Friday, December 14, 2012

Interview with the Mom-of-a-Sister-in-Training

This past Wednesday, besides being 12-12-12, was the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a very important and beautiful day in the Mexican Catholic culture.  I attended Mass at Sacred Heart that night, and the Church was just overflowing with people.  During the homily, Fr. Eddie reflected on how the image of Mary that showed up on Juan Diego’s cloak during the apparition shows Mary with child.  I began to reflect on that and try to enter into all that Mary must have felt in her journey of being Jesus’ mother.  When she carried Him in the womb, she could never have known all that she would watch her son live.  Then I thought about my own mother.  God knitted me in her womb, and she has walked with me through every moment of my life.  And she, like Mary with Jesus, has seen my life take a path that she most likely didn’t expect.  Throughout my process of becoming a Sister, my mom has gracefully supported, loved, encouraged, and listened to me, even when she doesn’t understand fully.  I am so blessed to call her “Mom.”  Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen: my Mom, Patty Kemme! 

Interview with the Mom-of-a-Sister-in-Training 

Tracy: How would you describe your relationship with me? 
Patty: I think that we have a pretty good adult mom/daughter/friend relationship.  I feel like you can talk to me about anything and vice versa. I sometimes don’t have the answers but I am always there to listen.  I feel like we “get” each other. 

T: What was I like growing up? What did you think I would be when I got older/what did you think I would do with my life?
Mom and I in 2011

P: You were imaginative, happy, smart, creative, and a perfectionist.  Until you went to college, I guess I thought you might be a writer.  You were always writing stories.  But in college you majored in Psychology and Spanish, and I wasn’t quite sure what path you would follow.  Then you volunteered to do Rostro and go to Ecuador; after that I figured you would find something to do with helping the less fortunate, possibly in conjunction with the Latino culture that you love. 

T: Before I told you, did you ever expect that I might choose to become a Sister? Why or why not? 
P:  No, it didn’t even cross my radar.  I guess I didn’t because it is just not heard of too much in this day and age.  You never talked about it, and you were dating. I guess I figured at some point you would get married.

T: When was the first time I told you that I was thinking about becoming a Sister? What did you think/feel initially? 
P: You told me when you were in Ecuador after your experience at the beach while on retreat.  I think you were at an internet café and we were Instant Messaging.  I guess I was shocked.  It was a foreign thought to me.  I don’t think most parents think that their children will grow up to join the religious life.   I probably thought that it would pass.  Also, I thought that most sisters were older and there would be no one your age and that might be hard.

T: How has your perception changed? How do you feel about it now? How do you think this life suits me? 
P: I guess I’m used to it now and have accepted it.  My main concern is that you are happy.  And I can tell that you are.  And I know that this hasn’t been an easy decision and that you have given it a lot of thought.  I’m still not sure if it is the choice I would have picked for you, but it isn’t my call.  I guess I’ve thought that you could do the same kind of work and not have to become a sister.  But the quote in your one blog has helped me to understand a little better.  “For those who are called, no explanation is necessary. For those who are not called, no explanation is possible.”

I think that you are very well suited to be a Sister.  You are very caring and concerned with others.  You will touch a lot of lives and your influence on people will have positive results because you are so positive.  And I’ll always support you no matter what.

T: What was it like for you watching the process of me making this choice? What has been difficult? Confusing? What has surprised you? 
P: It was hard because I know that it was very hard for you.  I didn’t feel like I helped you much.  I was just able to listen (which I hoped helped you).  Nothing really confusing or surprising.

Something else that has been a little difficult for me is talking to other people about your choice because the response isn’t always great.  When people knew Nathan [your brother] was getting married or got married, they would come up and say, “Congratulations!” They didn’t say, “Now why would he do that?”  With your choice, I feel like I have to explain it to people.  It doesn’t make sense, because it is your life choice, just like getting married is.  I know that it’s definitely a less-taken path, and people just don’t know many Sisters.  But it is just uncomfortable for me; like, why do I have to defend it?  Nathan chose to get married; you chose to become a Sister.

Although, even when people don’t really say anything in response, I still feel like I have to explain why you’re doing this.  Maybe deep down I’m still not totally comfortable with the idea myself, and that’s why I feel like I have to justify it, too.  I don’t know.

T: What about me becoming a Sister makes you happy? What about it makes you sad? 
P: I’m happy because I know it makes you happy.  I know that sisters do a lot of good in the world.  The sisters that I’ve met since you have joined are wonderful, inspiring people.  I was thinking about how it’s like now you have another family.  I know you’ve shared that for some Sisters’ families, it’s been hard for them to accept that.  But again, it’s just like when Nathan got married, or when anyone gets married. Now he’s got another family, and that’s wonderful.  We just get to make that new family a part of our family, and it’s the same with the Sisters.  Of course, it’d be great if you could live with me (laughs), but you wouldn’t do that in whatever path you take.  And I wouldn’t want you to live with me forever; I want you to do what you need to do.  I get to spend quality time with you when you’re here, and that’s good.  We just have to make the best of the time we have together (she sniffles, and me too).  But it’s good to know that when you’re not here, you’re still with family.

Mom and I at Nathan and Jenni''s wedding
As far as what makes me sad, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I thought you’d get married and have kids.  I have more in common with that path and would be able to help you more since I’ve experienced it.  Also, it’s possible that you might have lived closer.  But the main thing is that I want you to be happy.

It makes me sad, too, just knowing that…well, you know how you wrote in that one blog about Nathan’s wedding how it’s hard for you to always go to things alone and stuff (starts crying a bit). It’s hard to watch you deal with that.  But I know that you have a lot of friends, Trace, and a lot of people who care about you and support you.  I know you’ll never be lonely.  It’s just something to get used to, I guess.

