Love for Love: The Religious Sister of the 21st Century
What would you say to a young woman who ecstatically just announced her engagement? “Why would you tie yourself down, give up all your other possibilities in life, and never again date any other man?”
If you chose to say that, she would laugh. She has found the man to whom she wants to give her whole life. She is in love.
So why would any woman in 2021 forsake marriage, wealth, and the possibility of using her personal gifts and talents as she wants, to become a consecrated religious Sister?
For the same reason. She has found the Man to whom she wants to give her whole life. She is in love, not with an idea, an ideal, a way of life, but with a Person. Or better, Three Persons: God, in the fullness of His Divinity and the reality of His incarnate Humanity.
For the one who has been called by Him to live in an exclusive relationship, what wouldn’t she give up for such a One?
A life consecrated to the Lord goes back to the earliest days of the Church, for both men and women. In the early centuries, we see women living in community, women ascetics or “mothers” of the desert, and even earlier the widows of apostolic times dedicated to the Church. But even in Jesus’ own time, there were women who travelled with him from Galilee into Jerusalem, “ministering to him” (Matthew 27:55, Luke 8:13). How could they have done this without leaving behind home, family, and security – for his sake and the sake of the Gospel? (Luke 18:29-30). In their own way, they lived the backbone of the religious life: the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. But never are these counsels lived simply for their own sake. They can only be lived well in the love of the One who lived them most perfectly. A religious Sister in 2021 chooses to live as the poor, chaste, and obedient Christ because of His love for her, and her love for Him.
What is meant by “evangelical counsels”? These “evangelical”—that is, Gospel-rooted—counsels are recommended to his followers by Jesus who himself lived these qualities: poverty, chastity, and obedience (Lumen gentium 43). They are “counsels” in the sense that they are advised, as opposed to “prescripts” presented as requirements. The counsels are helps to live the Gospel well. All the faithful are called to live these in a way that will assist them in following Christ. Thus a businessman recognizes his obligations to the poor, a married man is faithful to the exclusivity of his relationship with his wife, and all are to follow the commands of the Church.
But consecrated religious men and women live these evangelical counsels in a more radical way, not merely avoiding evil (such as miserliness, marital infidelity, and sins against the 10 commandments) but even giving up what is good for something better. They are grateful for God’s goodness in creating the material goods of this world, companionship and joy in married family life, and the freedom to direct their own lives. But they choose to deny themselves a share in these gifts because they understand themselves to have been called by the God who loves them to give themselves to him in complete self-offering. This self-offering takes shape in the profession of vows, responding to the call of the Creator with a reciprocal gift of the dedication of one’s life to him and to his Church (John Paul II to Women Religious in Washington, DC, 10/07/1989, 2).
The evangelical counsel of poverty calls one to be dispossessed of material goods. These are indeed “goods,” for the material world as part of God’s creation is recognized as good (God himself says this in Genesis), not as something evil. It is not set in opposition to the spiritual world in a dualistic manner. Still, the one called to religious life values the goods of this world, but chooses to renounce them. She has heard the Lord’s call as the rich young man did: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor...; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
Why would she do this? It is because of that call: “Come, follow me” (Luke 18:22). She sees in Christ the poor man who relied on whatever hospitality was provided by others and had nowhere to lay his head. She embraces poverty not for the sake of poverty, but for the sake of the Lord. She has heard his call and believed his word. Believed him. He emptied himself, giving up his rightful place as Lord of all, stripped of his divinity, to take on the poverty of our humanity. “He became poor that you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). And the religious Sister does the same today, as she did centuries ago. She gives up the riches of the world that she may be emptied in order to be filled with the riches of eternity. She is not simply looking forward to some treasure in heaven. No, even here on earth, letting go of material goods allows room in her soul that she might receive the spiritual gifts her Bridegroom wishes to bestow on her for her good and the good of others.
What does this look like in a particular religious community today? In the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Dominic of Saint Cecilia of Nashville, Tennessee (commonly referred to as the “Nashville Dominicans”), a young woman who may have owned a car, had her own apartment, was connected to others through multiple devices and social platforms, and enjoyed her own culinary skills, leaves that all behind on entrance day. Her cell in the dormitory, separated from her neighbors’ by curtains, is an area of 6 by 8 feet. Her meals are simple and the same for all, with the menu set by the Sister assigned to cook. She has no cell phone or laptop or tablet. Her travel to school finds her with six others in a 7-seat van in silence, perhaps praying the rosary together. And likely she has never been happier in life.
