I’d like to share with you a story. It’s a love story, between me and the Lord, and a wonderful group of women known as the Sisters of Life. It’s the story of how I almost became a nun.
In 2005 I moved to Toronto to go to university. I searched all year for an on-campus spiritual home but didn’t really find a place to call my own. Near the end of the year, I saw signs for Mass on campus and I was curious. Raised in a Protestant tradition, I had some academic knowledge of the Roman Catholic church, most of it limited, lots of it incorrect. So, I acted on my curiosity and went to Mass. I was somewhat confused and more than a little lost and so excited when we got to the Lord’s Prayer that I knew something and then even that was different! (No “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory” – which meant everyone else had stopped talking and I was still going on.) After Mass, I introduced myself to the priest saying ‘Hi, I’m Anne, and I’m Presbyterian, and this is my first time at Mass. I have a ton of questions, do you have office hours?’ He took it all in stride, told me when he’d be free and so the next week, I showed up at Father Allan’s office with a notepad full of questions. He was great, answering everything he could, and pointing me in the right direction for some of my more obscure inquiries. I appreciated his time and said goodbye. I was glad to have learned some more about the Catholic faith and traditions, and was still intrigued, but I didn’t go back that year. I found a home at Knox Church downtown, and in my second year spent some time with both InterVarsiy Christian Fellowship and Campus for Christ.
But in second semester, neither fit my schedule. In February I saw the posters for Ash Wednesday Mass. I did a little reading about Ash Wednesday, decided it was a beautiful tradition, and asked a Catholic classmate if she was going. She said yes and invited me along. After Mass we went back to the office, where I discovered a couch that was far more comfortable than the on in my dorm and a group of warm, welcoming, engaged, committed, passionate, young Christians. I was home. I came back, again and again. I became the ‘token Protestant’ at the Catholic chaplaincy. I stumbled my way through daily Mass and learned to pray the rosary.
I spent hours in the prayer chapel, reflecting on the blessed sacrament, and nervously made my first confession, after grilling my friends on exactly how embarrassing/uncomfortable the process was (non-Sacramental confession, for those of you who are wondering how that was possible). The chaplains, Fr. Allan, and Fr. Roger, and the lay-leaders Sam and Josh were amazing. They spent hours answering my questions, taking time to explain things that were new and unfamiliar. I’ll be forever grateful for their love.
In December of 2006 I travelled to St Louis, Missouri, for Urbana. I found healing, encouragement, calling and inspiration. I came home determined to listen for God’s calling on my life and with a suitcase full of books. One of those books was a sampler, containing single chapters from a collection of different writings published by IV Press. One of those chapters was from a book called Flirting with Monasticism, written by Karen Sloan, a female ordained Presbyterian minister who fell in love with a Catholic Dominican novice preparing to enter the priesthood. She chronicled her journey, sharing both her personal relationships, but also her exploration of faith, traditions and the Catholic church.
Her book encouraged and inspired me on my own journey, but it was the appendix that changed my life. Since so much of her story included anecdotes from religious life from a male perspective, she included an interview in the appendix with a woman, a nun, for a female perspective. The interview was with Sister Antoniana Maria, S.V., a member of an order called the ‘Sisters of Life’.
Back in Toronto, I was so excited about this book. I had signed up to go on the ‘Vocation Vacation’ with other young women from the chaplaincy, thinking that ‘vocation’ meant calling in a Protestant sense. While it does mean calling, in a Catholic context, it generally means a very specific category of calling – either to marriage, or to religious life. So, not really understanding what we’d be doing, I was telling Sam all about this great book, and this amazing nun. Sam asked me the name of the order and when I answered ‘Sisters of Life’, she looked at me sideways and said ‘Anne, we’re going to see them next week!’ Not only that, but when I gave her the name of the nun from the book, she told me that Sr. Antoniana was in Toronto, and would be there. I was so excited, and so nervous! I’d never met a nun! What would they think of the fact that I wasn’t Catholic? I’d wanted to be nun when I was 8 and watched the Sound of Music and had been bitterly disappointed when my mother told me that I couldn’t become a nun, because I wasn’t Catholic. What would these women be like?
Warm. Welcoming. Real. Friendly. Huggable. Engaged. Devoted. Faithful. Human. Beautiful.
We spent the morning with the Sisters of Life, and I met Sr. Antoniana and told her how I was Presbyterian, and had read Karen’s book. In the afternoon, we visited another convent, another order of Sisters. And I was hooked. I was in love.
I didn’t realise it right away. I remained engaged with CCY and spent every spare minute in the office or chapel. We talked about the nuns, about vocations. I signed up for the volunteer lists for the Sisters of Life and became a prayer supporter. I attended a numerous events they had, and found myself google-ing ‘become a nun’ late at night. I firmly put a stop to that, but a week later I was looking up ‘joining the Catholic church’ ‘21st century nuns’ and the most viewed site in my browser history was the vocations page of the Sisters of Life site. I was resistant, always saying ‘no way, God! not me!’ whenever I caught myself dreaming of walking down the halls wearing blue and white robes. Then I realised I was saying ‘no’ to God! That wasn’t okay, even if it was crazy for me to think of being a nun. I was challenged, by school-mates, by friends, by family and fellowship at Knox, to always say ‘yes’ to God! (I’m sure that if a few of them had realised what they were encouraging me to do, they might have changed their words!!!)