T:  Is there anything you feel like you’ll be missing out on since I’m not getting married or having kids?  Like sometimes I see my friends planning their weddings with their moms (I start to cry), or you know…when they have babies and their moms get to be a part of that special experience…(crying) it makes me sad that I won’t get to live that with you.  Does that bother you at all? 
P: Well, I mean, it just would have been a different life.  Yes, that would have been nice, and grandkids are nice, too.  But they’re not everything.  When I was raising my kids, it never crossed my mind that I was doing it so that I could have grandkids.  I’ve just always wanted you to grow up and be happy.  I’m happy that I’ll probably get to experience being a Grandma with Nathan and Jenni’s kids.  But nothing is certain:  You could have gotten married and taken a job somewhere else and still lived far away.  You could have married and then not been able to have kids.  So the most important thing is that you follow your heart.

T: What are any fears/concerns you have in regards to my future? 
P: I guess I have some monetary concerns, since you give up everything and don’t really make any money.  But the sisters that I have met seem to be okay, just don’t know about the future because most sisters are older and I’m not sure how much money will be coming in, seems like more will be spent on taking care of the aging sisters.  Also, safety concerns depending on what path you follow after you become a sister.  Sometimes, I’m not sure that the Church and people in general appreciate and respect women religious the way they should.

T: What are your hopes for my future? 
P: I hope you are happy and that you achieve everything that you want to.  Just the same as anyone would want for their child no matter what path they choose.

T: What new things have you learned or experienced as a result of me taking this path? 
P: I guess mainly I’m thinking about all of the people I’ve met as a result of you making this choice – the people in your house, and at the Motherhouse, and in Mexico.  I’ve learned a lot more about what Sisters do, especially what the Sisters of Charity have done and do in Cincinnati.  Like this summer when we went with you and Tracey to that walk [to raise money for Sr. Sarah’s ministries in Guatemala] at Winton Woods [a park 10 minutes from our house.]  We found out there that Sr. Sarah’s sister worked at your grade school, and some of your other grade school teachers were at the walk.  Those connections are interesting.

I’ve also learned a lot about the process of becoming a Sister, something that many people don’t know.  I still don’t know everything; like I’m not sure what will happen after you spend your year in Cincinnati next year, where you’ll end up or whatever.  But I do think that it’s good that it’s a long process.  It gives people time to really be sure they’re making the right choice.

Oh, and I also learned that the Mount (the Motherhouse) has a swimming pool! (laughs)  All those years growing up right down the street, and I never had a clue.  (My mom grew up in Delhi just 5 minutes from the Sisters of Charity Motherhouse).
I’ve learned that the Sisters of Charity are a great group of people, especially your community in New Mexico.

T: What was it like to visit me here at the border and see me in my house and my ministry? 
P: It was just great to get to spend time with your housemates and get to know them better.  As far as visiting Mexico and seeing your work, I had a pretty good idea of what it would be like.  From seeing your pictures and hearing your stories from Ecuador, I sort of knew the kind of poverty you all were dealing with – what the neighborhoods look like, the houses and everything.  But it is always good to see where you are and have that picture in my mind.

T: As my Mom, what do you feel your role has been in helping me make this decision? 
P: I imagine that your upbringing had an influence: Catholic schools, going to Church, prayers, church choir, being a server.  My role recently has been and continues to be just to listen and be supportive.  Ultimately it is your life and your choice.

T: What was it like for you to attend my Affiliation Ceremony this summer in June?
Family at my June Affiliation Ceremony
P:  Hmmm…I’m not sure.  It was a really nice ceremony. (She’s quiet for a minute) I had been to an ordination of a priest before, so it wasn’t a totally foreign experience.  I think it made it finally sink in.  Dad and I had Skyped into your Pre-entrance ceremony in the Spring, but that was just the initial step.  This ceremony made it more real, like, wow, this is really going to happen.  I don’t think I was necessarily excited…I’m not sure how I was feeling.  I think I was more concerned about the behavior of other family members present who clearly were not too happy that you are doing this.  It was a really nice ceremony, though, and it was so good to see all of the people happy there.  All of the Sisters were so excited to welcome you into their community. That was nice.

T: I was just wondering, because it’s hard for me that the family doesn’t necessarily get excited about these steps, but if it was my wedding, for example, it would be a happy thing, with people congratulating me. 
P: Yea, I understand that. I think maybe it’s just because there’s still a few more steps in this path.  I think that maybe when you make your final vows we’ll feel more of that excitement.  More time will have passed; we'll understand it even more.  It will be a joyous day, a time for celebration.

T: What words of wisdom do you have for other parents of young women or men discerning the religious life? 
P: Just listen and be supportive.  You might not understand, you just have to have faith that it is the right thing for them. 

T: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 
P: Just to reiterate again how much as a mom I want you to be happy.  You know, if I had my druthers, you would get married and have kids and move in down the street from me.  Then we’d probably drive each other crazy. (Chuckles) And I just know you’re going to do a lot of good for a lot of people, Trace.  (She starts crying, harder this time.  Of course, I do too).  I do, Trace, I just know it.  You’re already doing it, just by being present and being who you are.

Seriously, how lucky am I to have this woman as my mother?  Mom, thank you, and I love you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Let Us See, Lord

International Altars
Each All Soul’s Day, a Mass is held at the border fence dividing El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to commemorate the approximate 500 immigrants per year who have lost their lives on their migration journeys.  I attended on November 2nd for the third year in a row.  More than 500 people from the dioceses of El Paso, Juarez, and Las Cruces, New Mexico, as well as the bishops from both sides of the border were present.  It’s a moving sight, brothers and sisters gathered to worship in a spirit of unity while separated by a physical barrier.

