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.