In this episode of Set Apart, Rocky shares her interview with Sister Brenda Lisenby, VHM. Sr Brenda is a novitiate of the Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis, and she shares her experiences during discernment, the call, community, and her ministry.
During the break between series three and series four I spent time interviewing subjects for Be Inspired and SisterStory Presents. As I interviewed, I discovered so many remarkable women religious that I would otherwise never have a chance to meet. They were exciting, inspiring, and so full of energy. After we’d end our conversation, I couldn’t help but think that I wanted to hear more from them about who they are and their experiences. It made me think about the types of conversations that I had with other sisters whose stories I’ve shared in this series. Conversations about ministry and the call and a sister’s passions. I’ve always been fascinated by these stories, and have found joy in watching and hearing a sister light up as she tells me why she chose religious life and what it means to be a woman religious. So, I made a note of sisters to contact again and started reaching out to them and began collecting their stories.
A while ago, I had the chance to talk to a woman who has recently entered religious life. She was welcomed into the Novitiate of the Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis on May 5, 2016. As a novice, she is committed to two years of a more intense study of the vowed life in the Order of the Visitation. Amongst the stories I’ve shared, hers really stands out. Her discernment is very recent for one. And, two, she entered religious life as a catholic sister, but spent most of her life as a Baptist and was a Baptist missionary working in Hong Kong.
Sister Brenda Lisenby, VHM:
My name is Brenda Lisenby. I grew up in east Texas, outside of Orange Texas, and went to school and Orangefield, Texas which is a very small community. And then, I went to university just north of Dallas at Austin College. My home state is Texas, and most of my family is still all in Texas. But, most of my adult working life I've been overseas and spent about 20 years working in China and Hong Kong.
When I graduated university, actually at the time I was Baptist, and we had short term mission programs for college graduates called the Journeyman Program. I thought that that was something I wanted to do before I came home and settle down. You know, after you graduate college you want to do something interesting and what have you. So, I applied for the program, and I went for the interviews, and the orientation, and everything. And, I was assigned a job teaching English in China. And, the reason I chose that job was because I wanted to go overseas and actually work with nationals. I didn't want to go overseas and work with expats. I could have gone and been a teacher in an international school in just about any country, I had the qualifications. But, I didn't want to go overseas and work with American. I was going to go overseas and I wanted to actually get to know people of the culture and the place where I was. So, I went overseas to China to teach English. I started teaching English in the universities there in China. What really enriched me was just getting to know people in a different culture and realize that deep down, in our hearts, we're all, in a way, the same. We all love our families, and we want to take care of them. We love our country. We love our communities. We all have common goals in that way. The way they get expressed, and the ways we go beyond that sometimes it's complicated when you look at the overall international political system. But, yeah. I think that people are really just the same.
When I was over there, I was a Baptist missionary. And, about the time I started my midlife passage and was looking for something more in my spiritual journey, I sought out a spiritual director in Hong Kong, someone to Companion me in my journey. And, I was introduced to Catholic sisters. Before then, I had not really had any, as far as I know, no communication or contact with Catholic sisters. I had begun to learn a little bit, which is a good, from my spiritual formation course, that I was taking. I'd learned a little bit about what I would call Catholic spirituality, but I had not actually met any Catholic sisters. So, when I found out the spiritual director in Hong Kong and went out to the retreat center that the woman, who eventually became a director ran, I remember my first impression going into the retreat house and just sitting in the waiting area waiting waiting for her to come in and meet me. I was just very impressed with the serenity of the place because it was a silent retreat center. And, I hadn't met either one of the sisters yet, just talked to them over the phone. But, I was very impressed with serenity of the retreat center. Then, as I got to know them, I would go out once a month for a meeting with my spiritual director and then, eventually, I took an eight day retreat with them. And, it just really impressed me how they were women of prayer. And, they didn't just run the retreat center. They had other ministries going with inmates in the local prison, and some of them were doing hospital chaplaincy work, and that kind of thing. But, in the retreat center it just really impressed me how they were women of prayer and how that undergirded everything else they did.
And, the Certificate of Spiritual Formation, that I just mentioned a moment ago, one of the courses we were offered was a women's retreat one spring. So, I decided to take that course, and it was held at a Benedictine Monastery in Alabama. So, I went for a week for the women's retreat, and just within a day or two of my being there I was very much attracted to their way of life, the monastic life: the chanting of the prayers and just the whole rhythm of work and prayer. The idea of work and prayer and the balance between that had appealed to me before. Early on, I'd heard about the Benedictine lifestyle, but I thought, “well I'm not Catholic.” So, community didn't even enter into the picture. But, that week I was there, I was very much attracted to the life of those women and I was very confused. It's like, “Okay, God. This does that not make any sense. I couldn’t be attracted to their life, I'm not Catholic.” So, I started a whole other part of my journey, where I came back and really began to seriously discern.
I actually attended catechism in Hong Kong with an Italian priest in the local parish. I didn't even know if there was a Catholic church near me in Hong Kong. So, I just kind of Googled it and looked. And, sure enough, right down the street, not 15 minutes from where I lived walking distance, there was a Catholic church with an English speaking service. So, I went there and talked with the priest and started our journey of exploring Catholicism and doing catechism there.
So, I wasn't even Catholic at the time. I was just looking at it, you know, going through catechism, and I was still in Hong Kong. I thought, “well, I wonder if there's any ecumenical community out there.” And, actually, one of the sisters at the Benedictine monastery that I was on retreat at had also grown up Baptist and had ended up discerning and growing the way of Catholic women religious. So, she was able to give me some resources. And, she gave me a number of resources of ecumenical communities that she had looked at in her own journey. So, I looked at some of those. And, I eventually selected one because they had a program where we could go and spend time, and I did that when I first came back to the states.
I was actually on sabbatical from my mission organization and spent time in this ecumenical monastery. And, it just wasn't it wasn't a good fit. So, as I was coming to that realization, I began looking around. And, I actually remember this community in some of my early reading and exploring Catholic religious life. I mean, most of the research was online, since I was in Hong Kong. A lot of my research took place on A Nun’s Life’s website because they have links, and blogs, and podcasts, and all that kind of thing. So, one of my readings was a blogs that they had, which included links to I learned about this community, the Visitation Community. And, they also have a program where women can come and be community with them called the Monastic Immersion Experience. So, when I was kind of coming to my realization that this other community wasn't a good fit for me, I contacted this community and started the process to apply for their Monastic Immersion Experience.
When I first started looking at religious communities, I didn't look at apostolic communities. At this point in my life, I was really looking for something more stable and more lived community. I didn't want to be a part of an extended community because I was already a part of the extended community. I was wanting something more at this point in my life. So, that community is really a gift to me in that way. And, that we have a prayer. I had developed my personal prayer over the years, but I was missing that communal prayer, daily communal prayer. So monastic life has really provided that and gifted me with that.
The biggest joy, at this point, is actually living in community with this group of women and the way we the way we hold each other in our imperfections. Community is not easy. It takes a lot of commitment on my part, to grow in the way that I need to grow in my interior life as well to grow in that exterior life. So that I am able to be a part of community life and support the sisters in the way they have supported, and encouraged, and loved the community. It’s my biggest joy and it's been a tremendous gift to me. And, it has been able to grow in ways that I never would have imagined otherwise in my spiritual life. And, to be able to welcome that in my own life. Because, I lived as a single all my adult life, and had done everything on my own, been very independent working overseas as a missionary. So, coming into community, I think has been a joy a gift for me.