Friday Discernment Q & A: What’s It Like To Enter a Convent?

For those of you who have sent in questions, thank you for your patience! For now, Friday will be a Q & A day. Feel free to email me your questions, or contact me through the blog’s contact page.

530am Beach and Sunrise 049A young woman who was recently accepted into a community and will enter the convent in nine months asked the following.

“I’m interested in any tips or stories you have for either of these two things: 1. the upcoming months of saying goodbye/getting rid of material things/getting increasingly excited and probably lots of other emotions  (I bet there are some good stories here!) and 2. what does discernment look like once you’re in the convent? I’m sure it’s different for each community and individual but it’s just been interesting taking this ‘big step’ but also knowing that God could just be calling me to the convent for a time (though I do think He is calling me forever). Is it normal to assume that I’ll be there forever, or do you think there’s prudence in speaking of it as ‘the next step’ on a long journey?  I’ve just been curious about that…how does one look at the vocation once they’ve been accepted or once they’re in the order?”

Congratulations on your acceptance! You will be in my prayers—and I suspect in the prayers of all those who read this post. Since you asked a few different questions, I’ll split my answer into two parts.

The months between acceptance and entrance into a religious congregation are just as you describe: a whirlwind of emotions. For me, I experienced the dizzying joy of God’s profound love for me in inviting me to take the next step toward an exclusive, spousal relationship with him; I was also looking forward to an adventure that would be filled with the support of a loving community. Overall, I had so enjoyed visiting the sisters that at the end of each visit when it came time to go home, I didn’t want to leave. A couple people told me that after I’d made the decision to enter, they could see me “glow,” I was so happy. (A funny footnote here: I was so thrilled to enter that I actually became excited when my mom and I bought the un-stylish black “nun” shoes I was supposed to wear as a postulant. Definitely not the kind of shoe I was used to wearing.)

Alternating with the incredible joy, I experienced great fear: fear of the unknown; fear of the sacrifices I knew I’d be making, fear of being asked to do something I didn’t enjoy or couldn’t do, fear that I might not “measure up” to being a religious and the expectations of the sisters.

In addition to my fears, I very much dreaded the separation from my family. Until I made the decision to enter, I shared my discernment journey with just a few close family members. Telling my family that I was entering the convent was not easy. Almost everyone was supportive, but a couple of times I was surprised by remonstrances or regrets from a close family member–someone I’d been sure would understand. While I didn’t expect everyone to be supportive, it was harder than I expected when someone close to me didn’t understand or agree with my decision.

In looking back in those months before I entered, two things gave me great joy and/or peace:

  • In discerning my vocation and in the aftermath of experiencing such a strong joy and peace by which God confirmed my decision to enter, God communicated such tremendous love for me that it was easier to trust that God would be with me every step of my journey. The whole experience of being called and so greatly loved really strengthened me through my fears. (And this joy has continued to be strengthen me throughout my journey as a sister.)
  • My greatest fear and source of suffering before I entered the convent was leaving my family. My vocation director encouraged me to remember two things: a) Leaving home was part of growing up, so eventually I would leave home even if I didn’t enter the convent now; and b) God would take care of my family better than I could, and our love would continue to grow. It helped that I knew that my congregation encourages us to stay in touch with our families, to call and write regularly. Now, with the internet that’s even easier. I truly believe that God blesses my sacrifice of leaving my family to dedicate my life to him by sending special blessings on my loved ones.

In many ways, my vocation to become a sister has shaped my relationships with my loved ones. Especially when I’m sent to carry out our mission in a place far away from my family, my less-frequent visits home become very focused and conversations can go deep—we talk about the important things because we may not have the luxury of another long conversation for a while. So, despite often living far from my family and missing the daily details, I’ve still been able to stay close.

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God’s Story for Us

01A choice 2 (me)Oops! There’s a catch there in my last post when I said I love my plans. The catch is that I don’t just enjoy making plans and rejoicing when they work well. I actually become invested in my plans, to the point that I can make my security revolve around my plans–how well they are working, etc. If you are one of those people that rejoice in saying, “It’s all going according to plan,” then you might also be in danger of absolutizing your plan…or at the very least, making it more important than it was ever meant to be.

Because a plan is a very temporary thing, meant to serve the needs of the moment. It’s not meant to be something that takes over our lives, that becomes more important than its purpose, or the people it involves, even ourselves.