Giving up her own job and salary means that she must trust that her needs will be supplied for, nonetheless. A vow of poverty implies belief in God’s Providence, in his providential love. His love makes it impossible for him not to provide for our needs– our true needs, not our wants that may have suggested a “need.” So we hear Jesus’ words: “do not worry about what you are to eat or what you are to wear. Are you not more important than the birds of the sky?” (Matthew 6:25-26). Yes, of course you are! The woman religious knows that if the Lord called her to this life, he will also provide for her. Thus, as she strives to detach herself from material things she also begins to know types of spiritual poverty, as she increasingly comes to rely on nothing and no one but the Lord.
One spiritual author captures the concept of divine providence with a simple statement: God can’t keep his eyes off of you. This is God in love with the creature he has made, delighting in her, and so she is ever in his gaze. And he is ready to do anything for her that is for her good. The woman religious embraces a life of poverty because she loves her creator, and she knows there is no greater good than what he will give her. In exchange for herself, he gives himself (cf. Romans 8:32). And she can want nothing more.
For many the vow of chastity is the primary definition of religious life. But the truth is we are all called to live chastely. The single person, the married couple, and the widow or widower are each responsible to live chastity as defined by his or her state in life. But there is something more for the religious who makes the vow of chastity. She is renouncing marriage and all it entails: the exclusive marital relationship with one man and the possibility of bearing children. Again, this is not because marriage is evil. Marriage is a sacrament instituted by Christ, and so it is of the highest good. Rather, the religious is called to forego the good of marriage to live in an exclusive relationship with the Lord himself, and to nurture the supernatural life of others by her prayers and actions. In this way she sees herself as bride of Christ and a spiritual mother to all. Free from limitations to one man and to her own children, she has the freedom to give herself in totality to all (Perfectae Caritatis, 12).
By the vow of chastity, the Nashville Dominican, as with all women religious, commits herself to lead a celibate life for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. This vow requires guarding internal and external actions in such a way to present herself as she truly is, a woman dedicated to God and to all his children. Before anything else, she lives a life of prayer, intimate converse with the Lord which grounds her in her true identity. The day begins in prayer: private meditation of 30 minutes, followed by singing together Morning Prayer and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. So the Sister finds herself face-to-face with the Lord her spouse at the very beginning of her day. All this, every day—before breakfast! She lives in a convent with her Sisters, so that fraternal charity may support each one in her committed chastity. The majority of the house is designated as “cloister,” that is, for the exclusive use of the Sisters, so that the distractions of the world may not draw their attention from him. Whether inside or outside the convent, a Sister is careful by her words and actions to live so as to convey her complete and total dedication to the Lord and to his Church.
This dedication of herself to the Lord is possible only because of a gift of grace. John Paul II emphasized this initiative of God when he spoke to women religious in the United States:
…[F]ar more important than your love for Christ is Christ’s love for you. You have been called by him, made a member of his Body, consecrated in a life of the evangelical counsels and destined by him to have a share in the mission that Christ has entrusted to the Church: his own mission of salvation. (John Paul II to Women Religious in Washington, DC, 10/07/1989, 5)
The religious Sister is called, made, consecrated, and destined by him. Christ is the one who acts, the one who gives the gift. This text makes concrete the words of Jesus: “You have not chosen me, I have chosen you” (John 15:16). The choice is on the part of the Lord. Acceptance is on the part of the religious. The religious could not make such a choice were it not first a gift of God.
Considering religious life from this perspective leads the Sister to a sense of overwhelming gratitude. She has been chosen by almighty God to receive a gift that makes it possible to give herself exclusively to him. This is really not about denying herself the joys of married life. She is not giving up love. She is embracing Love with her whole being.
Chastity is decisively positive, it witnesses to preferential love for the Lord and symbolizes in the most eminent and absolute way the mystery of the union of the Mystical Body with its Head, the union of the Bride with her eternal Bridegroom. (Evangelica Testificatio 13)
The religious Sister witnesses to everyone what every love really should be. Her love for the Lord is “a stable point of reference: the pure love which consecrated persons draw from the contemplation of Trinitarian love, revealed to us in Christ” (Vita Consecrata 88). Recall that when Saint John Vianney asked a simple peasant what he did in prayer, he revealed, “I look at him, and he looks at me.” The perfect model of this is the reverential regard for each other in the Three Persons of the Trinity. The religious Sister lives ever mindful of the Lord in this mutual, loving gaze.
