Sister Anita is thirty-one years old. She began formation at age twenty-five. Her journey toward vowed religious life (she has made first vows and is preparing now for final vows) shows clearly what the formation process is for. As she describes the decision to enter formation, her hopes and fears, what drew her forward and what held her back the gradual “coming-to-know” that happens in formation is revealed.
Anita: I remember the time I decided to enter the community and begin formation very well. I had known the Sisters for close to seven years at that point, and much of that time I had actually lived, volunteered, and worked with them, first as a college student and then as a working adult.
I was attracted to so many things about this community of Sisters: their open-mindedness, their desire to work with others for positive change in the world, their stories of courage and resilience throughout the years, their consistent life of prayer and their desire to share with others about their journey with God. I liked how they shared their major resources in common and made an effort not to amass too many material possessions. I saw how they supported one another in good times and in times of struggle and kept asking themselves how God was leading them to grow as a whole group.
I knew all of those things about the Sisters because they invited me into their lives as much as possible. I was free to share in as much of their lives as I wanted, and I continued to discover that I wanted to share in everything.
Standing on the shore
After being close to the sisters for so long and seeing their lives and work up close Sr. Anita, just Anita at the time, was already discerning.
I pondered the question of whether or not to join the community for several years. The invitation would rise up in my heart like a wave rises up to the shore. Like the wave, I would follow the question up to a certain point, and then withdraw from it again, in cycles. Each time, the question – wave – seemed to flow in closer and closer to land, but I could sense that I wasn’t yet ready to stay there. One day, after those seven years of growing in relationship with God, the Sisters, and in my own heart, I realized that I was standing on the shore, so to speak. How and when had I gotten there? There is some element of that which will always be a mystery. After following my cycles of questions back and forth, with as much awareness and patience as I was able to have, I suddenly “arrived,” at a peaceful sense of rightness about the decision.
I knew I was wanted
Although on any spiritual journey there are elements of mystery, Sr. Anita’s journey wasn’t only a lofty unsolvable puzzle. The practical, down-to-earth elements of any relationship – freedom to choose, being appreciated, knowing you are welcome – were vital pieces.
This inner prayer journey was not simply esoteric, though. As I said, I was paying attention to all the ways in which I was first attracted and stayed attracted to the Sisters’ way of life. I met some Sisters that I could talk with honestly, and explore my thoughts, feelings and questions in freedom, without pressure to choose religious life if that was not God’s plan for me. Although these Sisters didn’t pressure, they still invited me, and I appreciated that. I knew I was wanted – I knew the Sisters saw a good fit in me, if that’s how I felt too. That was part of the joy of our developing relationship.
A sense of humor
There are lots of questions. The questions and answers, the ongoing dialogue, can at times feel a bit much. Other sisters have described the tension that sometimes comes with formation as feeling under observation, especially when you are out of sorts or need to grow, or are doing too much self-scrutiny – or not enough -in choosing a life. One of Anita’s community members helped her out with this.
One Sister joked with me. “Just because you are living and working with us right now doesn’t mean that you want us bugging you all the time about whether or not you want to be a Sister. So how would it be if I limit myself to mentioning it only once every 3 months?” I returned, “Great! And just because I am living and working with you doesn’t mean that you want me constantly bugging you with questions about your way of life. I’ll limit those to once every 3 months, too.” In reality, this is how things went: In our daily lives we could sense moments of rightness and connection, and the same Sister would say, “Today there is something that I would love to discuss with you, but I think I have a month and two weeks before I can bring it up.” I would, of course, laugh and say, “Never mind – go ahead!” The same thing would happen with the questions I had for her.
Sacrifice or joy
Sr. Anita describes letting go of a common misunderstanding about life as a sister. So many of us think of the life of a vowed religious woman in terms of what she gives up. That is certainly the picture the world paints. As Sr. Anita came to know herself and the sisters better she was able to see more clearly that it was much more about gain than loss.