Yet plans can be incredibly helpful and important–in keeping a group on track, in juggling many things at one time, in achieving goals that, without a lot of careful planning, might otherwise be impossible.

Whether you are a pantser or a planner, whether you love plans or hate them, or whether you are somewhere in-between–loving the organization that plans bring, but longing for more spontaneity–you probably aren’t neutral to plans.

The problem with any plan is that it isn’t perfect. No matter how many contingencies we anticipate, it’s likely that something will come up that we couldn’t foresee. And then the plan must be adjusted or replaced with another.

The good news is that the most important plan for you is perfect: perfect for you wherever you are, and flexible when your situation changes, or when you want to shift directions. What plan is that, you wonder? God’s plan.

* * *

Vocational Insight: Religious Life*

For all of us, the future is unknowable. As a religious with the vow of obedience, I don’t have the stability of creating my own plan, of knowing where I’m going to live, or the work that I’m going to be doing. While others can take this stability and this sense of control for granted, they are not part of my life. Often, I have no clue of what’s coming next. I cannot count the times when I’ve needed to change plans for the mission that I’m carrying out midstream. And I honestly never know for sure where I will be or what I will be doing a year from now. Although this might sound difficult to live, the security I have in living the vow of obedience is worth it:

Living well the vow of obedience offers me the certainty that I am doing God’s will, however unexpected it may be.

My vow of obedience demands that I trust in a larger plan that is not my own: in God’s plan for me, as mediated through my superiors. Though at times I may struggle in the moment (or the first weeks or months) to accept God’s plan for me, the truth is that every time I’ve been able to step back and look at my life, it’s clear that God’s love guides the story of my life. God’s plan has proven  over and over again to be the best for me.

*For those who are  discerning their vocations, I’ll occasionally offer an insight from the various states in life. Naturally, since I’m a religious sister, my personal insights will most often be about religious life. But I’ll try to find others to offer spiritual insights into the vocation to marriage, priesthood, and the single life too.

True Story: What It’s Like To Be Married to Jesus

SrHelenaRSister Helena Raphael Burns, FSP, a sister in my community, recently published the story of her discernment titling it: What It’s Really Like To Be Married To Jesus. It’s a fun read, but also offers some very helpful insights for those who are discerning their vocations, especially to  religious life.

My favorite line from Sr. Helena’s story:

This is what you’re [everyone is] supposed to think when you see a nun: “Yup! God is the Spouse of every soul, the Spouse of my soul.

When we live our vocations with authenticity–marriage, priesthood, religious life, single life–they complement and strengthen each other. Enjoy her story!

A couple weeks ago, I put out a call for questions about discernment, thinking that maybe Friday’s post could be a Q & A. Although a number of readers emailed me, only a couple of questions came up about discernment, mostly about discerning religious life, or what it’s like entering a religious community. I’ll be answering those questions shortly, but I just want to remind you that I’m happy to answer questions–and provide a forum where we can explore discernment together. For now, the best way to send me questions is to “comment” on one of my posts or send me an email. Questions sent to me on Twitter will probably reach me if you use @SisterMPaul, but questions on Facebook won’t reach me for now. (I haven’t been able to set up Facebook’s notifications so that I’m not inundated by all kinds of information that takes too much time to sort through. Hopefully I’ll figure out the settings some day soon!)

I look forward to hearing from you and continuing on our discernment journeys together!

The Sisterhood Finale: Discernment Glimpsed

TheSisterhoodPhotoSeriesThe last two episodes of Lifetime’s reality TV show, The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns, broadcast last night. Because of the nature of a reality TV show which needs an ending, the young women were asked to share their decisions at the end of the six weeks. This superficially imposed time frame was not necessarily helpful to the discernment process of these young women, but it gave the show some closure. I won’t give any spoilers here, but I’d like to offer some last reflections on topics that came up in the show.

I’ll begin by noting that once again, the insights offered into religious life were positive and marvelous. Mother Christina and the Sisters of St. Joseph the Worker were real, compassionate, and inviting.

But the process of discerning religious life is not so realistically portrayed.

Discernment Glimpsed, Not Portrayed

Having finished the show and guessing at some of what happened “behind the scenes” and interiorly in the young women, it seems to me that this show offers only glimpses of what it is like to discern religious life, and some of those glimpses are misleading.