2010 was the first time I went to the Border Mass.  It was the deadliest year to date in Ciudad Juárez, with the horrifying drug violence resulting in approximately 8 murders a day.  I stood on the Mexican side of the fence that year, peering into the United States with some families from Proyecto Santo Niño.  From that vantage point, the fence not only represents a sad display of the ways that we divide ourselves; it is a blockade to education, prosperity, and in many cases, safety.

Crosses to remember lives lost
The journey of migration to the U.S., similar to the journey that many of our immigrant ancestors bravely endured years ago, is not an easy one.  The trail from the south involves months of walking on foot or jumping on trains, something that can leave people severely injured or dead.  Many are raped, jumped, and robbed along the way.  In addition, the militarization of the U.S. border in recent years involves more fences, more weapons, and double the number of Border Patrol agents.  To avoid these areas, people increasingly attempt to cross through the treacherous desert where they can die of exhaustion and dehydration.  Nevertheless, economic and trade inequities have caused such desolation in Mexico that people still choose to migrate.

When the bishop said at the Mass that day, “Let us extend to one another a sign of Christ’s peace,” tears welled up from deep inside of me.  In this place, too many have lost someone in the drug war or to the perils of migration, and too many live in the violence of poverty every day. The sign of peace took on a meaning much deeper than the usual cordial hand-shakes.  People crowded the chain-link border fence, pressing two or three fingers together as they could through the openings.

Sign of peace
This year, a Border Patrol vehicle was parked at the Mass, and orange cones marked an off-limits area about a yard from the fence, making it look even more ridiculous than usual.  There would be only smiles and peace signs held in the air to those on the other side.  The Border Patrol says they did this for “security reasons.”  The only risk I see in allowing the sign of peace is a deeper realization of connection to our brothers and sisters.  Our world could use more of that risk.

The gospel reading at the Mass was from Matthew 25, the well-known parable in which the King separates the “lambs” from the “wolves” on Judgment Day.  The lambs have unknowingly served Jesus by serving those who were hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick, or – strangers.  That day, something new stuck out to me in this reading that I’ve heard so many times before.  That is the word SEE.  The lambs respond to the King in the parable, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

It strikes me that the first step in each mentioned situation is seeing another human being and then responding to their need.  Jesus seems to be speaking of personal, relational giving.  The King doesn’t thank the lambs for dropping off their hand me downs and extra canned goods so that they’ll arrive to anonymous needy people.  Of course, those acts of generosity are inherently good and really make a difference.   But the problem is that when isolated, those acts are easy to walk away from with a good feeling, as if we have fulfilled a duty.  It allows us to keep ourselves as the givers and the “poor” as the needy receivers.  When we know people who are suffering, however, we might feel compassion, discomfort, anger, empathy, love.  We might see that we can give and receive mutually.  If our giving was coupled with and driven by truly seeing each other as human beings, the world could be transformed.

I’m thinking of “seeing” in the way that the Na’vi people use it in the movie Avatar.  Their traditional way of greeting each other is simple and powerful:  “I see you.”  Meaning - I reverently acknowledge your presence; I recognize you as an equal; I cherish you for all that you are; I see your heart, your yearnings, your dreams, your goodness; I see that we are a part of each other.  As I scanned the faces on the other side of the fence at the border Mass, squinting in the arresting afternoon sun, I felt like I was part of one big “I see you.”

This is the power of relationship.  I have seen it at work in my own life.  Growing up in the Midwest, I didn’t know much about the plight of the immigrant.  It wasn’t until I came to this very border on an immersion trip my junior year of college that I began to “see” the human beings involved.  I’ll never forget our first visit to a shelter for undocumented immigrants in El Paso.  We looked into the tearful eyes of a woman migrant from Central America as she shared her story with us.  After her husband was killed in cartel violence, she was left to provide for her 5 small children.  Unable to find sustaining work in her hometown, she made the heart-breaking decision to leave her kids with Grandma and come to the U.S.  She hoped to find a good job and to return home before the little ones grew up too much.  This woman, like the majority of immigrants in the U.S., would much rather be in her home culture with her family.  At the same time, she, like any good mother, will give anything to provide for her offspring.  She was just born in the “wrong” country.  How can I ever reduce immigration to a political issue when I know, through hundreds of personal encounters living on the border, that we’re talking about real people here?

I used to be able to think about “the poor” in an impersonal and disconnected way, too.  I heard people in the comfortable, middle-class circles where I grew up talk about the “lazy” people that leech off of government programs like food stamps.  I assumed similar attitudes, keeping the poor a separate entity and believing that their poverty was a result of their own choices.  I formed these ideas without knowing a single “poor” person.  Now, I sit and talk with many of those people on a weekly basis in my ministries.  I see their hearts.  Many people who step in my office divert their eyes, filled with dehumanizing shame at having to ask for help.  The majority are extremely hard-working people who have been dealt an unfair lot in life.  There are some people that “take advantage of the system.”  But when I really see them, compassion overflows.  I’ll never know what has happened to them through the years.  If I had walked life in their shoes, would I be sitting on the other side of the desk?

Our call as Christians is to strive evermore for this sacred “see-ing” of each other.  This week, we take time to thank God for the many, many blessings in our lives.  I pray that we take it a step further.   Can we also, out of our gratitude, be moved to love and serve in new ways?  In yesterday’s Gospel (Luke 18:35-43), a blind man sitting on the side of the road calls out to Jesus, “Lord, please let me see!”  Praying with the reading, I felt my own sinfulness cry, “Lord, I want to see!  Show me where I have been blind to those in need.  Show me the ways that I have been hateful, racist, ignorant, selfish, and closed to my neighbors.”  I need to identify the fences I have built in my own life that protect me from really seeing all of my brothers and sisters.  I hope that my first reaction can be love and not judgment to the “poor,” the “criminal,” and the “illegal” (can we please stop using this word?).  I hope I can see the Democrat or Republican, the Muslim, Jew, Protestant, Catholic, the annoying guy at the office, the friend whose politics are different than mine, the dirty, sunburned man begging on the corner.  Whether we like it or not, we’re all in this together.

