T:  When you think about our time as roommates together at UD, what comes to mind for you?
K:  For me, it’s just happy; a time where we were trying to figure out what we would do and where our talents were best used, but we were always really involved, and busy…and happy.
T:  That’s exactly the word that came to mind for me too when I pictured our room!  Always lots of laughing.
Kait, Clare, and me after a
Christmas party, 2007
Our house at UD senior year
K:  Right, and it was just uncomplicated, but not unquestioning.   So, I pulled off…um…our mission statement (I laugh loudly.  Yes, Kaitlin and I actually wrote a mission statement and hung it in our bedroom senior year.  I know…).  Listen to it!  (I’m still giggling) Listen to it. 
T: Okay, okay.
K:  It still describes our UD experience so well to me.  Here it is:  “Kaitlin and Tracy pledge to live each day with laughter, light-heartedness, and a positive approach.  This shall be manifest in undying dedication to academic excellence and a passion for leading lives framed by intelligence and leadership, centered in a deep faith in God and in ourselves, lived out in a commitment of service to others.”
T: Wow.
K: Doesn’t that just say it?

Senior year roommates, clockwise from top L: Julie, me,
Kait, Christie, Clare
T: That makes me really proud of us actually, because I think sometimes it’s easy to focus on things about college life that I’m not so proud of.
K:   Of course.  It’s easy to think back on the scenes at Tim’s or Milano’s (favorite UD bars) where it’s 4 in the morning…wait a minute, never mind…it was never 4 in the morning for us.  (We both laugh)  It was 2 in the morning (laughs), and we’d be out all night, at several different parties…yea.  But that sense of mission has always been central to who we are.

T: When those 4 years were coming to a close, what did you think that my future might look like?
Kait and me on the El Paso/Juarez trip with Ali and
children from Anapra, Mexico, 2006
K: Well, I knew at the time you were going to Ecuador to serve for at least one year, and I thought was good for you and in line with your wanting to live a life of service.  But I thought that afterward, you would find a good non-profit to work for.  I still pictured you on the border [at El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico].  (Kaitlin and I went on an immersion trip there together as sophomores.  I did end up living for 3 years with the Sisters of Charity).   And…I thought you’d be married.  Not necessarily with one of the guys you dated in college…I’m not sure.  I don’t know about kids, ‘cause it was still too early for me to think about.  But, I pictured you with a husband.  I mean, that was the norm.  And you’d been in a lot of relationships; a lot of steady relationships. 
T:  Yea.  (We both laugh)  That’s similar to what I thought, too.  That I would end up married and working for a non-profit somewhere or in campus ministry.
K: Yea.  I didn’t see you going to law school even though you took the LSAT.  Just because it would’ve been too removed from “the people” for you.

T:  So, do you remember the first time I told you I was thinking about being a nun?
Kait and me at friends' wedding, after graduation
and before I left for Ecuador, 2008
K: It would’ve been the Fall of 2009, right?
T: Well, 2008.  It was the Fall after we graduated.  We were chatting online because I was in Ecuador.
K:  Right, right.  Okay.  Honestly, I remember being not too stunned by the news.  The way you explained it to me, it wasn’t like you were sure about it.  So my whole outlook on your life didn’t change instantly.  It felt like – okay, this is something we’ll think and pray about.  Oh, and the timing made sense.  You were in a place where you were doing so much reflection.  I remember being jealous of all the time you had to pray.  I had already thought, “Wow, look what she’s coming to!  I wonder what the future holds?”  So, it wasn’t difficult to understand.
T: I remember feeling support from you right away.  You were one of the first people I told, I think right after my Mom.   I knew it wouldn’t be totally off the wall for you because of our faith background.  But you were so very receptive, which was nice.  Because I think for me it felt like “coming out” in a certain way, like sharing a deep secret.
K:  Yes!  When I was reflecting, that was a comparison that came up for me.  It was kind of like you were “coming out.”  But I will say that still, it really wasn’t as surprising to me as maybe you thought it would be.

T:  So, from that day on you’ve been walking with me on this journey.  What’s it been like for you?
K:  Hmm…some parts have been very difficult.  The part that stands out to me is that very dark period you went into after you realized God was indeed calling you to the religious life, but it required so much sacrifice on your part.  You and your boyfriend broke up and you moved back from Boston.   So that Christmas season and all the way into February was so dark.  You were so down, and I couldn’t help you, except for saying things like, “You’re doing what you’re called to do!” 
Other things had been clearer, like when you described living in the Affiliate house as “dating the idea of becoming a nun.”  That was very relatable for me!  If you’re dating someone, you’re just seeing if it fits and if it’s where you’re called to be.  That was easy to understand and support.  But in this one, I couldn’t help you much, because it was a foreign experience.  That was very difficult. 
Visiting Kait in Ann Arbor, 2012
At the same time, other things have been uplifting and wonderful, like seeing you at the Motherhouse among all these Sisters who place so much hope and trust in you.  It made me so proud!  Trace, so much of your journey has led me to immense pride in you.  That’s why I tell everybody that my best friend is going to be a nun. Cause I’m really proud that you are!
T: Of course you know I’m crying right now.  (I laugh through my tears)  
Okay, moving on…is there anything you’ve learned that has surprised you about religious life?
K:  Yes!  I’ve learned a lot about different ideologies within the Catholic Church…well, particularly in the U.S.   As Catholics, we all adhere to the faith, but then there are these branches, like more liberal Catholicism that emphasizes Catholic Social Teaching and liberation theology.  It became evident in the tension around the Church’s investigation of the U.S. Catholic Sisters.  I paid so much more attention to that whole thing because I knew that you were joining the ranks.  And it’s driven me to have more conversations about things like that than I would otherwise. 
Oh!  I also learned in one of our recent conversations that Sisters and Brothers are considered part of the laity because they’re not ordained.  I never knew that before!

