This is the last post in our Living Vocations Series. Sister Miryam of the Franciscans of Halifax writes about her call to religious life. There’s a ton of information packed into this post so she’s broken it down with subtitles. If you’re short on time, skim now and settle in to read the whole post later! -B
Who would ever want to be a nun?
This is the question that went through my mind after my mom asked me if I would consider religious life as an option after high school graduation. “Mom, the only way I would ever do that is if the man of my dreams did not marry me. I would enter a convent grieved at my loss as I lived in loneliness for the rest of my life!”
This was my silly response to a question that sounded so strange to my ears. I quickly diverted my thoughts back to my dreams about the future. Little did I know that in just a few more years Jesus would be pulling on my heart strings asking me to be His bride and follow after Him. How could I ever refuse this invitation of love that came with such sweet assurance that He would be the one to satisfy every longing of my heart?
After high school I became an Esthetician, a job I worked at for four years before entering the convent. During this time I joined the Church youth group where what I hoped for all my life was being confirmed; that God does have a plan for my life, I just needed the right tools to uncover what had been from the beginning: God’s dream of me when He was fashioning me in secret.
You see, all of us were fashioned in love, for love, by Love Himself. We were made with the desire for beauty, for pleasure, for union because the one who fashioned us wanted to share with us Himself, which is the fullness of all life, of all beauty, richness, pleasure, and union.
Step One in Discernment
Lord Teach Us to Pray: The Importance of Prayer & Cultivating a Prayer Life
How could we ever know the best way to serve God unless we know God? Who can know God? Well, He is a mystery, but we can at least open our hearts, use our Bible reading skills, and start to allow the Holy Spirit to move within our soul. We don’t receive the sacraments for nothing. The Sacraments of Baptism, Communion, Confirmation, and Reconciliation open the door to grace so that we may be enlightened by the Holy Spirit when reading scriptures, when praying, when listening to the priest’s homily at Mass. One challenge that was presented to me in my youth group was to start going to daily Mass in addition to Sunday Mass, the day prescribed by the Church as a way to tell God, “I love you”. I took this challenge on and have not missed daily Masses since. The Eucharist nourishes our souls and makes us hungry for more. Try it!
How do I pray?
After a long day of work at the spa, I made it a habit to stop in at the Church for half an hour so I could sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament, read scripture and take a few minutes of quiet time where I would try to listen to the Holy Spirit at work within my heart. God is always speaking to us; we just need to be in tune with the right station! Our world gives us so many distractions with radio, television, and iPods, that there is no room for silence anymore. There is almost a phobia of silence. But taking this time to be with the Lord is important so we can understand the works of God in our hearts and in our daily lives.
Reading my History:
While caught up in ecstasy, the great poverello Saint Francis of Assisi was found saying these words, “Lord who are You? Lord who am I?” This is a question that we can all take to prayer. We need to look into our past to see how God sees us, how He treated us growing up and who we are in front of Him now. St. Catherine of Siena says that in order to know God we must know ourselves first, so, we must delve into our souls and search for our deepest desires and calling based on our history.
I will give you an example of my own history. I always had a very strong prayer life and connection with God and our Blessed Mother. I found myself going off on my own to pray. Even when my friends and I were up to no good in high school, I would still get down on my knees and pray for God’s protection (kind of strange when I look back!). I had very good close relationships with my family and friends. I remained single until I was 22 years old. What I read from my history is that God had set me apart for Him. What is your history?
Looking at my PRESENT REALITY:
Looking at our present reality is important when discerning anything. God’s will is not contrary to reality. What are your obligations? If you are married and have young children, it is obvious that God is not calling you to a convent. If you just happily said yes to your fiancé and know that the two of you are perfect for one another, don’t rock the boat and decide that you first want to look at other options. These are extreme examples but sometimes we play games because we do not want to commit ourselves or take responsibility for our decisions.