We’re called to “love one another,” but how can we really love if we don’t really see?  Let’s choose to place ourselves somewhere where our eyes can be opened.  Serve, not just for a day, at an outreach organization where the “poor” can become John, a father of three who loves to read; where the “immigrant” can become Yessenia, a teenager who left her home to escape violence and now finds herself alone in a strange country.  Form relationships and dialogue with those who suffer and those who see the world differently than you.  It is a risk to put up those two or three fingers to the hole in the chain-link fence and feel living, breathing fingers pressing back against ours.  It is dangerous, perhaps, to say, “I see you,” and mean it.  But the alternative is fatal: walking through life blind.

Let us be awakened so that when the King says to us, “You saw me…and…,” we’ll know exactly what he’s talking about.  As we break bread together in thanks this week, Lord, let us see!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

So...why do you have to be a Sister?

This blog is a response to some comments on my most recent post, “Weddings.”  Before I start, let me say how much I appreciate honest comments and questions like these.  They call me to reflect and open a dialogue.  If you have other questions for a modern sister-in-training, I’d be happy to answer them on my blog.  Email them to me now or any time in the future at

 The following are comments readers posted on my latest blog post, “Weddings.”

Anonymous: I admire your passion, but it seems like someone of your talents could do just as much for the human race if you were married, if not more, since you would likely have one or more offspring who would carry on good work after you ‘enter the soil.”

Kaitlin (my college roommate and dear friend): Tracy, I disagree with Anonymous here. Your offspring are not the only ones who can carry on your legacy of good work. Everyone who meets your gaze can and will be inspired by you. Any person, not only your hypothetical children, can join you on the dance floor. Your life uncommon exudes love and joy to all. Love, K

Anonymous: She could get married (and have children, or not), and everyone who would then meet her gaze could and would be inspired, anyway.  Maybe even more so than if she wasn't married.  And there are plenty of outlets (probably not the right word) for Christian fervor, passion, and zest--for women and men--that don't include celibacy.

It’s not the first time I’ve received comments or questions of this nature. “Why do you have to become a Sister?”  It is a valid question that I pondered myself in discernment.  Kaitlin is right on in her comment.  Here are the answers I've come up with:

1.  It’s about being called.  Let me begin my response with a paraphrase of the introduction to the movie Song of Bernadette that Sr. Janet shared with me: “For those who are called, no explanation is necessary.  For those who are not called, no explanation is possible.”  When it comes right down to it, my life choice is a question of call, not simply of what I want or will be able to accomplish.  The experience of this call is as mysterious, I suppose, as knowing what career you want to pursue or which person you want to marry.

A human being certainly can make a spectacular difference in any walk of life, but our challenge as people of faith is to look inside at the gifts God has given us and choose the path in which those gifts respond best to the world’s need (paraphrased from Frederick Buechner). This is vocation; this is the idea that each of us has a unique mission to live out in bringing about the Kingdom of God.  Last year, although unequivocally in love with my boyfriend, I felt strangely unsettled trying to imagine my future as a wife and mother.  Picturing myself in the religious life, I had a sense of promise and inner freedom, somehow knowing that my gifts would flourish.

If I chose to marry or remain single, I would find some joy and do some good. As Anonymous points out, if I married, perhaps my offspring would have chosen to carry on some of what I believe in.  Naturally, I’ve imagined the family I could have formed and speculated about what my kids would have been like.  I think I would be a good mother, but I know that those are not my strongest gifts. And as my neighbor Siba, a mother of five, reminded me the other day, kids grow up to be who they are and not always what their parents expect them to be.  It seems that being a parent requires relinquishing a hold on any hoped-for outcomes.  When it comes right down to it, what I must trust are the Holy Spirit’s inclinations inside of me that say that this is my path to the fullness of joy. 

2.  Celibacy allows me to love in a wide way.  As Kaitlin points out in her comment, although my commitment keeps me from leaving a legacy to biological offspring, it would be crazy to assume that the only lives we touch as humans are our children’s.  Who has not been influenced by teachers, friends, religious leaders, neighbors, public figures, and writers?  In any vocation, I can touch any number of lives.  There are indeed many outlets for Christian passion and service, as Anonymous states in her/his second comment.

Mili, a little girl from Anapra, Mexico.  
She's one of the loves of my life.
But the way I touch lives is different in the religious life, because the primary focus of my love is outward.  Now, let's be real - I don't wake up every day and shout, "Thank you, God, for calling me to celibacy!" But, I am coming to appreciate its gifts.  Love that would have overflowed for my spouse and children instead pours out on the little children in Anapra, Mexico, who come running to greet us upon our arrival to the clinic or on distressed people who come to Sacred Heart Church in search of support. Time and energy I would have channeled into my family home help me to serve fully in the areas of greatest need without first considering an obligation to husband and kids. 

3. God must be number one in my life.  Imagine asking a woman who feels called to motherhood more than anything else, “Why do you have to be a mom?  Why don’t you do some babysitting on the evenings and weekends?  That way you can love and care for children, but you can still keep your job.”  The question sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?  She would never be completely fulfilled while the job remained her primary commitment. 

In much the same way, what my heart desires most is to be a witness to the love of God alive in our world.  I can’t make something else my priority and squeeze the other part into extra time. Making vows to one person feels limiting to me.  I need to vow my life to something that orients my heart 100% to God.  I feel free when I am totally and fully available to serve God and God’s people.