Above all, the superficial timeline of six weeks—that is, trying to discern a vocation according to the constraints of a reality TV show rather than according to God’s timing—led to a lot of unnecessary stress and even distress for the young women discerning. While discernment can involve moments of turmoil, it’s really  important to be at peace during one’s discernment.

The decisions that were made by the young women were not final decisions, although that’s not really made clear on the show—especially for the young women who chose to continue their discernments with a particular community. First, they need to continue discerning, as one two-week visit is not enough time to discern. In addition, the sisters—especially the vocation directors and superiors—will now actively engage in discernment with the young women. Discernment doesn’t just involve the individual’s choice, but also the choice of God, which is revealed in the affirmation or confirmation of the Church—in this case, of the congregation. A young person doesn’t discern their vocation on their own, but within the Church.

Chastity for the Sake of the Kingdom

Not surprisingly for our sexuality-obsessed culture, the discerners talked about chastity and the question of “who is a virgin” in three separate conversations during episodes four and five. (Note that neither poverty nor obedience really came up as points for discussion.) I’d like to respond to a couple of points that came up in the conversations:

1) Our sexuality is integral to who we are as human beings, but actually having sex is not the only way  of expressing our sexuality. The love between a man and a woman is a sacred, beautiful thing, and most people are called to holiness as married people. For them, the act of making love is the fullest expression of their sexuality. Making love is meant for that one, intimate, permanent relationship.

2) God intends that the sacred act of making love be reserved for those who are married. The rest of us are called to live a celibate chastity. Having sex is not a “test” for a relationship. Nor is it necessary to have had sex in order to discern one’s vocation—to marriage, priesthood, or religious life. In discerning one’s vocation it’s helpful to have a certain level of maturity, but it’s not necessary to experience everything in order to make a good discernment.

One’s vocation to religious life does not depend on whether one is a virgin or not. However, the person discerning religious life needs to experience the capacity to live a celibate chastity—not just think about it. (For example, Claire deciding to live “sacred singleness.”) If we are beginning to discern our vocation, or even if we simply want to discern God’s will more deeply in our lives, we will want to look seriously at the call to live chastely according to our state in life.

3) Living the vow of chastity requires both faith and the continuous effort to grow as a person. As human beings, we are made for marriage! So it requires a special call, a special grace of God, to live a celibate chastity as a religious.  And sometimes that’s hard to understand for those who are not called in this way.

Having healthy relationships with people of both sexes is an important part of personal growth for someone committing (or thinking of committing) to the vow of chastity. On our part, actually living a celibate lifestyle requires faith, emotional and personal maturity, the desire to give all of one’s self to God in a radical way, and an openness to let God’s grace work in us.

Reconciliation

Just as we are all called to live chastely according to our state in life, we are also called to live in charity. Discernment has a communitarian aspect, and this was hinted at in the show by showing how five very different young women share such an intense journey—supporting each other, but also sometimes very tense with each other.

Several times during the show, one or more of the young women behaved in a way that didn’t reflect Gospel values. In response, one or more of the group of discerners tried to talk about it with the others. The motivation to talk about it always included charity—to help the person(s) whose behavior was problematic to the other discerners. The motivations also seemed to include a desire to grow in harmony and unity, or simply a desire to stay “on track” with a discerning spirit—which was another way of expressing the need for support for a faith-filled atmosphere during the days of discernment.

As we’ve all experienced, these kinds of discussions or confrontations can break down into blame, accusations, defensiveness or judgments. In episode 5, Mother Christina guides what could have become a divisive fight into an experience of reconciliation. Living in reconciliation—asking for forgiveness and extending forgiveness wholeheartedly—is not about being right, or even being fair. Nor is it simply “giving in.” Instead, reconciliation is about seeking to grow in love, letting go of judging others, and a letting go of what’s not essential for the sake of love. Learning to live in reconciliation is essential to community living (and to every vocation).

Sacred Silence

The discerners’ response to the nighttime “Grand Silence” in the convent? Writing notes to the camera!

I had to laugh at this. Silence can seem to be a scary thing, especially when we’re not used to it. As Daughters of Saint Paul, we too have many times of silence built into our lives, especially the night and early mornings, so that we can be more attuned to the voice of God. Our monthly one-day retreats and our eight-day annual retreats are special times of silence, which open us up to deeper intimacy with God.