By the vow of obedience, the religious Sister commits herself to obey legitimate superiors and all that concerns the observance of the vows and the constitutions of the community (Canon Law 598, 601). That is, on the day she professes her vows for life, she makes a permanent and lasting choice to submit herself to the life of her community under a rule approved by holy mother Church. The Church is the mystical body of Christ on earth, and Christ promised to be with her forever. The religious offers the full surrender of her own will in faith, as a sacrifice of herself to God, following the example of Jesus who came to do the will of his father (Perfectae Caritatis 14). She finds the will of God expressed in the rule of her community and the rightful commands of her superiors.
While some may argue that this violates human freedom, the Church instead recognizes the mystery of obedience as a path to true freedom (Vita Consecrata 91). Religious obedience has as its model Christ’s obedience to the Father. With the perfection of his intellect and will, Jesus knew perfect freedom; and so not in spite of that freedom but because of that freedom he could say to the Father, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). In the person of Christ himself, we see that “there is no contradiction between obedience and freedom” (Vita Consecrata 91).
The religious sister has entrusted herself to the God who loves her, protects her, nurtures her, and calls her ever closer to himself. And she does this by using her “intellect and will and the gifts of nature and grace to execute the commands and fulfill the duties entrusted” to her (Perfectae Caritatis 14). She believes God has called her to this particular religious community and that he will continue to manifest his loving will for her in the context of this life.
As a Nashville Dominican Sister, this total offering of one’s will is most notable each spring when Mother hands out the assignments for the coming academic year. Each Sister scans the several pages of text to find her own name listed designating her as a teacher or student or school administrator or with a house duty. On the daily level, obedience means rising at the bell at 5:00 AM, keeping silence at the designated times, joining with the community in prayer, eating what is served, doing one’s house duty with attention, and even attending recreation with the intention of making the time enjoyable for all. We are reminded to do all that is required “in a supernatural spirit,” that is, in a manner that is “prompt, joyous, and complete” (Constitutions of the Sister of Saint Dominic of Saint Cecilia, Nashville, Tennessee, 31). And so, if one had intended to spend some free time walking with a Sister she hadn’t seen in some time and a superior asked her to take an elderly Sister to the doctor, she can smile and say, “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will” (Hebrews 10:7, Psalm 40:7-8).
Yes, the world may see this as an offence against the autonomy of the human person. But for a person of faith, the dignity of the human person is strengthened by the vow of obedience, as she lives in the true freedom of a child of God and comes to a greater maturity (Perfectae Caritatis 14). This is a woman who has placed a radical trust in the working of the Holy Spirit. She firmly believes that God has called her to this life with him, and that he will not leave her without the means to be faithful. He always wants her good, that is, he always wants her happiness. And so in joy she says, “Jesus, I trust in you.” That trust, that love, is manifested just as Jesus witnessed to his love for the Father: “I always do what pleases him” (John 8:29). Jesus is her model of loving obedience.
Why would a woman in the year 2021 make profession of the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as a religious Sister? For the very same reasons women have done this for many centuries. First, she is loved by God. She is loved not merely as one of the many countless humans he has created but as an individual person. He willed her into being and holds her in existence with intention, because she is dear to him. He delights in her. Not for any personal quality of hers or for the deeds she has accomplished using the gifts he gave her. We might say he loves her just because she is. But really, she is because he loves her.
Second, this woman wants to make profession as a Sister because she knows she is loved by God. This is a distinct reason from the first, although obviously dependent on it. Every person in the world is always loved by God. But how few actually know this and live it! A woman who chooses to give her life to the Lord can do so only because she knows him and knows she is loved by him. The possibility of surrendering herself in real poverty, exclusive chastity, and free obedience depends on her trust in his love.
Third, the woman who becomes a professed religious can do so only because she is chosen by God for this life. He provides the graces necessary to live religious life, to fulfill her vows, to be faithful to her consecration. For “her” consecration is really his. It is God who has set her apart for this holy work; he is the agent, the actor, the subject of the verb “to consecrate.” For who can set apart anything to make it holy except the holy one himself (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II 88, 7 ad 1)?
There is one act left on the part of the religious Sister, an act renewed with each conscious act: to accept the Lord’s gift, in gratitude and joy. Doing so, she sings as Mary did, “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked on the lowliness of his handmaid... the Almighty has done great things for me!”
And “Holy” is His name.
Sister Mary Diana belongs to the Dominican Sisters of Nashville, USA