Thursday, May 5, 2016

Semi-contemplative Snowzilla.

When I first started learning about religious communities I thought they only came in two flavors: active or contemplative. The contemplative communities are fully cloistered and often only leave their enclosure in times of emergency (e.g. for medical treatment or the death of a parent). Active communities often spend enough time in outside ministries that they have full time jobs (e.g. teaching or nursing). I didn't really feel called to either of these lifestyles. Later I learned about active-contemplative combo communities like the Sisters of Life.

At some point during my search, I remembered a friend telling me about a revival of the hermetic life. In other words, one could become a diocesan hermit. This is something like a cloistered "community" of one. Although I didn't necessarily feel called to this life either, I was curious to know more. During my search, I came across a new religious community called Children of Mary, founded by a woman who was originally discerning a vocation to the hermetic life. She had already unofficially lived the life of a hermit for about ten years and came to a point that she desired to make official vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. She received the permission of her Bishop to write up a rule of life and move toward an eventual profession. However, not long afterward the Bishop contacted her and asked if she would consider founding a new religious community, accepting other women to live the contemplative life with her too. And so the Children of Mary came to be.

This is a lovely semi-contemplative community in Ohio that spends most of their time in prayer and manual labor, in other words a largely monastic lifestyle, and a small amount of time in active ministries. I was highly impressed when I read about the Sisters' homeless ministry. When asked to volunteer at a local soup kitchen they agreed only on the condition that they could set up a temporary chapel for Eucharistic Adoration every time they visit. I remembered how our homeless winter relief shelter always seemed to be fighting an inevitable fall from spiritual ministry into mere social work. The Children of Mary Sisters have a fabulous solution to that problem. Their main focus is making Jesus known, loved and adored in the Blessed Sacrament.

A couple of months after visiting the Sisters of Life, I contacted the foundress of the Children of Mary and asked if I could meet the community. The timing was providential, as five of the Sisters were on their way to the March for Life in DC. I set up to meet the Sisters for Mass and adoration at a church in Bethesda, have some breakfast and then take the Metro into the city with them for the March.

The March was on Friday this year so I took the day off and stayed with mom in Alexandria on Thursday night so that I could Metro to Bethesda the next morning. We knew that a monster storm was expected to start on Friday afternoon and I wanted to stay with mom over the weekend. I got to the church before the Sisters and stayed in my pew when they arrived because I didn't want to distract them from their prayers in preparation for the Mass. Since I was the only one to hang around after Mass, they knew that I must be Sarah and one of the Sisters came over to introduce herself and tell me the plan. We would stay in the church for a little over an hour and then move to the school cafeteria to eat our breakfasts.

On the way to the cafeteria I was introduced to each Sister, with a hug! The Sisters were quiet during breakfast, I think they're used to eating in silence. Overall I would describe the Sisters as peaceful and radiant in a way that drew people like moths to flame! So many people of all types came over to talk with the Sisters. On the Metro they each ended up in conversation with a brand new friend and they passed out prayer cards and DVDs wherever we went. I ended up spending about half of the day with the Sisters, leaving the March early because the snow had started and was falling fast. I hugged each of the Sisters and lamented the fact that I had to leave so soon, but I think it was the right decision. I managed to get back to mom's apartment and was snowed in there until Tuesday!

I've heard a lot of religious vocation stories of love at first sight, but I've also heard stories of women visiting many communities before settling on the right one. In the beginning I think searching for a religious community is like looking for a husband. In most cases, you set up your first date based on a vague feeling of attraction and generally decide whether or not to make a second date based on a slightly less vague feeling of attraction. Of course, all of this searching takes place in the midst of intense prayer and is not something that can be reasoned out completely.

I had some really nice casual conversations with a few of the Sisters and got a better idea of their daily life. After visiting the Sisters of Life I had wondered if I might be called to a more contemplative lifestyle, e.g. semi-contemplative. But after meeting the Children of Mary I just wasn't sure. Again I didn't feel any certainty that "Yes! This is the one!" so I decided to keep searching. In the meantime, it has been a huge blessing to spend time with these ladies.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Come and see.

So about one year ago on a silent retreat I was spending a lot of time in prayer and had a moment when I was sure that God was calling me to... well... something. And it seemed to me that this something might be a radically different way of life--perhaps entering a religious community.

During the next couple of months I spent a lot of time researching the religious life and learned a lot more than I knew before, which was almost nothing, about the wide variety of religious communities out there. I contacted the first community that really grabbed my attention, the Sisters of Life, and the vocations director invited me to their Come-and-See retreat, named after John 1:39. (The Sisters of Life is a community founded to "protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.") During the next four months I prepared for the retreat by working on various self improvements and trying not to worry too much. My main concern was that I had been asked to bring work out clothing because we would be playing ultimate frisbee. I haven't played a team sport in over ten years and continually imagined my glasses being smashed off of my face on day one of the three day retreat.

The trip up to the retreat house in Connecticut went smoothly until the last 10 miles when my Google Maps directions became unintelligible and I had to call mom to help me with her fancy Smart Phone technology. In the end, I actually figured it out on my own using the road atlas (woot!). As I had hoped, I arrived in time for Evening Prayer before dinner. And the whole weekend was a blast! Thanks be to God, there was an alternative to ultimate frisbee for us less active types. We walked to the cemetery to pray for the Souls in Purgatory, since we were still within the All Souls Day octave.

I knew that I would be one of the oldest retreatants since most women's religious communities in the US are looking primarily for women who recently finished college and it has been MORE THAN TEN YEARS since I received my bachelor's degree. But there were a few other oldies but goodies there for the weekend and the organizers made sure that I met the two aerospace-minded Sisters of Life; one had worked at NASA and the other at Harvard's Center for Astrophysics.

Throughout the weekend the Sisters introduced us to some of their apostolates. We visited Sacred Heart convent in New York City which is their holy respite for pregnant women and new mothers in need of support. We also prayed the rosary outside of a local abortion clinic and heard the testimony of a woman who came to the Sisters looking for inner healing after her abortion. One of the highlights of the weekend was a trip to St. Patrick's Cathedral to visit the tomb of Cardinal O'Connor, the deceased founder of the Sisters of Life. I was extra excited, because when mom and I visited about a year ago the church was covered with scaffolding and we weren't able to go to the crypt. This time we spent about twenty minutes praying down in the crypt which also contains the tombs of Pierre Toussaint; Cardinal Cooke, the founder of Courage International; and Archbishop Fulton Sheen!

The Sisters exuded a childlike bliss and seemed to have truly found their place in life. The atmosphere was permeated with great joy and I lingered much longer than I needed to after finishing lunch on the last day because I didn't want to leave. The drive home took about two hours longer than it should have because I kept getting lost in thought about the weekend and missing my exits. At one point I pulled off at a rest stop, still marveling at the joy I saw in the Sisters. As I entered the bathroom, I heard a country music song playing: "I want whatever she's got!" Mercifully taken out of the context of the rest of the song, that lyric pretty much summed up my feelings about the weekend--these Sisters have found the pearl of great price!

Over the next few weeks I pondered something that Blessed Mother Teresa (soon to be St. Teresa of Kolkata!) had said: we must love all religious communities but fall in love with our own. While not every love is a love at first sight, the retreat did not leave me with a sense of clarity that this community is absolutely the one for me. So after this first encounter, which was a wonderful start to my search, I decided to keep seeking.