If we are struggling to discover God’s will for us, then we might also be struggling to see or experience God’s presence in our lives. Building in some times of silence into our day—even just 15 minutes in the morning with no music, no news, no checking the internet—can make a huge difference in our ability to listen.

When we are surrounded by noise, we start to “tune out” because we can’t possibly hear everything going on around us. When we take time for quiet, we can start to hear the noise inside of us, and let it gradually quiet down. Once we are immersed in silence—both external and internal—we can “tune in” to what’s going on deep within us, and we can hear the Lord’s whispered invitations.

Silence and listening are keys to discerning well.

Family & Discernment

I was pleased to see that, in this show, each discerner shared her discernment with her loved ones, who were mostly supportive. When someone discerns a big life choice—a vocation, a job change, moving away, etc., this can be hard for family members to adjust to. Sometimes a family member will express misgivings. A family member who doesn’t share our faith may struggle to understand a young person’s vocation to priestly or religious life. The person discerning needs to follow God’s call no matter the cost, but taking the time to journey with one’s family, to seek their support, and to explain their reasons to those who don’t understand, are all important. If it’s available, we all need the support of our families to live our vocations well.

One of the sisters talked about how, when a young woman enters a convent, her family gains all the sisters of the convent as part of their extended family! This is true, because each sister’s family is now related to the community in a special way. While every congregation has its own customs of how they encourage their sisters to stay connected with their families (frequency of visits, phone calls, letters, etc.), it’s important that each community recognizes the importance of family in supporting one’s vocation, encouraging some kind of connection.

* * *

All in all, the show has been wonderful in its portrayal of religious life, the opportunities it’s offered for discussions about discernment, and the way that it’s allowed me to connect on Twitter and here on this blog with those who are interested/curious/discerning about religious life! I welcome further comments here or via email.

And I entrust the courageous and generous women on the show–Eseni, Francesca, Stacey, Christie, and Claire–and all the viewers, to the intercession of Mary, our Mother and Queen whose “yes” at the Annunciation is the model for our vocational “yes” and our daily “yes” to the Lord’s invitations:

Prayer To Our Lady of the Annunciation
by Blessed James Alberione

May all generations proclaim you blessed, Mary.
You believed the Archangel Gabriel,
and in you were fulfilled all the great things that he had announced to you.
My soul and my entire being praise you, Mary.
You believed totally in the Incarnation of the Son of Godin your virginal womb,
and you became the Mother of God.
Then the happiest day in the history of the world dawned.
Humanity received the Divine Master,
the sole eternal Priest,
the Victim who would make reparation,
the universal King.

Faith is a gift of God and the root of every good.
Mary, obtain for us, too, a lively, firm and active faith—
faith which saves and produces saints,
faith in the Church, in the Gospel, in eternal life.
May we meditate on the words of your blessed Son,
as you preserved them in your heart and devoutly meditated on them.
May the Gospel be preached to everyone.
May it be docilely accepted.
May all men and women become, in Jesus Christ, children of God. Amen.

A Real Sister’s Take on The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns

Photo: Sr. Irene Wright, FSP

Photo: Sr. Irene Wright, FSP

Starting Nov. 25th, Lifetime® is broadcasting a series called: The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns, which uses the reality TV format to follow five young women who want to discern their vocations to religious life, and go on a six-week visit to three convents.

How marvelous that what seems to be a positive portrayal of religious life is broadcasting on prime time. What a huge witness these five young women give in sharing their decision to discern religious life! It’s amazing that a secular TV broadcaster is offering time and space for a reflection on religious life at the very beginning of the Year of Consecrated Life (which runs from the First Week of Advent this year until February 2, 2016).

Moments I Loved in the Show…and Why:

* When one of the young woman arrives at the door for her first visit to a convent, she sits inside saying over and over, “I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared…” Why? Because when I first visited the convent, I was so nervous that I begged my mother who was driving me to turn around and take me home.

* The overwhelming, joyful welcome of each young woman to the community. A wonderful genuine moment.

* The description one sister gave of community life: “One of the greatest challenges and one of the greatest joys.”  Because this is absolutely true.

* The appreciation that the families of these young women expressed about religious life. One father says something like, “Religious are beautiful people.” I was inspired, edified, and touched at their respect and love for religious life.

* The mention of Sr. Dolores Hart inspiring one young woman to consider religious life. Because her hidden, contemplative life “shouts” the love of God to the world!

* The support that the young women give to each other. Because this is the beginning of their understanding of community in religious life.

* * *

I’ll be watching the whole series, and I’m very interested in hearing from others about it. Here are some of my first impressions:

★ Kudos to Lifetime® and producers Hot Snakes Media for giving a positive and realistic glimpse of real women religious on prime time—in all their heroic everydayness. The producers have definitely done their homework in understanding religious life and in choosing interviews that are both authentic and fascinating. I think the series might be better called: Inside the Convent, or A First Look at the Sisterhood!

 Prayers for the generous and sincere young women who are discerning religious life, and are willing to encourage others by sharing their journey with us.

 Caution: this show is not portraying a typical discernment journey, and might even be confusing for those who are discerning religious life or another vocation. Vocational discernment is a very sacred, interior journey that one walks with God. It’s about growing in our relationship with God, in our understanding of ourselves and the gift of self that God gives us, and our God-given mission. Although the show follows five young women who seem genuinely sincere about discerning religious life, a six-week live-in would not be a typical first step in their discernment. From what the young women shared, none of them are really familiar with religious life; they don’t know the sisters or communities that they are visiting, and they aren’t well-prepared about what to expect on their visits. In a typical discernment, a young woman would email or talk on the phone with a vocation director before making an initial visit to a convent. And a first visit is typically much, much shorter: an afternoon or a weekend, not a six-week live-in. As a vocation director, in talking with a young woman I would always share with her what to expect when she visited. My main goal was to help her discern her call by deepening her relationship with God, not to put her through a “test” to see if she can “make it.”

Most reality-TV shows have an accepted, contrived framework: a contest, a game, or some other framework created specifically for the show that keeps the show within certain boundaries. And then there are the accepted conventions of a reality TV show: interpersonal conflicts, competition among participants, and self-revelation/exposure that often includes uncharitable talk as one person compares self with others.

In the case of The Sisterhood, in some ways the producers have been able to rise above some of these conventions. But not entirely. First of all, TV has to focus on externals. This already distorts the portrayal of the discernment process because it is primarily an interior journey. In Episode 1, the very contrivance of a six-week live-in at such an early stage in discernment sets up drama and crises that could have been avoided (and normally are). For me, a former video producer as well as a sister who has accompanied young women in their discernments, it raises important questions. How does one avoid exploiting the vulnerability of these generous and courageous young women? How does one authentically portray onscreen a journey that is spiritual and therefore invisible? How does one respect the sacredness of a young woman’s discernment journey and her growing relationship with God, while seeking to portray it on-camera?

As a genuine “first glance” inside a convent, The Sisterhood: Becoming Sisters is wonderful. From what I can see, the show is an inside view of religious life, an initial discovery of what religious life is like, rather than an in-depth portrayal of authentic vocational discernment. I hope that The Sisterhood: Becoming Sisters will highlight the validity of the choice for consecrated life and make it more understandable to viewers who might otherwise never give religious life a second thought. I am sure that the show will offer many insights into the journey of discerning religious life, as well as religious life itself. But I hope that viewers—especially young people who are discerning or who are considering their vocations—will understand that, although the show’s intentions are to be authentic, this is a rather misrepresented view of discernment. I hope the show encourages discerners to seek out sisters (and priests and brothers) who can help them to enter into a true discernment—one whose greatest drama is a growing configuration with Christ.

While I hope to continue commenting on the show in general, I will not be commenting on each woman’s individual discernment journey. Instead, I’d like to close each of my comments with a prayer for Claire, Eseni, Christie, Stacey, and Francesca, and for all the viewers who might be considering religious life. Please pray with me:

Lord, you invite each of us to follow you.
Bless those who take your invitation seriously,
especially young people who are discerning
if you are calling them to religious life—
a life that is a more intense witness to you,
a radical “yes” to the gift of Baptism,
to dying to self and rising with you,
and to sharing your love with the world.
Bless Claire, Eseni, Christie, Stacey, Francesca, and all who are discerning religious life.
Help them to grow closer to you,
to generously open themselves to Your love at work in them,
and to say “yes” to however you call them to follow you.  Amen.

What did you think? It would be wonderful to get your reactions/feedback/questions that arose from watching the show!