On May 29, 2008, more than a year after meeting the sisters, and after months of wrestling with myself and God, I said ‘yes’. I was at evening prayers and adoration with students from the chaplaincy and I was so challenged and encouraged and inspired by the homily Fr. Roger preached that night. It was about Mary, about her role as our Mother and her Fiat, her ‘yes’ to God. And so I finally said yes. I prayed ‘Lord, whatever You will, I will. I will follow you.’ I spent the rest of the evening, overwhelmed, in tears, and shared for the first time with the chaplaincy staff that I thought God might be calling me to be a nun.
A week later I was headed to Ottawa, as a young adult representative of the Ottawa presbytery for the annual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. It was a very Presbyterian week. The ecumenical guest at one session was the newly-appointed Archbishop of Ottawa. Imagine his surprise when he was approached by a young Presbyterian woman who told him that she wanted to join the Catholic church and become a nun! He took time out of his busy day to listen to me and he prayed for me.
I spent the next two years moving forward in that calling, seeking the Lord’s will, and getting to know the sisters. By that time there were five sisters in Toronto and several full-time ministries up and running that I was involved in.
The Sisters of Life are a beautiful order. They take the three traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as a fourth vow: to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death. Founded in 1991 by John Cardinal O’Connor, the Sisters of Life minister to pregnant women in crisis, to those hurt by abortion and to those facing end of life challenges. Cardinal O’Connor was struck when visiting Dachau Concentration Camp by the horror of what humans do to one another and vowed to protect human life wherever it was most vulnerable. After being convicted by the Lord’s words in Mark 9:29, that this kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer and fasting, Cardinal O’Connor founded the Sisters of Life to do exactly that. They are a blended contemplative/active community. This means that they are allowed to leave the convent, that they do move about in the world, but that all of their actions are fruits of their contemplation. Prayer, fasting, devotion, poverty, obedience are at the heart of their ministry.
They are called ‘the mothers to the mothers of the unborn’ and all that they do stems from the Mass, where they conceive Jesus in their hearts to bear Him to the world. They have several apostolates (ministries). They invite pregnant women to come live with them and they offer post-abortive healing retreats for both women and men. They run the Family Life Office in New York and the mobilise thousands of volunteers across North America to assist women and families who are expecting and are facing challenges and pressure to abort. In partnership with several other groups, they run the Love and Life Site at World Youth Day, as well as a retreat centre in Connecticut and are involved in outreach and ministry to parishes and schools in New York and Toronto.
It takes several years to become a Sister of Life. The first year is the postulancy. Postulants wear a uniform (no veil) and keep their baptismal names. They spend nine months living together, taking classes, learning about the order and helping in the work of the apostolates.
The second step is the novitiate. Novices where the habit, with an all-white veil and take a religious name and are called ‘Sister’. This is a two-year process. The first year is called a canonical year and is a secluded time of deep prayer and intense preparation for vows. Novices then spend an apostolic year working in the apostolates. Novices continue to take classes in religious life and prepare prayerfully for vows.
First profession, or temporary profession is made next, when Sisters profess vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and protection of life for one year. They receive a blue band around the veil, but the Sisters of Life have chosen to retain a white veil, traditionally a symbol of formation to show that they are always in formation. Sisters in first profession also receive the medal of their patroness, the Madonna of the Streets.
Final profession is made after at least five years in temporary vows, and sisters make their vows for life. At final profession, each sister receives a simple silver ring as a sign of her commitment as a bride of Christ.
So that’s a picture of the community I considered joining. I was so blessed to have these beautiful women as part of my life. The three years I spent with them were the most blessed of my life and I will be forever grateful for the love they showered on me.
Clearly, I didn’t become a nun. In 2010 I was preparing to graduate from university and I said to the Lord ‘If You don’t want me to become a nun, let me know, because otherwise, I’m headed for the convent!’. Well, God had other plans. I met a man. I fell in love. God placed the desire to be a wife, a mother, back in my heart. It turns out that man was not the one for me. As I realised that and surrendered my life back to God’s plans, I seriously considered going to New York and knocking on the convent door. But the Lord led me to Singapore, and placed an incredible, amazing man in my life. I’m still praying for the Lord’s will. And there are days when life in the convent is very attractive. But I have a desire for a partner, and to parent, so I’m pretty sure that’s God’s plan.
I do believe it was God’s will for me to go through the journey of desiring to be a Sister and to wrestle with surrendering my life to Him. Working alongside the sisters taught me a great deal about community and love and about how I want me life, my community to be. I learned discipline and spiritual practice, saw unending graciousness and self-sacrificing love lived out and witnessed lives transformed and saved by love and prayer. I am so thankful for these women and their Fiat, their ‘yes’ to God’s call on their lives. I hope to honour them in my own ‘yes’, to whatever God has planned for me.
For more information about the Sisters of Life and their ministry check out: http://sistersoflife.org/
If you’re a young Catholic (or not!) woman wondering whether God has called you to religious life, please do not hesitate to contact the vocations director of your diocese or your parish priest. They’ll have resources they can direct you to as you discern God’s call. Please feel free to contact me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll help you in anyway I can.