Women reflect on their discernment journey
By God's grace I am what I am. Rule of Benedict
We all wrestle with the same questions when discerning our call from God. What does God want of me? Am I worthy? Will I miss having children? How can I know?
The stories on this page come from Sisters and Inquirers who are happy to share their discernment experiences. If these stories resonate with you, they might point you in the direction you are supposed to go.
How Do You Know You're Being Called?
4 Women Reflect on the Question.
Karen was married and thinking about having children at about the same time Stefanie MacDonald was pursuing her career as a teacher. Samantha was getting a tattoo and piercing her eyebrow while Jackie Walsh was settling down and buying a house. These four very different women, ranging in age from 21 to 49, share at least one unique activity today: they are discerning whether they are called to monastic life with the Benedictine Sisters of St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island, Ill. (While Stefanie and Jackie entered the Benedictine Sisters of St. Mary Monastery, Karen and Samantha did not. This is the story of their discernment.)
Did you ever want to get married?
Who have you talked to about your call?
Stefanie: The first person I ever talked to was a friend of my parents, Sr. Carol. She called me one night and asked me if I had ever considered religious life. My mind was racing. I thought, ‘How does she know? Can she see it?’ I was scared to tell her yes because I had never said anything to anyone. But I wanted to say yes, because then it would be in the open. With a lump in my throat, I told her yes.
Sr. Carol invited me to a ‘Come and See’ weekend, which happened to be on my birthday. My parents called to make plans to celebrate my birthday with me, but I said I couldn’t go because I would be on a retreat to find out more about becoming a Sister. They were very supportive.
Jackie: I told Sr. Helen Carey (who also lives and works in Bloomington) that I had wanted to be a nun in grade school and wanted now to visit the monastery. She encouraged me to start attending Oblate meetings there, which I have done, and accompanied me to the monastery. On our way there, she shared how she came to join the community. I’ve told my mom and two of my sisters, but haven’t told the rest of my family yet. They love me and will support whatever decision I make. They want reassurance I’d still see them and be part of their lives, though.
Karen: I have shared my journey with several friends. Most think I have lost my mind and cannot understand why I would want to so radically change my life. I haven’t told my family yet, though. I want to wait until I am closer to making a decision so I can be more intelligent as I present my reasoning.
Samantha: I’ve talked with a Sister at school, and with my mom and dad. I’m not ashamed of my plans, but I’m kind of shy about talking about them.
What are your greatest fears as you move forward in your discernment?
Stefanie: I think my greatest fear is giving up my current life. I love my job and have made some great friends. I would hate to lose contact with any of them.
Jackie: My greatest fears are: Would I make a good Sister? Would I be a good fit for the Benedictine community?
Karen: My greatest fear is that I might make a mistake and throw away all I have worked to accumulate – especially retirement security.
Samantha: My fears center around not joining at the right time or the right place, and disappointing my future Sisters. I also fear having regrets.
What are your greatest hopes?
Stefanie: I hope that I am able to follow God’s path for me and that my relationship with God will grow. I hope to be part of a group of people who have a common goal and support each other.
Jackie: To live in community, and to pray and seek God together.
Karen: My greatest hope is to find a family – community – that I am accepted into and loved. I want to spend my ten hours a day working for God instead of a company that has limited value in eternity.
Samantha: I want to live in a family-like community with others who share and support my beliefs.
What draws you to Bendictine monasticism?
Stefanie: I looked at three other orders before I came to St. Mary Monastery. I actually lived with two Sisters for about six months in the first order. It was not the right fit. I felt the experiences of prayer I had during that time were experiences of prayer I could have had as a single or married woman. Also, I didn’t feel much community life. We all went our own ways most of the time.
The second order offered prayer and community life that attracted me more, but life there was a little too restrictive. The only time the Sisters could leave the convent was for work. Family could only visit once a month, and you could only go home to visit once a year. This would not work for me. My family is very close and I didn’t believe I could give up that much time with them.
The third order was a lot like the first one, and clearly not right for me. My next step was to look on the Web for communities that would fit my needs for prayer, community life, work and family. The Benedictines had that balance.
Jackie: I love the way the Benedictines pray and seek God as a community. I love the way they share their lives and their time and their meals.
Karen:. I know I am too social to be in a cloister, but apostolic life doesn’t seem to be a good fit either. I need down-time. I still need to learn more.
Samantha: I’ve visited apostolic communities and they don’t do it for me. It feels like the Sisters there live too independently. The Benedictines feel like family.
What draws you to the Sisters of St. Benedict in particular?
Stefanie: I am a quiet person. I can find it hard to go into new places. I was very comfortable entering St. Mary Monastery. I had no fear. This was a big sign for me. The Sisters welcomed me with open arms. I spent a week last summer with them. I loved their rhythm of prayer. I loved talking and sharing with them. The community feel was wonderful.
