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.