Dear Pope Francis,
Earlier this week, I came across a link to the video “Do you wanna be a sister?” on twitter. It’s a cute parody of the “Do you wanna build a snowman?” song from Frozen, which as we’ve already established is currently one of my favourite movies and may even surpass Monsters Inc. in my regard for it.
Watching the video of Sr. Marianette trying to reach out to the young woman thinking about religious life reminded me of my own experience discerning with the Daughters of Saint Paul. I remember how totally freaked out my friends and family were by the news that I was planning to go to a weekend discernment retreat with them in Alexandria, Virginia over the American Thanksgiving weekend in 2012.
After I got back, Jan (one of my journalism professors), really pushed me to write about the weekend with the sisters but I never did. Not because I was on board with Sr. Margaret Michael’s prescient suggestion I take a step back from writing all the time and focus on taking care of myself, but because I honestly just didn’t know where to begin.
When you’re discerning anything, religious life, marriage, a big move or a career change, it’s not something done quickly or in a vacuum from the rest of your life. You don’t get to the discernment weekend, the end of relationship conversation, loading the truck or quitting the job without spending a lot of time thinking about it and questioning the sanity of your thought process. Maybe it’s a recurring thought over weeks or months, or maybe it’s something you stay up all night trying to figure out.
When I was growing up, my Dad liked to tease me about how as his eldest child I had to be a nun to a) make sure he got into heaven and b) make up for the fact that he discerned out of entering seminary for the priesthood shortly before or after meeting my mother. It’s been a while since he bemoaned how he could have been a priest, so I’m a little fuzzy on the timeline of his journey. I can remember being really stubborn that I wasn’t going to be a nun from the first time he suggested it, and whether by rote or obstinacy, joining a religious order was just not on my radar until after I finished SERVE in the spring of 2011.
A big part of my experience volunteering that summer was living in community with the seven other young adults in the program. After it ended I had a really hard time transitioning into life with my family for the rest of the summer. Even though I felt like I had a hard time fitting in when I was doing it, I really missed my four brothers and three sisters and the routine of morning and afternoon prayer before our meals.
About a month into school my third year I sat with Fr. John Jennings in the chapel and cried all over him about how I was starting to think I was called to be a nun and how I had no idea what to do or how to tell if it was the real deal or not. To his credit, Fr. John told me I didn’t have to figure it out right away and shared his own discernment in the seminary and the experience of just taking it a year, a month, a week, or a day at a time. He also suggested I start researching some of the religious orders to better inform myself of different charisms and missions. (By extension this lead to a very well stocked shelf of pamphlets on religious life while I worked in the campus ministry office.)
Somewhere along the line I filled out one of those “send me more information about vocations” cards from a poster outside the chapel, and received a really thoughtful response from a vocations director in Toronto who included some information about the Daughters of St. Paul and suggested I might like to start there given my journalism major. I wish I could find the note so I could quote it here and say which vocations director it was because the priest who sent it was super sweet, but it’s in a box somewhere and I’m not digging into anymore of those today.
When I read the information about the Daughters of St. Paul, I got really excited because I felt like if I was being called to be a sister, this was definitely the order for me. The euphoria then changed to terror, because “Oh God, what if I’m being called to be a sister?!”
During the summer of 2012 I struck up an e-mail conversation with Sr. Marie Paul from their Toronto house. We e-mailed a little bit and talked on the phone a few times which was really helpful because she didn’t go nuts pushing me to come to the discernment weekend right away. The invitation was extended, but she made it really clear the decision was mine and that there would be other weekends in the future if I didn’t want to go to one that fall. She met me where I was and let me come to her which took a lot of the pressure I was putting on myself regarding discernment off. I ended up going to the discernment weekend in Virginia because I had something going on at school the weekend of the Toronto one. I forget what.
When I told my parents over Canadian Thanksgiving that I was planning to go to discernment weekend the next month, they were a little freaked out. Dad got really concerned with making sure I knew he really was just teasing me about being a nun for the last 23 years, he didn’t really expect me to be one and I didn’t have to join a religious order to make him happy. It was like the prospect of me actually becoming a sister made it very not funny all of a sudden.
(Point of clarity, a nun is a sister in a cloistered religious order whereas a sister is a woman who has taken the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in a religious order. In popular culture we tend to use the words interchangeably as meaning any woman who wears a religious habit or belongs to an order of women religious.)
So I went to visit the Daughters of St. Paul in Alexandria, Virginia.
My room mate got up at the crack of dawn to drive me across the border to the bus station in Houlton, Maine and I took a bus from there to Portland. I stayed in a hotel painting my toes and watching a Breaking Amish marathon on TLC until I fell asleep at 8 or 9 and then left for the airport early the next morning. I flew to Washington, DC and Sr. Margaret Michael met me there when my plane landed around lunchtime. We drove to the house where I dropped off my things and then much unencumbered I took the subway back into DC to do some sightseeing for a few hours before the retreat started.
I really enjoyed the retreat. It was good to have time with the sisters and the other young women and I enjoyed learning more about their ministry. I really liked praying the news with the sisters, because it gave me a new way of approaching my consumption of newspapers, radio and television. I also really enjoyed just hanging out with everyone in the evening and laughing.
The day we spent in silence was hard, but moreso because I was feeling guilty for struggling to stay awake than any dislike of quietude. Becoming aware of just how tired I was at that point was a valuable takeaway for me, as was the recognition that I probably wasn’t being called to be a sister, just called to have a deeper relationship with Christ.
Discerning with the Daughters of St. Paul was a really good experience for me because while it was stressful and scary year getting there, I have a deeper confidence that I’m going to get married and be a mother and a foster mother one day. Another thing I started to learn while I was there was how a traditional newsroom of breaking stories and deadlines and always needing to be plugged in isn’t something good for me, no matter how good I might be at it.
Finally, I just want to say to any of the people reading this that I think it’s important to be open to the possibility of religious life as a vocation. While you’re discerning if it’s going to be a thing or not, I think it’s also important to be aware of the things going on in your life that might be scaring you towards the church that way. Family drama, difficulties with friends, a rough breakup. It’s good to seek comfort in God, but not so much to make radical life decisions trying to escape the realities of your life. Trust God to get you where you need to be. Maybe he facepalms a little bit if you’re being really thick, but he’ll work around it.