4.  I want to live a shared mission. In my second blog post, “A Life Uncommon,” I describe the blessing that is Community.  Community life is mission-driven life.  As Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, we live out the following mission statement: Urged by the love of Christ and in the spirit of our founder, Elizabeth Ann Seton,we Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati strive to live Gospel values. We choose to act justly, to build loving relationships,to share our resources with those in need,and to care for all creation.”

Much as a couple (I imagine) feels a sense of excitement talking about their shared future, I get PUMPED knowing that I am trying to live these beautiful words along with 350 other Sisters.  When we meet in small groups and as a congregation, when we send emails and letters, when we spend time just being together – it is ALL framed by that sense of being urged by the love of Christ.  

Our community pools it resources, allowing each Sister to use her gifts in the ministry she feels called to.  I am able to work in two volunteer placements, directly serving the poor, because of this set-up.  Our unified effort also allows us to run ministries that would be virtually impossible if we were all out on separate ventures.  Ten years ago, the Sisters that I live with started Proyecto Santo Nino, a community center for kids with special needs, in Mexico.  Because of their complete and total dedication, together, they have been able to sustain the ministry.  Congregation-wide, we share about and support each other in these labors.  It is exhilarating to be part of a group that does so many great things.  I feel my God-given purpose come to life in this shared mission.

5.  Community calls us forward to be our best selves and to do things we might not ordinarily be able to do. On Friday night, some community mates and I watched Of Gods and Men, a beautiful and honest movie (and true story) about community living and discernment.  Trappist monks on mission in Algeria in the 1990’s decide, as a community, to stay in the country during a time of great turmoil and violence, knowing that they will probably be killed by extremists.  Through their communal prayer, conversations about their mission, and love for one another, they find the strength to be witnesses to their faith, even to death.  Of course, martyrdom is a radical outcome of community living, but the story shows the power generated by a life uncommon in common.  As the film rolled, my heart filled with gratitude for my community.  On a daily basis, we urge each other forward.  We learn each other’s stories, come to know our gifts and shadows, share joys, and work through hard times.  Living with people who you don't necessarily choose and who come from different backgrounds and walks of life brings with it a set of challenges and riches. Community life stretches me, helps smooth out my rough edges, helps me see life in fresh ways and grows me into the person I am called to be.

The power of community discernment in a scene from Of Gods and Men

6.  It is the only thing that will be “enough.”  Becoming a Sister is the only thing that will fulfill my spiritual hunger to give EVERYTHING I have to God.  Anything short of my whole life would not feel like enough to me.  Making this choice has been like slipping my feet into a new pair of shoes that God crafted perfectly for me.  They’re exactly the right size (and at the same time will take a little walking around for them to feel “broken in").  There are questions that remain to be processed and feelings that remain to be felt, but my heart feels at peace and sighs, “God is good.”

In closing
Speaking of God’s goodness, I have to tell you what just happened. So I'm at the end of my writing process, searching for that zinger of a last line that will wrap things up perfectly, when a man sits down at my table at Starbucks.   He introduces himself out of the blue.  His name is Jack, and he is from Kenya.  His smile is kind.  He asks what I am doing and grows curious when I answer that I’m writing a blog about becoming a Catholic Sister.  He asks many questions.  After listening intently, he nods with great understanding, and says, “So, basically you and your Sisters are bringers of hope?”  I smile.  “Gosh, I hope so,” is my quiet answer.

Lord, let me be a bringer of hope.
Some of us are called to this single-hearted, mission-driven life shared in community.  Can you imagine if Mother Teresa, Archbishop Romero, or certain Sisters, Brothers, and priests you know hadn’t said YES to the path of religious life?   It seems to me that the purpose of these lives (and my life) is to say to the world, “Christ’s mission is worth everything.”  Our relationship with God, service to others, especially the poor and marginalized, and working toward unity and justice are worth the gift of an entire life.  This is my call, and it just wouldn’t feel right to do it any other way.  If I get to bring the world a little hope while I'm at it, well, praise God.

Friday, September 28, 2012


Nathan and  I on his wedding day
Photo courtesy of our Dad :)

Well, the little boy who used to pull my hair, call me “Twace,” and stand on his bed to launch toys off of his ceiling fan is now a husband.  Love’s joy and mystery were palpable as I watched my younger brother Nathan get married last weekend in Cincinnati.  I had a front row seat to witness the unexpected tears at the corner of his eyes that mirrored Jenni’s as she stepped into the aisle with her Dad.  It is always a miracle to watch two people vow to become one body and one soul.  And the fact that it was my brother and his wife plunging into the sacrament was just plain cool.  Following the beautiful Mass, we headed to the reception where we raised our glasses and shook our groove things late into the night.  I mean, we really danced.  Their beaming happiness spilled over and filled my heart with happiness, too.  I wished the day would never end.

At the same time, I’ll admit it:  It feels different to go to weddings and receptions now that I have chosen a path that will not include marriage.  Amid all of the joy, there are moments when I feel a bit sad or perhaps out of place.

I am usually the only future nun among all of the guests at a celebration that revolves around couples.  I’m still getting used to the idea that from here on out, while most of my friends are married, I will usually be “date-less.”  It feels strange to attend events alone, because my life is filled with company and community.  Although I am not committed to one person romantically, I am committed to the Sisters and specifically to my five housemates in a much deeper way than simply sharing a refrigerator.  I’d love to have one or some of them with me to celebrate the important moments in my loved ones’ lives.  Anyway, I can certainly hold my own and manage to have a blast without a date.  It’s not like everyone sits, talks, and dances with only their significant other. However, sometimes it would be nice to have a built-in travel companion, conversation buddy, and go-to-dance-partner.  Maybe other single friends can identify with this.