Here are some questions that you can ask yourself if you are thinking about becoming a religious sister:
- Am I single?
- Do I relate well with others?
- Do I have the sensitivities of a daughter, a mother, a wife?
- Do I have passion, desire, and joy for life?
- Do I have a deep desire for God?
These are all necessary qualities that will bring you joy and fulfillment in a religious vocation.
What if I feel the call but want to be married and have children?
I heard it said that Saint Teresa of Avila, a great visionary and mystic, claimed that if she had not become a nun and answered God’s call then she would have been the greatest prostitute because she would be trying to fill an infinite hole which only God can fill. We have this idea that marriage is the greatest sacrament. The marital embrace is the foreshadowing of heaven: our union with God; but if God is calling you to an intimate relationship with Him, He will give you a taste of heaven in His mysterious way. Catherine Doherty, the founder of Madonna House, tells of her experience, “I have been a wife twice and marriage is a good state, but were I asked if it is the supreme state of loving, I would answer no, it is a pale reflection of the unity and the love of the oneness that a human being can have with God at Mass and Communion; nothing equals that. To receive Him in Communion is the same as having your lover take you in his arms. He is my lover truly. He enfolds me in His arms and I put my tired head upon His heart. He consoles me with gentleness and tenderness. He gives me courage to go on and He is the divine lover.”
Spiritual Motherhood and Fatherhood
Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II are not called Mother and Father for nothing. They are given these titles because they are mother and father of those that the Lord has entrusted to their care. If Mother Teresa decided in her youth to get married and have a family, she would not be free enough to leave for the streets of Calcutta to minister to the millions of poor, sick and dying treating them as her own. Instead she left herself free for God who used her as an instrument through which His love was and continues to be spread throughout the world.
Pope John Paul II whose family had all died by the time he was in his early 20’s became that grandfather to millions, healing divisions of nations, asking pardon for the abuses done by the church, and embracing all as sons and daughters of God.
Using our Talents to be Creative
Our human nature, having been fashioned as male and female, comes with the same package whether you are a parent, a religious, or a single person in the world. Our nature is one that wants to give itself and bring forth life. How can I do this if I am chaste?
We have to learn ways to express ourselves, whether it be through art, music, poetry, sports, by helping anyone in need, or giving freely of our time. These are all things that we can do to give ourselves in a satisfactory way. God isn’t stingy and He will give us the grace to follow Him. This does not mean that we will not come across challenges, and it may not be easy at times but this is where we can abandon ourselves to the mercy and grace of God with the understanding that we can do nothing without His help.
Is it possible for a religious to have fun or be happy?
While addressing an audience of novices and seminarians Pope Francis said that, “There is no sadness in holiness.”
Living out a life consecrated to God by way of the evangelical councils of obedience, chastity and poverty can look from the outside to be difficult and dreary, but in reality it is quite the opposite. Joy and peace come from an intimate union with God; with the knowledge that He is present, that He is in control, and that in Him there is no fear, and no division. In the vows, we who are called to this way of life find true freedom, life, and joy because we are doing God’s will.
On a more practical note, if you are in a community of Sisters there is no lack of laughs and fun times. Just like a family, a community forms deep bonds of sisterhood. I think Pope Francis stated it well when addressing an audience of cloistered nuns, “Cloistered nuns are called to have a great humanity …And what is the mark of such a human nun? Joy, joy, when there is joy! …Build friendship between yourselves, family life, love among you. May the monastery not be a Purgatory but a family.”
It is a good idea to have a spiritual director no matter what state of life you choose. A spiritual director is someone who will guide you on your spiritual journey. This could be a Priest or a Religious Brother or Sister with whom you are comfortable to share, but most importantly someone who is spiritually grounded in the faith and church teachings; someone who will be able to lead you in a firm direction.
Come and See
If you are serious about a calling to religious life, it is wise to spend time at a convent to experience the life and the ministry. It will be evident if you fit into the life or not and the Superior will be able to help you in your discernment.