One misconception that I had about the Sisters that prevented me from beginning formation for a while had to do with marriage and children. Somehow, I had the idea that the Sisters mostly weren’t as attracted to the idea of marriage and raising a family as others were. I figured that they were either somehow born with a powerful desire for God and prayer and service only, and that they never saw themselves in that other role, or they had a lot of personal strength for the “sacrifice” of that option. Since I had pondered and desired that kind of future when I was younger and hadn’t met any Sisters, and since I could envision myself living that way and being happy, I thought that perhaps I was not born to be a Sister. Maybe I didn’t have the right predisposition.
Two things helped resolve these fears and misconceptions for me. One was a discernment talk that I attended, led by a Sister of a different Congregation. She brought up the subject herself and said that she, and perhaps most other Sisters, had at one time dreamed of getting married and raising children, as many women in our society do. Many, like me, knew that they could have done well in that life and could have been happy. She reminded us that discernment was usually a choice between options that were both good. We pray to discover which option is the best one for ourselves and for others. The women that chose religious life knew that they could possibly have lived well in several different forms of life: singly, married, in religious life, etc. Through their prayer they found that religious life was the most right choice for them, not the only right choice.
The other thing that helped me resolve this issue was my relationship with the Sisters and my growing knowledge of myself. I began to see clearly that the Sisters didn’t choose religious life in order to make a sacrifice for God and the world. They discovered that this way of life was fulfilling and full of joy and goodness for them. Of course there were hard times and struggles, but essentially they could experience as much wholeness as any person could in this lifetime. I, too, discovered that I was ready to embrace this life when I knew that I wasn’t trying to make a sacrifice. Yes, we all are called to make some sacrifices for the good of others, and any real choice we make and commit to is in some ways a sacrifice. We go wholeheartedly with some options and close the door on others. This enables us to live more deeply into our choices. But I didn’t sacrifice my true self to be in religious life. I felt that I became more, not less, of who I am.
Many women describe their time in formation as an important period of personal and spiritual growth. Insights gained in this season can be some of the most significant of a woman’s life. We asked Sr. Anita about some of the life-lessons she learned in formation.
The most important lessons that I have learned in formation are ones that I will be continuing to learn all my life. Two of them are about my humanness and about interdependence. In regard to my humanness, the things that I struggle with – my questions, confusions, imperfections, tragic flaws, etc. – are all a natural part of being human. The things that I see as my greatest flaws are only the shadow side of my greatest gifts. I have met other Sisters who know exactly what I am talking about. We can easily idolize the people who inspire us, only seeing their gifts and virtues. But in the end, it’s not their gifts and virtues that cause me to keep loving my mentors and friends. It’s the moments when I discover that we share in the imperfect and wounded state of being human. As a human being, I relate best to other humans, not icons of perfection. This discovery has opened doors for me to deepen my relationship with Jesus, who was also human, and I am sure it helps me be more relatable to my beautiful and broken fellow human beings.
The lesson of interdependence is about the balance between mature independence and being in mutual, trusting, and life-giving relationship with others. In some ways, life’s journey is a lonely one. We walk our unique path alone. We need to often seek God in solitude, and we find that the desert is full of springs. Alone time is good for us, and we need to be okay with being alone. We need to be able to make decisions independently and cope with struggles by relying on our inner resources. We also need love and friendship in our lives. We need to make decisions for the common good together. We need support from others sometimes, and a sense of belonging. Interdependence is a life-long dance.
Don’t be afraid to take your time
What advice would you give a young person who was thinking about a vocation? We asked Sr. Anita and she has great advice for anyone considering religious life.