Then, there are the uncomfortable situations that can arise because although I’m dateless…I’m not single in the sense of being “on the market.”  You know the moment – the bride shimmies out on the dance floor with her bouquet in hand, and the DJ spins “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé.  Time for the famous bouquet toss.  At both my brother’s wedding and a wedding in June, a few well-meaning friends encouraged me to “get out there!” with the single girls because I’m “not a Sister yet!”  I thought to myself and realized that I really didn’t want to.  It’s sort of exciting for me to feel I don’t belong out there, elbowing people to catch the flowers, because it means that I have already committed my life to a certain direction.  I'm not an "eligible bachelorette."  I've made a choice, and I’m serious, reverent, and joyful about it, just as I would be about an engagement.

This inner commitment is not outwardly signified like an engagement is with a ring, and that can make for some interesting encounters.  At the June wedding, I noticed a young man stealing glances at me from across the dance floor.  Later, we ended up in the same conversation and introduced ourselves.  His eyes were flirty.  What do I do here?  “Hi, I’m Tracy, and, just to put it out there, I’m going to be taking a vow of celibacy in a few years.”  Not really the conversation to have while everyone else is doing the Cupid Shuffle around you.  So, I let him talk. Although a tad bit intoxicated, he was sweet and well-meaning.  He shared how I had distracted him during the wedding Mass for which I was the vocalist.  Apparently, I and my singing voice are both “so beautiful” that he had watched me the whole time instead of the couple getting married.  I’ll be honest; it was flattering to be called beautiful.  That’s not really a daily occurrence in the life of a future Sister.  But I would never want to give anyone the wrong idea. I sighed, and, awkwardly, I told him I was going to be a Catholic Sister.   I’m pretty sure he didn’t know what that is.  Maybe I should start bringing a cut-out of Jesus with me to these things.

I never expected to find myself in this life situation.  Growing up, I couldn’t wait for my wedding day.  I wondered how it would feel and who would be waiting for me at the altar.  My bridesmaids would wear light blue dresses, and my Dad and I would dance to “Butterfly Kisses.”  According to my high school life plan, I would meet the right dude in college.  We would marry soon after graduation, and I would have my first kid at 25.  It would be magical.

Even once in college, looking at it through slightly more mature eyes and a bit more life experience, marriage still held an element of magic.  I took a Christian Marriage class at the University of Dayton with my housemates.  We discussed all that goes into the persistent and often not-glamorous decision that married people must make daily to continue living out that holy “I do.”  This is what makes marriage so courageous and so stinkin’ beautiful.    I loved everything that I learned and wondered when I would experience it.

Life after college took some unexpected turns.  A few months after my return from Ecuador and well into a process of discerning the religious life, I started dating an incredible, one-in-a-million man.  I knew that I desired to live a life of radical service and faith but still wondered if I might be called to do that within a marriage.  If I was, this would be the guy.  We shared a deep, Christ-centered, and joyful relationship.  I wanted so badly to feel called to marry him.  I pleaded with God. But the annoying little nudge toward the religious life that started on the beach in Ecuador simply would not subside.  Now when I attend weddings, I find myself imagining what our day would have been like.  At Nathan’s wedding, in the parish where I grew up and with our family around, I could picture it effortlessly.  My heart aches a bit thinking that through.

There is a huge part of me that still yearns to know what it would feel like.  Something that you dream of from childhood on doesn’t just go away quickly.  How elating it must feel to hear someone say, “I take you as my wife.”  And to be able to say back to them freely and wholeheartedly, “I take you as my husband.  God called me to enter into this sacramental commitment with you, and I say YES with my whole life.”  That’s powerful stuff.  I marveled at the simple splendor of it all as Jenni and Nathan exchanged vows.  It was like peering with fascination at a beautiful artwork through the barrier of glass casing.  I can observe it and admire it, but I'll never touch it, feel it, or behold it in its totality.

Nathan and Jenni and the miracle of love
Photo courtesy of Aunt Pam Kemme

I still sometimes resent God that I wasn’t made for that kind of union.  And probably a few nights a week, I go to bed wondering, "Can I really live my whole life without that kind of love?"  But even in the moments of wishing and wondering, I feel a quiet certainty and whispered joy that I have begun walking the path that God has dreamt for me.  God’s grace reminds me that my life will be characterized by different experiences of love.  I feel the Spirit saying, “Yes, marriage is incredibly beautiful.  But, trust me: I’m calling you to do something else more beautiful than you could ever imagine.” The religious life itself is a treasure characterized by its own sacred magic and its own courageous day to day re-dedication.

Marriage takes humans into a depth of love as they unite with and return constantly to one person.  Life is a dance in which the married couple seek each other out on the dance floor and sway together with each song that plays, be it romantic, upbeat, boring, joyful or sad.  It is a familiar yet profound love, that knowing that your spouse will be there, hand extended to you, asking you to "have this dance" every day of life (even on the days neither of you feel like dancing.)

Love experienced in the religious life is talked about exponentially less than romantic love, so I am discovering its richness as I go.  The religious life shows us God’s love in a wide and abundant way.  It's like how my "datelessness" allowed me to bounce around last Saturday night, dancing and spending quality time with various people.  I shared slow dances with my brother, my Dad, my uncles, an old neighbor, my aunt, and a groomsman.  I didn't experience the beauty of gazing into the eyes of a romantic partner during the slow songs, but my life gives me the unique gift of looking all around and meeting the gazes of many.  I hold dear this openness and availability to freely love countless people and to follow the Spirit where it leads.  That is the way my heart was made to give and receive love.

