More than 30 young women considering religious life gathered in San Antonio last month for a one-of-a-kind retreat. Titled Deep Encounter: Listening with an Open Heart (or Profundo Encuentro), the retreat illuminated the art of discernment: how to determine God’s plan for your life.
Unlike traditional discernment retreats and “Come & See” weekends that introduce participants to one congregation, Profundo Encuentro exposed them to a wide variety, showcasing the diversity of women religious in the U.S. The retreat was bilingual, designed for Hispanic women but open to all. And according to the young women who attended, it had a powerful impact.
For Sarah Salazar, a 24-year-old teacher from Chicago, religious life is a more distinct possibility because of the retreat. “I’m very open to it,” she said. “I didn’t really expect myself to be so open!”
Salazar and her fellow attendees, or “discerners,” as they were dubbed – Catholic women in their 20s and 30s from across the country – found a vital support system in each other.
“I was so blessed by all the young women I met,” she said. “To see there are other young women really seeking God’s plan for their lives – I was blown away. ‘There are more like me! I’m not the only one!’”
Salazar struck up a number of friendships, including one particularly close bond with a 20-something woman she texts often now. “I felt like I had just reunited with my best friend from a long time ago,” she said. She’s also Facebook friends with a number of Catholic sisters from the retreat. They made a powerful impression.
“It was great to see these women religious. Their strong yes to God’s call inspires me. I keep thinking about it and praying about it. Wow – it’s very gutsy, to just surrender and follow God’s love. I learned a lot from them.”
A series of high-impact lessons came from Sister Debbie Marie Borneman, SS.C.M, who delivered a presentation March 9 on how to engage in discernment. She described discernment as “a life-long method of hearing God every time I dare to listen” and outlined specific tools to do this, including: asking open-ended questions, praying with Scripture, journaling, listening to music, receiving the sacraments and discerning with others.
“I believe we were all led by the Spirit to hear the voice of God, to ponder possibilities and to respond with abundant generosity,” Sister Debbie said. “When invited to the microphone, it was beautiful to hear the discerners echo back what they had heard from the presentation and how they were applying it to their own experiences of being called by God.”
Young women today are presented with more life choices than ever before – and, in a noisy Information Age, it can be hard to discern their vocation. “It can be difficult to slow down to listen to the Spirit within,” Sister Debbie said.
Meanwhile, she added, members of religious life sometimes forget to share their experiences with discernment. “I believe women and men religious naturally discern throughout our lives and that we forget we can teach discernment to others. In other words, I think we often take discernment for granted. If more people taught discernment, we would be less self-absorbed, less egocentric and more open to lingering in prayer, to pondering possibilities and to living beyond our potential.”
Time for quiet
The retreat was thoughtfully structured to provide a blend of individual reflection, small-group reflection and large-group sharing – private prayer, communal prayer and social time. Young Catholic sisters shared their discernment stories and experts led workshops on prayer through art, music and nature.
The discerners voiced their appreciation for the quiet time. The importance of that time was a priority recognized by retreat planner Sister Ana Sonera, a Sister of Divine Providence and Puerto Rico native.
“That quiet time gives you the opportunity to name it: what I’m thinking, what is calling my attention, what is the feeling being awakened? And what is the next step? Where is it taking me?” Sister Ana said. “This is so important in discernment because we are talking about the movement of the Spirit. Sometimes, with the hurry of life, we cannot enter into that sacred space. We cannot really taste it, smell it, hear it – and really open our senses to that presence.”
Making the retreat fully bilingual was a blessing, Sister Ana added. There is room for everyone, she said. “Profundo Encuentro was about diversity, about feeling at home, about the possibility for growth,” she said. “I can be a Catholic sister, I can be a complete woman, and I can be fully happy.”
That completeness and happiness were on full display by the retreat’s riveting keynote speakers. Sister Teresa Maya, CCVI, past president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, shed light on consecrated life, and Sister Andrea Lee, IHM, president of Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wis., gave a talk titled “Religious Life: An Adventure of Many Surprises.”
She had a big impact on Sarah Salazar, who said she has struggled in the past to “own” her interest in religious life and overcome fear of judgment.
“What gave me confidence was hearing Sister Andrea Lee speak about how religious life has stereotypes, but that women are breaking those stereotypes every single day. Her being a president of a university is like, ‘Wow!’ Sisters are not silly and naive. They’re leaders. They’re doing amazing things. They have power that cannot be underestimated. I want to be part of breaking that stereotype!”
The courage shown by Salazar and the other discerners impressed the retreat planners. “The discerners were joyful, curious and ready to engage in meaningful conversation about vocation discernment,” Sister Debbie said. “I was most impressed by their sincerity. The time with these women was refreshing! It demonstrated clearly that God continues to call, and people are responding to God’s love.”