How can I be sure that this is God’s will?
How many things are sure in life? Can you think of any? In a world of uncertainties there is always room for doubts. I am sure that there are married couples that come to a point where they wonder if they married the right person. Or those who question if they took the right path in choosing a certain career. The thing is that a vocation is not a career choice. Pope Francis said, “To become a priest or a religious is not primarily our choice; it is our answer to a calling, a calling of love”. Thanks to the wisdom of Mother Church we have sure signs that can tell us that we are on the right path. If the Church Authority; in this case the Superior of the Convent or Monastery; accepts you into the life then you can be sure that you have the qualities to live this state because she is speaking on behalf of the Church and affirms that she sees the obvious signs in you of this calling.
The Choice is Yours
No matter how much Spiritual Direction you may have, or people affirming your vocational call, you are the one who must make the firm choice to follow Christ by the way of consecrated life. There is no one, not even God Himself who can force you into making this decision. God in His great love gave us the ultimate gift of Freedom so that we may choose to accept or reject what graces He pours into our lives and our hearts. This may sound harsh, but it is reality. Like I mentioned earlier we are a society so broken and misled by the media that we no longer know how to make a firm choice that is lasting. If in fact we choose one way, there is always a little voice that says, “Well if it doesn’t work out, then…” This is not the way of Christ. It was through His love for man and His obedience to the Father that He endured a most painful death, even unto the last temptation when those onlookers were yelling at him saying, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross.”(Mt.27:40) Could He have come down from the cross? Yes. He raised the dead, He defied the laws of gravity by walking on water, He calmed storms, He restored health to the sick. He absolutely could have come down from the cross, but instead He chose to make the absolute sacrifice of love and laid down His life for His friends. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”(John 12:24) This is the life of a religious, to pour out our lives for others. Allowing Christ to live within us, revealing the face of the Father, and fulfilling His will.
A very wise confessor had asked me once during confession, “Are you happy?” I answered, “Yes,” then tears rolled down my eyes as I realized how limited I am in trying to live out an authentic Christian life. That yes was followed by, “but I struggle.” He said, “That is good. Struggle is necessary.” He told me that a baby who is being born must struggle to enter this world, otherwise the baby will die in the mother’s womb. Life is full of struggles and challenges which make us grow; it is how we come to live. I was also told by another wise priest that the difficulties and pains that come our way make us more and more similar to Christ on the Cross, that it is exactly these pains that will expand our hearts to love as Christ loves.
Who would ever want to be a nun?
After eight years of religious life, I find myself still asking this question from time to time!!! I still get a bit frightened by the vows I have taken. If I did not live by faith then I would run away. This is normal, and it is at these times that I call to mind who God is, how He made me, and how deeply He desires my good and wants to fill up all that is lacking in my heart. With this knowledge I can live in hope and joy, seeing the beauty of life even in its ups and downs. My saving grace in difficulties is laughter and learning not to take myself too seriously. This gives me the freedom to be uniquely the person God made me. I express myself through song writing on the piano and guitar, I love to tease my sisters and laugh at life’s quandaries. This is where I experience God’s love for me. He is the tenderest Father; Christ is the ultimate Spouse; Mary is the greatest Mother. What could I ever fear?
To be a religious sister is to live in the light of what Elizabeth said to Mary at the visitation, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”(Luke 1:45) And what do these words, spoken to Mary over two thousand years ago, speak to us today? That the impossible is in fact possible, that Heaven has come to earth and that Christ wants to be born again within our hearts.
Sister Miryam Izzard grew up in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia. She is part of the first group of the Franciscans of Halifax, a religious community of Brothers and Sisters founded in 2005. Since then Sister Miryam’s main involvement has been with youth and catechetics. She recently spent six months in a Poor Clare Monastery in Italy, and is now living in the Active Community of Franciscan Sisters in Herring Cove, Nova Scotia.