Dreams of my wedding day are being replaced little by little with exciting images of the day when I will make vows with the Sisters of Charity, surrounded by family and friends.  A life of great love is beckoning me to the dance floor!  With questioning emotion in my stomach but faith in my heart, I choose to step up and bust a move.  

Celebrating Love. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Debbie Downer...and Proud of it!

A few Sundays ago, I attended an event for young adults in the Diocese of El Paso.  My housemate, Sr. Janet, is the Director of the Office of Young Adult Ministry, and works tirelessly to provide my age group with faith-feeding and community-building activities.  Through her ministry, I have found a group of treasured friends here in El Paso.  This Sunday gathering involved outdoor Mass, a cookout, and free live music in a local park.  As the hamburgers sizzled on the grill, I slid onto a picnic table bench with some friends.  One of them asked me, “What have you been up to lately?” 

I thought back over the weekend and shared the first thing that came to mind.  Sisters Peggy, Carol, and I had spent Saturday afternoon at a free showing of 8 Murders a Day, the second movie in a documentary trilogy by filmmaker Charlie Minn.  It chronicles the horrific violence in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, since 2008, specifically focusing on 2010, which was the most deadly year yet.  Peggy, Carol, and I knew many of the facts about the violence happening right across the border, but it was something to see the progression laid out so clearly.  The graphic images of the crimes committed were haunting.  A sense of sadness and pain left a hole in my stomach.  As I shared with my friends how the movie had affected me, I felt the conversation get really intense really quick, and then pretty soon, there was silence hanging in the air.  Not exactly a topic that lends itself to friendly chatter.

“Come on!” I thought to myself.  “Way to take a nice little picnic conversation and drive it down Intensity Lane.  You are such a Debbie Downer!”  Most of you have probably seen the Saturday Night Live "Debbie Downer" skits.  Debbie is a fictional character played by Rachel Dratch who is known for ruining pleasant social situations with her negativity and frequent sharing of bad news.  I chuckled as I imagined a camera zooming into my face, twisted into Debbie’s characteristic grimace, to the background noise of, “Wah, wah.”

Lately, I find myself doing this often.  After I brought up the movie, I racked my brain to think of something, anything “normal” and “fun” to talk about.  I didn’t come up with much.  I remembered that Carol and I had spent Thursday afternoon in Mexico after our usual morning at Proyecto Santo Nino, the Sisters’ clinic for kids with special needs.  We walked around downtown and visited churches in Juarez, with Brian, a 13 year old with spinal bifida, Reyna, a 3 year old with Down Syndrome, and Reyna’s parents.  It was a beautiful thing to share the day with them, but sobering as well.  Brian’s body is contorted, and he walks with difficulty.  After lunch, he asked to borrow one of Reyna’s little diapers because he forgot to bring one of his own.  When the fun was over, we dropped Bryan off at his tiny little home where he is often left to look after his little siblings because his irresponsible parents neglect them.

I stopped myself before I shared that little light-hearted anecdote.  The next images that flooded my mind were the faces of people who had come to Sacred Heart Church on Friday looking for help paying their rent or bills.  One woman had cried as she handed me an eviction notice; another swallowed back tears as she told me that her husband had been picked up by Immigration the week before.   She’s now alone with her two small children, simply awaiting the news of his deportation.

Wah, wah.  Debbie attack.

Thankfully, the group of people I was with that Sunday night probably didn’t mind talking about 8 Murders a Day.  They are faith-filled people who inspire me with the way they serve our community and make an effort to be socially aware.   Also, living on the border, the topics of violence and poverty are common. We all know people who have been personally affected.  Nevertheless, my inner dialogue reminded me just how totally my life is characterized by these relationships with marginalized people.  The situations that so readily came to mind reflect all that I carry in my heart as a result of what I do on a daily basis.

I am grateful for that.

My encounters with human suffering have taught me a new language with a new vocabulary.  Sometimes, that language is speechlessness.  When I do talk, it’s not about the things I used to talk about.  In certain circles, I am hard to relate to.  I struggle to find things to say, and I think people don’t always know what questions to ask me. Even my own family members or other people who genuinely want to know might not know how to approach the subject.  And then, there are people who don’t want to know.  A friend reminded me the other day that sometimes people might choose not to ask because thinking about human suffering is hard.

This is not exclusive to religious life.  Many young people who come back from international (or domestic) volunteer experiences may find it hard initially to slip back into the life they led and conversations they had before.  People who work with underprivileged populations, who teach students from inner-city neighborhoods, who provide health care to people who can’t afford it, etc. – their worldview changes and so does their way of being in the world.

When you make a choice to really open yourself to the action of God; when you take a sincere look at our world; when you come into relationship with people who are suffering and let it affect you - things change.  Your heart changes, your thoughts, your prayers, what you put your time and energy into.  The stories of the people that you walk with become your stories.

Bryan and I at the clinic Christmas party, December 2010
His story is mine.
Conversion and the stories that fuel it are a gift to our world.  I cannot hold back from sharing these experiences because I must be authentic.  I must share all that I see, hear, taste, touch, and feel so that others, who don’t get to experience it firsthand, will know.  I have to risk sharing those “Debbie Downer” moments because they are real, and they are people’s lives.  For me, this is a huge part of what becoming a “Sister” means.  I recognize that every human being is a part of my family.  I accept their burdens and joys as my own.  I speak up when the voices of my suffering brothers and sisters are stifled.  This is the Truth that I bring and a way that God uses me as an instrument.

Of course, I also bring countless stories of grace and joy.  I don’t feel like a “Debbie Downer” every day.  But when I do, I will remember to be grateful for the unique life perspective I have gained and for the beautiful people that have shown it to me.   It is a privileged position.  I look to the example of the Sisters and other friends in my life who speak fearlessly and lovingly what they know to be true.

