I have prayed the Prayer for Vocations a couple thousand times and yet it wasn’t until fourteen years ago that it struck a chord. There is something they don’t tell you when you pray this prayer. Over the years, I have heard about the vocation crisis and how the Church needs more priests and religious. Yet I never heard about vocations from the perspective of the families from which they come.
When Two Sisters Choose a Vocation to Religous Life
On March 19, 2004, my second oldest sister entered a cloistered Carmelite convent. While many years had been spent praying for vocations, I never considered that a vocation might come from my own family. Several people were confused that a brilliant woman of nineteen would choose to stop college and enter a cloister. My own mind was filled with a long list of things that my sister couldn’t do by virtue of being a cloistered nun.
The Lord wasn’t quite done yet. On February 10, 2007, my oldest sister entered a contemplative-active Franciscan convent. For a few years, I heard my sister ask the Lord to show her the convent He wanted her to join. Suddenly, a family of five children felt remarkably small when two sisters left to join religious orders. Yet to the people who looked quizzically at my family, I had to smile and tell them what a gift this all was for us. Generally, that had to be followed up with, “No, I don’t believe I am called to religious life, but who knows!”
Obviously, I cannot speak for every family who has someone enter religious life. Even within my own family, the responses to my sisters’ vocations varied greatly. What I hope to do is offer a glimpse into religious vocations from the perspective of one young woman. Perhaps it will offer encouragement to those who find themselves in similar situations, enlightenment to those who have never experienced it, and preparation for those who find themselves on the brink of it.
In the Beginning…
When my sister entered the Carmelite cloister, I was in eighth grade. The idea of “losing” the sister I felt understood me best was difficult. Even though my sister spent the last couple months living at home before entering, it was impossible to wrap my mind around how her entrance would change my life. I wanted to have the joy that reigned so obviously in her heart to be deeply rooted in my own. Although I never doubted God was real, He became very real at this time. Today, I teasingly tell people that God becomes very real when He starts marrying your sisters.
At first, my heart experienced a great deal of sorrow. I cried, I missed her, and I sometimes felt as though my heart was being pulled out of my chest. In college, I met someone who also had her older sister enter a convent. She asked me once if I cried after my sister entered. I said I had. My friend asked if I did this over and over again, crying myself to sleep at night. While that wasn’t my exact experience, I understood the ache in her heart.
A difficulty I found in this stage was the matter of expressing my sorrow. In a partially serious and partially dramatic way, we often described my sisters’ entrance as a type of death. It was an exciting occurrence that my sisters were called to give their lives to Jesus Christ. Despite that union, I wanted them home with me, being “normal” sisters who could call me, listen to my day, and offer advice.
Of course, each religious order follows different rules of life and that greatly impacts what is permitted for communication and visiting. When my second sister entered religious life, people assumed that we would be quite familiar with the process. Yet it was an entirely different life that she was following. The first was cloistered meaning that even when we visited we would be in separate rooms divided by a double grate. The second lived further away but when we visited we were there for most of the day, eating a meal, taking a walk, and joining in the sisters’ prayers. These times of visiting were bittersweet as they reminded me of my love for my sisters and yet also called to mind the unique call they had for their lives.
Stuck in the Middle
As the years passed, I found myself swinging between thankfulness and frustration, with a bit of anger (and then guilt about the anger) thrown into the mix. Sometimes I was angry with my sisters and other times I was angry with God Himself. Though I confessed anger with God several times, it returned to my heart time and time again. I did not want to be angry with Him, but there seemed to be nobody else to blame since their vocation clearly came from Him.
People more removed from the situation didn’t seem to understand the tangled mess of emotions that could occur within my heart. The evident joy on their faces reminded me that they were with the love of their lives. Minimal letters and little one-on-one time caused me to be a bit more resentful of God’s total claim on their lives. Yet I knew after years of praying for vocations that this was a genuine calling. How could I be angry with God for answering this prayer in a way I did not think to expect? If these vocations didn’t come from my family, from whose family should they come?
The weight of guilt I felt over the anger and frustration in my heart only added an additional burden. Now I am able to recognize that sometimes the heart simply needs to experience emotions before one can move through the pain. At that time, I spent a great deal of energy fighting even feeling anger or frustration. Which in turn led to more frustration because I could never be fully successful.
The Freedom of Surrender
There was not one moment where all unwanted emotions fled and I was filled with pure joy over my sisters’ vocations. It was a slow process of years, the feeling of one step forward and two steps back on repeat. The stumbling block seemed to be their vocations but in reality, it was my own heart. How could I trust the Lord if I felt as though He took from me whatever I loved?
The gradual process of delving into the workings of my heart taught me to reframe that question. He wasn’t taking and I wasn’t losing. Everything was a gift and as such, it was always intended to be temporary. The primary question at hand was: will I trust the Lord with everything, including my unwanted emotions and my fickle heart? The Lord wanted to be rooted deeply in my heart and yet for so long I only wanted to give Him access to the pleasant parts, the polished aspects that seemed fitting to share. He wanted to share my sorrow, anger, frustration, and joy. These movements of the heart were not viewed as tiresome or unwelcomed to God. When I tried to handle them alone, I repeatedly discovered I could not. I needed Him yet was too embarrassed to show Him how I felt.
The freedom came in admitting my weakness and letting the Lord be Lord. In the good, the bad, and the indifferent, He has found a way to mercifully tend to every aspect of my heart. He does this with a gentleness that is far more than I would give to myself. No other person could completely understand the aching in my heart regarding my sisters except the Lord.
One Hundred Fold
Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” Mark 10:29-30
This passage is often used for the men and women who entered religious life and yet I claim it for the friends and family, too. While I did not have a say in my sisters’ vocations, I did have a say in finally offering them to the Lord. This temporary separation on earth makes me incredibly zealous for Heaven. I long for my true home, a place of a union without end. A place where all of the suffering we experience on earth will be viewed as a fleeting sorrow.
I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes. (Jean Vanier, Community And Growth)
Sharing my heart troubles with the Lord is necessary, but it is also good to share them with others, too. I find a quick connection with people who have siblings or children in religious life. Initially, the families want to don the facade of pure happiness when asked about their children or siblings. The sorrow seems improper to express and yet it is often needed. I believe the Lord desires authenticity and sharing our personal struggles with others can be a part of that.
One Perspective on How to Help
If your child or sibling (or grandchild or friend…) has entered religious life, know that the emotions you experience are not uncommon. While each person processes this differently, our hearts often move in similar ways. Share each inconvenient feeling with the Lord because He uses all things for good. However, also share these feelings with people who have similar experiences. Hearing about another person’s struggle can help lessen the guilt we feel over moments of anger or grief. Don’t dwell only in sorrow, though. Remind yourself to be thankful and to seek the Lord’s goodness in everything.
If you know someone whose child or sibling has entered religious life, give them the freedom to not always be bubbling with joy over the matter. Pray for the families alongside those in religious life and don’t insist on always phrasing the person’s vocation as a great gift. It is and yet it is a cross, a path to redemptive suffering.
Finally, if neither of these applies to you, continue to pray for vocations and pray for the families from which they will come. Perhaps that family will be yours. Whether it is or it isn’t, blessed be the Lord!