Written with Sister Kathy Lundwall, SCSJA
When young women considering religious life today are asked about their concerns, they say obedience. That didn’t cross my mind in 1968, when, at the age of 18, I entered the Sisters of Charity of St. John Antida in Milwaukee. Rather, I struggled with a fear of not being holy enough to be among the sisters who had taught me. I imagined their lives being so virtuous that I could never measure up.
I’m still working on virtue, but the fear is gone, largely because obedience has lead to freedom.
Rather than shackles, it has given me wings to go places I might have not, and courage to tackle obstacles I wouldn’t have approached.
Over my 45 years as a sister, I’ve come to see religious life for what it truly is – a relationship between God and others, not a life where one is automatically made holy. I recently heard a priest say that all sisters are diamonds in the rough, and that everything we encounter, including those people who rub us the wrong way, are buffing away our grit and enhancing our brilliance.
In religious life, many of those things – the good and the challenging – are beyond our own control. They happen along paths chosen for us, including changes in housemates, locations, ministries and schedules. They happen because of obedience to God and to our provincial.
I’m free to go where I am needed and do the work I am asked to do because I have surrendered my will to God, the good of the community and its work.
I turned to God early in my life for comfort and direction. I lost my own father at age 9, when he had a heart attack in his sleep. The Catholic Church was at the heart of my family, so his absence drove me into prayer and contemplation, even as a young girl.
Besides the example of my Catholic school teachers, I had two aunts who were nuns whom my family visited. They would let us sneak into the chapel or some other inner sanctum of their convent, and I remember thinking that one of the perks of religious life was that I could pray in the chapel every day.
After being taught by the sisters of St. Joan Antida, I entered their community. At the mid-century, entering religious life or the priesthood was not as novel as it is now, and it was something my friends and I would talk about as girls. However, I was the only postulant. I juggled college classes, basic cleaning, dishes and laundry.
Obedience wasn’t always easy. It pushed me to become more independent, creative and extroverted. I was motivated and supported by the friendships I formed with the other sisters, and eventually I started to feel part of a family.
When I began my teaching career, my dream job was to instruct fifth grade. Instead, the provincial asked me to teach high school theology. I thought I couldn’t do it, but she reassured me. It didn’t expel the fear right away, but I knew what path I was on.
I faced transitions always remembering that I’m not in control. I’ve moved at least eight different times, bringing heartache for the things left behind and adventure in the things to come.
In religious life, few things are permanent. That’s very freeing, but it’s also difficult not to settle down in one place. A transient life helps me live my vow of poverty, because I’ve learned to travel light. I do keep my books, but not extra stuff.
I’m now working in administration, so I’m not in the school or the church. I serve the poor – our fourth vow – as our treasurer and by working with our employees. Frankly, it’s stuff I wouldn’t normally choose to do. However, it’s a different kind of service; because I’m doing it, my sisters are free to do their ministries.
If I were 18 again, I would still choose religious life. It would surprise my teenage self to know how positive and liberating obedience is. She wouldn’t believe all of the things I have been able to do.
Religious life is not a limiting life; it’s expanding. Obedience requires flexibility, and it forces me to look at the needs of others. In that way, it’s like marriage or motherhood. No matter their vacations, Christians cannot escape the call to live life for others, which opens them to God’s grace. Prayer is a huge source of strength. I pray to be open to something different, and, with confidence, look forward to the unknown ahead.