 Seek the Truth in service to others and share what you find.  The world needs your voice!

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Life Uncommon

In her 1999 song “Life Uncommon,” Jewel says, “Set down your chains until only faith remains/…Lend your voices only to sounds of freedom/…fill your lives with love and bravery/ and we shall lead a life uncommon.”

What constitutes leading a life uncommon?  And why would anyone care to do such a thing?  Lives uncommon in our world today are not limited to certain jobs, locations, or chosen life vocations.  They happen when we give time and energy to seek the unique call that God places in each of our hearts.  The search could lead anywhere - marriage, law school, international mission work, motherhood, a teaching career, or in my case, discerning the religious life on the Mexican border.  Our lives become uncommon when we invite God to make them God’s own. And when our lives are God’s, they are full, meaningful, and impactful.

One of the greatest gifts of becoming a Sister, I am learning, is the fabulous company gained at no extra charge.   It is living a life uncommon, in common.  When Andrea and I looked out into the congregation during our Affiliation ceremony in June, we were humbled by the joyful, welcoming faces of the 150 Sisters in attendance. By entering the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, we are becoming part of a wonderful family of women whose single driving force is a love for Christ and His mission.  They certainly lend their voices to sounds of freedom and fill their days with love and bravery.  Oh – and they really know how to have fun.  Joining up with this group, I feel like a light bulb that’s just been twisted into a lamp. Suddenly, I’m doing what I was born to do, and I’m connected to an energy source that makes everyone plugged into it shine brighter.

Entrance to the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati
 Motherhouse cemetery

This energy is what religious communities call a charism – the founding grace that unites a congregation.  This charism runs deep through history with its roots in the spirit of our foundress, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.  While at the Motherhouse, we walked through the cemetery where over 1,800 Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati are buried.  I knelt down in the grass there and touched the earth, imagining the life of each one.  So many uncommon lives given in love and service.  I feel grateful to be inheriting such a rich legacy.

The feeling of connection to this larger community began to blossom when I returned home from Ecuador two years ago and moved into the Casa Caridad (Charity House) in Anthony, New Mexico.  Right outside of El Paso, Texas, and just across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the Casa was dreamed up by three Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati - Carol, Janet, and Peggy.   Simply speaking, it is their place of residence.  But their commitment to offering a welcoming space for others, especially for young women in discernment, has transformed it into a home for many.  Here, community, spirituality, and hospitality abound.   It is in this home that I found the freedom to take an honest look at God's call for me and the support to respond to that call.  Andrea and I will spend our Affiliate year here, as Casa Caridad has been named the Affiliate community.

You can imagine that living under the same roof with a group of women all seeking to be “urged by the charity of Christ” is a powerful experience.  I didn’t say easy – because community is not easy – but it is certainly powerful.  Each night, we gather at our long, wooden kitchen table and share our lives over a home-cooked meal.  The conversation is rich, filled with our experiences of service, our encounters with poverty, and our ponderings about faith and justice.  We pray together in our chapel at the start of each new day.  We meet to discuss what it means to be intentional community. We try to educate ourselves on issues of justice and strive together for an ever-growing faith.  We do, read, and watch things that help us to live our mission more fully.

Casa Caridad, December 2011
Back L to R: Tracey, Sr. Carol, Sr. Janet, Sr. Peggy
Front L to R: Me, Andrea, and Romina
Let me say this, too:   Our lives are commonplace in lots of ways.  Of course, we laugh – a lot!  And we play, travel, walk the dogs, have friends over, clean, have bad days, enjoy nature, try new recipes, watch funny movies, talk on the phone, get annoyed with each other, exercise, make excuses for not exercising, read, get excited about Gabby Douglas' Olympic gold, and drink the occasional margarita (we do live at the border!).

 But, our life together is framed by that one singular desire - God.  It colors conversations in our pajamas on weekend mornings; it colors every decision we make; it colors our thoughts and dreams.

Our commitment to living this single-hearted desire in community fuels our ability to serve in various ministries.  As a community, we share the experience of working at Proyecto Santo Nino, a community center for children with special needs and their families.  Carol, Peggy, and Janet founded the little clinic in Anapra, Mexico, on the west side of Ciudad Juarez, about 10 years ago.  We cross the international border two to three times a week to be with and support these families who have very difficult lives but teach us daily.  I also volunteer as a Pastoral Minister at Sagrado Corazon (Sacred Heart), a Jesuit parish in downtown El Paso.  Just blocks from the Paso del Norte port of entry into Juarez, the Spanish-speaking church serves a low-income, largely immigrant population.  Both of these ministries put me in close relationship with those affected by the reality of poverty.

This year, I’m also “in formation” – read: this does not mean I am being brainwashed and forced into a desired shape like a ball of clay in the collective Sisters of Charity hand.  It is a continued discernment involving prayer, reading, writing, and learning more about the congregation.  I’ll meet monthly with both a counselor and a spiritual director.  Andrea and I will have regular conversation with our Director (and housemate), Sr. Janet.  All of this will help me to grow in my understanding of my unique vocation.  Eventually, if I discover this to be my call, I’ll freely choose to make vows of poverty, chastity and obedience with the Sisters of Charity – whew!

As I go about my daily life, it feels pretty darn normal to me.  It’s easy for me to forget that not everybody’s doing this, because God has created me to live this way, and because I’m surrounded by people created to live this way.  Embracing the God-given call that I initially resisted so much actually FREES me.  While not always a walk in the park, my unique life suits me and fills me with that deep kind of joy that lingers.

It is my joyful experience of God in this particular life uncommon that impels me to lend you my voice and ponderings.  Thanks for reading!