Pope Francis has declared 2015 the Year of Consecrated Life. Consecrated Life essentially includes individuals who have professed the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They can be priests, sisters (nuns), or brothers. To mark this year, I will write a few posts on several aspects of consecrated life. I begin today with a rather personal one, one that attempts to answer the question my students often asked me: “Sister, why did you become a nun?” (They sometimes posed this question to distract me from whatever boring subject matter I was teaching!)
I became a nun because I felt called to be one. I saw no visions. I heard no Darth Vader voice saying: God wants YOU to be a nun! But I felt an attraction to the way of life. As I was growing up I was drawn to its mystery, its total commitment to God, its dedication to good works, its prayerfulness. The few nuns I knew (my great aunt was a Joliet Franciscan and the Cleveland Ursulines taught me catechism) seemed happy. In high school I got to know more nuns, the Sisters of Notre Dame. Most of them seemed pretty happy too—especially after school when I discovered they were more than excellent teachers. Some were actually fun. In high school I was also smitten with the idealism of the JFK Era and was already harboring thoughts of joining the newly formed Peace Corps after college. I was pretty sure I was capable of dedicating two years to the Corps, but then another question loomed: Could I dedicate my whole life as a sister?
That question would not go away. It persisted. In fact it was the call’s persistency that really got to me. It would “show up” while I was engaged in all kinds of activities: praying at Mass on Sunday (where you might expect the call to show up). But it also arose while I was conjugating verbs in Sister David’s Latin class, sitting on a sand dune with a couple of friends, listening to my sister’s Pat Boone records, playing funny games at a pajama party, writing earnestly in my diary, and even while dancing a slow dance with some lanky Old-Spice-scented boy.
I didn’t say “yes” right away to this call. The prospect of never having a husband or children gave me pause. Serious pause. (To this day I believe that was the greatest sacrifice I made.) Unsure what to do, I talked with a few trusted people: two nuns, a priest, and a few friends. I talked to God too. A lot. I whined to God too. (“Why me? Can’t you ask someone else?”) Eventually I decided I had to try this way of life. I had to give it a chance. If I wasn’t happy I told myself (and later my family and friends), I would leave. Honest! Though I was not quite 18, I already knew that deep joy was an unmistakable sign that you were where God wanted you to be, and you were somehow partnering in God’s Grand Designs.
So on July 2, 1962 I entered the Sisters of Notre Dame. I remember it was an overcast Monday. And it was one of the saddest days of my life. Even after all these years I can still conjure up that pit-in-the-stomach feeling I had as my family piled into the car to take me to the convent. I sat in the back seat between my mother and sister. As we pulled out of the driveway I turned around to take one last look at the big yellow farmhouse I had called “home” my whole life— and which I thought I would never see again. (In those days, we nuns never went home.) And I sobbed and sobbed along with my mother and sister. My father didn’t drive the car that day. Most unusual. My brother John was at the wheel. (My brother Paul had to work). That day was memorable for yet another reason: it was the first time I ever saw my father cry. Yet, despite the pain and gloom of leaving home, I had this sense that, in driving toward that convent, I was pointing my life in the right direction.
It is hard to say exactly why I became a nun. I have stumbled for the right words here. That’s because God’s Grace is involved, and Grace cannot be pinned down with words. Grace resists rational explanation too. Grace is always beyond anything we can say or explain. What I’ve written here was my experience of the “call” to consecrated life. Other Sisters (and priests and brothers) might have a different experience. If you are a sister, brother, or priest, you might want to share a few words about why you chose consecrated life. If you aren’t a religious, you might want to say why you chose marriage or your particular spouse—or why you chose a particular career or life’s work. I welcome your comments!
PS: On January 3 my vow group marked our 50th anniversary of first vows. We celebrated by spending a few days together at our community’s vacation house. We had fun reminiscing, catching up one each other’s life, and relaxing together, thanking God for the countless blessings of the past 50 years.
While trying to decide whether to enter the convent, I often listened to and played the song “Moon River” by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. The phrase Moon River became something of an image of Divinity for me. These words became mantras for me: “Wherever you’re going I’m going your way…Two drifters off to see the world…There’s such a lot of world to see…We’re after that same rainbow’s end…My Huckleberry Friend…” To this day I associate the song with my decision to become a Sister. Here is one of my favorite versions of this song by Andy Williams: