The 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.
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).
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.
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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.