Written with Sister Maria Veritas Marks, OP
As I stood at the microphone, gazing out at the crimson-flecked multitude seated expectantly below me in Harvard Yard, I little dreamed that the speech I was about to declaim would soon be ricocheting around the blogosphere. The media attention followed less on the oration’s being delivered in Latin – quite a few campuses maintain this annual tradition – but on the orator’s unlikely career path: in a few short months, I would be joining a convent.
The year had been an interesting one. As friends mustered letters of recommendation for various applications, I sat down over lunch to explain to professors why I wouldn’t need any – at least, of a purely academic nature. As packets arrived in others’ mailboxes from Rhodes and Marshall scholarship committees, I welcomed a promisingly thick manila envelope of my own: from the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Mich. As roommates boxed up their clothes and books to relocate to places foreign and exotic, I pondered to whom I could give my belongings away.
Although I never quite managed to shake my trepidation at, “So, what are you doing next year?” my announcement was usually greeted with more wonder than recrimination – a thoughtful and respectful, “Why?” or, “Wow, that’s unusual. How could you make that kind of commitment?” For the people closest to me, my decision was bittersweet, since we all knew what I was walking away from but not exactly what I was walking into.
Yet I had some idea. The Council Fathers of Vatican II wrote that “man . . . cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes §24), and I knew that the gift God was asking of me was not the academic career I would have chosen for myself but the dedication of my whole being, body, mind, and heart, to Him. Since God made and loves me, the vows by which He was inviting me to surrender the three greatest goods of human life –possessions, marriage and family, and self-determination – would not shackle but free me.
And they surely have. The Sisters and I rise at 5 each morning to begin our day with prayer and Holy Mass, the wellsprings of divine love from which each of us draws strength to give of ourselves in the classroom — most of the Sisters on one side of the desk, some of us (I’m studying for a master’s in theology) on the other. When we gather again at day’s end for evening prayers, dinner, and recreation, stories of children’s innocent questions and perhaps not-so-innocent pranks and of professors’ insights provide many a laugh and provoke many a thoughtful discussion.
Between each day’s bookends, opportunities abound to provide a mother’s tenderness to all, young and old, whom God places in my life. I will not have the joy of a family of my own, but I have the joy of being completely available to anyone who approaches me. And they do come: a classmate unsure of her future, an unemployed father seeking prayers for his job interview, a tourist thrilled to see a habited Sister — and yes, a person who won’t tell me how long ago he graduated from Catholic grammar school and who wants to know if I have a ruler in my pocket. They come as I type my paper in the library, they come as I eat lunch in the cafeteria, they come on the street and in the airport. I am theirs because I am His.
I no longer have a closet-full of clothing and shoes, but I can now empty the contents of my room into three bags in half an hour and be wherever He needs me. I never have to wonder whether I’m dressed appropriately: in the habit, I’m as ready for a soccer game on the quad as for a meeting with the university’s president. I don’t get to choose when the wake-up bell will ring, and I don’t get to choose where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing next year, but I do choose the exhilarating adventure of being fully available for Him.
On Aug. 1, 2011, I received, along with the habit, a new religious name: Sister Maria Veritas. I like to think that Christ has changed the alpine A of my old initials, MAM, Mary Anne Marks, to the receptive vessel of my new ones, SMVM.
Responding to His call to religious life, I have realized His immense love for me and thereby come to understand His immense love for others. It is His love that I hope to give them, the love of Him who called Himself Truth, Veritas (John 14:6). Veritas is also the motto you will see emblazoned on a crimson shield if ever you visit Harvard Yard.