T:  Was there anything that you learned during your visit here to the Novitiate House and Mother House?
Kait and me with my parents during her recent visit
K:  Yes, that’s why I’m glad I visited.  I understand your life there much better now.  One thing I come away with is that you’re under more pressure than I was sensing.  When I was there, I felt pressure to get to know the many older Sisters and their stories – because they’re remarkable!  These women have done remarkable things for our Church and our world.  And within the next couple decades, many of them will be gone.  I see how you want to know these stories.  They inspire you and help you to know how to live out your...hmm…I think of it as a call within a call.  You know, there’s Sr. Kateri working with the veterans and doing amazing things on their behalf…and Sr. Flo, going to a remote village in Peru and being pretty much the only face of the official Church there.  There are many stories to hear, and big shoes to fill, and that can be daunting!
T:  Yes, it definitely can be, especially because this year could be the only time in the foreseeable future that I live so close to the Motherhouse.  So there is a certain sense of pressing desire to “get to know.”
K:   Yea, and I just imagine that might be stressful in a way.  I also see what a gift this year is for you.  You get to learn from everyone around you as well as really focus on your own spirituality and relationship with God.
T:  It is definitely a great gift! 
Speaking of gifts, let’s talk for a minute about our friendship.  Has my choosing this path brought any specific challenges or gifts to our relationship?
Jason and Kaitlin in 2011
K:  One great gift is that since we’re taking
different paths, we have to communicate our lives better to each other to maintain this level of understanding.  For example, when Jason and I found out that we were going to have a baby, we told our parents and our siblings first.  Then I talked with Jason and told him that I wanted to tell you before we told anybody else, because…I don’t know…it felt right to include you in that part of my life.  Because you’re called to be a Sister, I feel like I should be very open to you about my life and my marriage so we don’t drift apart. I have to tell you because you won’t be able to say, “Oh yea, my husband I went through that, too.”  And I think you’ve been doing the same thing with me.  That’s what I saw when I came to visit you.  There’s openness about your life and your calling and what you’re doing every day.
Roommates at Kait's wedding, April 2013
T:  Yes!  It’s enriching to both be fully embracing our different vocations and sharing about it.  I feel blessed to have such an understanding of what the beginnings of marriage and starting a family can be like through your eyes, since I’ll never have that experience personally.  I treasure that.
K:  I do, too.  And I also like that I’m able to share about you with other people.  It starts so many rewarding conversations, with friends that are Catholic, or Jewish, or any other faith, or those that don’t identify with any faith tradition.

T: One challenge to our friendship that I reflected on has been my absence at gatherings of friends in the last few years. I know I talked with you about this internal struggle last spring when you had your bachelorette party in Philly.  I just couldn’t be present for things as much as I’ve wanted to in the last few years.
 K:  Oh, yes! I’m so glad you brought that up.  Yea, you can’t and won’t be able to travel as much.  Some of that isn’t specific to your calling to be a Sister.  There are lots of other situations that keep people from traveling a ton to be with friends whenever they want, too.  But it’s different because as a Sister you’re living in community.  You can’t just decide to get in the car and leave and drive and crash at a friend’s house for a night on the fly.  You’re committed to that group of people in your home.
T:  Yes, definitely.  And I know that I’ll often have to make choices like that based on my commitment to community and ministry as well as due to our sharing of financial resources.  I know that these kinds of changes come with any sort of commitment.  I know that your dinner time with Jason is sacred.  You don’t spend your evenings on the phone because you want to be present with him.  And once you start a family, it’ll be more difficult for you to just go on a girls’ weekend or something.  I think maybe it just hit me the last few years because the twenties are often a time of relatively more freedom.  And I just couldn’t be there for all of the get-togethers and celebrations.
Exploring the Sisters of Charity Motherhouse grounds
K:  Your friends understand, though.  Everybody has been put in situations when they can’t be everywhere they want to be.  And, your friends know that you’re doing something really special and really different.  Nobody’s holding any grudges.

T:  Going along with that, do you have any words of wisdom for friends or family of someone discerning a religious vocation, or any life choice that might be considered unexpected or unique?
K: My words of wisdom are just to keep an open mind.  The person who is discerning is trying as hard as they can to figure out where they’re meant to be.  Saying things like, “Maybe you just haven’t met the right guy yet!” is not ever going to help (laughs).  It kind of breaks my heart when I hear people…well, normally it’s single men in their mid-twenties who think you’re very attractive (we laugh) and they’ll say to me things like, “She’s so beautiful, she’s so talented, she’s so funny…WHY is she doing this?  Maybe she just hasn’t met the right guy yet.”  But the thing is, it’s NOT a last resort.  I know the kind of heartache that you went through.  You were probably looking at every other possibility before you could give yourself to this path (we laugh again because it’s true).  Adding pressure won’t help.  Just try to be supportive and more open with your friend about your life, too.

T:  Beautiful.  Finally – considering the future, as we both live out our God-given vocations, what do you look forward to in our friendship?

K: I can’t wait.  I’m so excited!  I can’t help but smile.  First of all, our little babe having an Aunt Tracy who’s a nun (we giggle).  It’s going to be so special.  And then, thinking about…well, this is a perspective I have after going to the Novitiate House.  I see all the amazing things that these women have done, and I wonder:  what is it going to be for you?  How are you going to live this out?  How are you going to change the world?  The possibilities are ENDLESS.  It’s exciting, and it’s something that’s going evolve throughout our lives.  And, I get to be there!  I get to be your best friend still.  (laughs)  It just makes me happy, Trace.