If you are considering a religious vocation, realize, with joy, that some of the aspects of religious life are most likely already within you, whether or not you end up entering a religious Congregation. Perhaps it is the desire for a God-centered life, for a strong faith community, for prayer, for a chance to make a positive difference in our world, for support in saying “no” to some of the things society says we need in order to be happy and at peace. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself the question, “Is this the best fit for me? Is this where God is attracting me?” And don’t avoid exploring the questions and fears that might come with that. You will most likely grow deeper in self-knowledge and knowledge of God along the way. Don’t be overly anxious about ambiguity and don’t be afraid to take your time. Pay attention to what attracts you and what you resist, and find a spiritual director or mentor(s) with whom you can share, free of pressure. Try to remember what has been most important and life-giving for you all your life. The answer probably won’t be, “I’ve wanted to be a Sister since I was five,” though for someone I suppose it could be. It’s more likely to be your hopes, dreams, gifts, and most energized memories that will lead the way. Cultivate your relationship with the Sisters that you know, or will get to know through your search. The way they live their vocation on ordinary days will point the way.
(not her real name) is a young woman in her mid-twenties who had been to college and in the work world. She had a positive experience of church growing up. She’d been deeply involved in her parish as a child, teen, and young adult. Fan of: Tolkien, Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis and Dr. Who, not necessarily in that order, she also has two major hobbies, besides reading, that she loves – music and horses. In spite of a life spent half at the barn she has a close knit family and a great group of friends.
Q: What prompted you to look into religious/community life?
A: I was stuck and unhappy in my job and my living situation at the time. I wanted to explore other options. I was particularly interested in investigating religious life because it offered the possibility of dedicating myself to a greater cause and becoming part of something much bigger than myself.
Like many people her age Mary longs for a life of deep meaning and was not finding that in her life and work so far. Sometimes the discontent we feel is the voice of vocation, prompting us to make a change, to seek something different. Even when some things are going right the gentle nudge (or sometimes incessant nagging) of ‘I’m not quite satisfied’ or, ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’ is pushing us to keep searching. America Magazine in their interview with Pope Francis asked the question, “Why did you become a Jesuit?” He answered, “I wanted something more but I did not know what.”
So Mary went looking for that ‘something more’. She had some conversations and got involved with a local order of women religious. She began participating in the programs they offered for women interested in pursuing a religious vocation.
Q: What did you enjoy most about your formation experience?
A. The source of the most enjoyment and the biggest challenge was living in community. Having sisters to eat with, talk with, pray with, and laugh with is always a benefit. When those individuals are grounded in the same faith and spirituality as you, that provides an even deeper form of communal connection. The experiences and perspectives of the sisters I lived with enriched my own perspectives.
Sometimes, letting yourself feel intimidated is because of what you don’t know or understand. As novelty turns to familiarity though and then into friendship, especially friendship in faith, what was weird or difficult becomes a source of deep satisfaction.
Q: And what challenged you?
A: Conversely, living in community can be difficult at times. I am very much an introvert, and often felt the need for more time alone than I ended up having (my own fault though – everyone respected the need for space). Probably the biggest challenge at one point was the age difference between me and many of the women I was living with. They were wonderful and interesting and I grew to love them all. Age didn’t matter then.
Q: What is the most important thing you learned or discovered?
A: I learned that shared spirituality is … real, and the connection to something greater than me is very much there. Living with the sisters made me more aware of my own place as a member of the Body of Christ, and of the responsibility towards others that that position entails.
Q: Any advice for others who feel called?
A: Start by getting to know sisters! Get involved, attend events, pray with them, and spend time with them. That’s the best way to start to connect with and become part of a community. Be open to guidance from the Spirit and from others; your interest in religious life may result in your joining a congregation or it may not, but either way, it is an experience that will teach you something. Also, try to seek out other women who are searching – you are not alone in exploring religious life.
Mary’s experience of formation is not uncommon. Many women who have been in formation report similar growth. The deeper connection to their faith and the Church, the knowledge they gained about themselves and the skills they developed by trying new things and encountering new people are all benefits with lasting value.
Q: Anything else you want to share?
A: Daily prayer in a community is amazing, and it’s something that everyone should experience at some point in their life.