Jackie: The joy, warmth and hospitality the Benedictines show each other and their guests made me feel at home and very much at peace the first time I visited. I’ve personally seen and experienced the way they greet everyone as Christ. It gets harder to leave each time I visit.
Karen: I like the small size of their community. I like the monastic way of life that seems balanced. I find God in nature very easily and love the woods and lake there.
Samantha: It’s so joyful there. I always have a good time. I feel at home.
Do you have any advice for inquirers?
Stefanie: Visit a few different orders to help you learn what you are looking for in a community. Be patient as you go through the application process.
Jackie: Take some time to experience life. Go to school, work, get an apartment, date. See what those experiences have to offer. If there’s a nudge that won’t go away, take steps to check it out. Talk with a spiritual director. Visit religious communities. Listen to your heart.
Karen: Seek until you know. Keep inquiring until you know the answer. I don’t want to ever wonder what if? You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Samantha: Visit a variety of communities. Don’t think you’re unworthy because of what you did in your past life.
"Danielle" was in high school when she first felt the tug at her heart … and it scared her to death. It happened when a visiting priest made a presentation on vocations and gave the class a vocation quiz. She knew her answers would point to a call.
“The results of the quiz came in the mail,” she says. “I didn’t want to open the envelope. I knew what it would say.”
Sure enough, it said Danielle likely was being called to religious life.
“I was really scared, but after that, I wasn’t at peace until I started visiting religious communities,” she says. “I chose only apostolic communities. But it seemed like the Sisters were just living side-by-side, almost like in a dorm, and going off to do their ministries alone. Nothing clicked for me. I thought, I must have been wrong, I don’t have a religious call after all.”
What Danielle didn’t know was that she was being called to a different kind of community.
“I had been in college a couple of years when I saw a Benedictine Experience Weekend listed in my church bulletin,” she says. “I felt that tug again, and attended it. I thought it would just give me closure. But when I got here, it felt like home.”
“Home” was at St. Mary Monastery, where the Sisters of St. Benedict lead a more contemplative life.
“Our call is to common life,” Prioress Sr. Phyllis McMurray, OSB explains. “We live together to support one another as we seek God. We pray the Liturgy of the Hours together three times a day. We join in daily Eucharistic celebration together. Our ministries flow from that life of common prayer and community.”
Danielle says it’s what drew her to the Benedictines.
“I always knew I would need to be in community with others,” she says. “When I met the Benedictines, I felt drawn to their lifestyle. I love their chapel prayer, the singing and the rhythm. And I love how they relate with one another. All the Sisters here are very real and joyful. They don’t hide anything. You feel so welcomed.”
Danielle plans to finish school and work awhile before she enters any community, she says. But when she’s away from the monastery, she misses the Sisters, their prayer and their life terribly. She misses “helping Sr. Anne in the garden, Sr. Rosemary with mailings, and Sr. Cabrini pick tomatoes.
“I miss this so much,” she says. “It’s so peaceful here. Some days I feel like, Why did I move so far away? But I guess it’s something I have to do, and my call will still be waiting when I’m ready to settle down.”
Novice Sister Reflects on Life in Community
One recent evening found Sr. Claudia Scharf sprawled comfortably on the floor in front of the TV watching Olympic ice-skating. Other Sisters sat behind her on the sofa and a couple of chairs, commenting, cheering and critiquing the performances. Someone made some popcorn. They all stayed up too late and were tired the next morning.
Life in a monastic community has a lot in common with life in a family. You support each other, eat together and enjoy leisure activities together. You take turns using the cars and you share possessions.
But, as formation director Sr. Mary Core points out, monastic life is dramatically different, as well. You have answered a call to come together purposely to seek God. Toward that end, you pray together morning, noon and night. You pursue ministries that are compatible with Benedictinism and the community’s needs. And you seek, every day, to practice the values elucidated in the Rule of St. Benedict.
“Community is absolutely central to Benedictinism,” Sr. Mary says. “From the Prologue right on through to the end of the Rule, we are taught to be dependent upon and respectful of one another. We minister, work and live in relationship with those in community.
“Chapter 72 in the Rule says it best. It urges us to vie to be the first to show respect to one another, to respond to one another’s needs. If that isn’t community, I don’t know what is. But there are some practical challenges. The reality is that we are human. We have many weaknesses. Sometimes we’re cranky, ill, oblivious. Sometimes we can’t see another Sister’s need. Sometimes we are the ones who are in need! And then another Sister will show her caring and ask how she can help.”
For many of today’s inquirers – many of whom are in their 30’s and 40’s - the prospect of living in community after years of living alone seems remarkably challenging. How do you go from owning things to sharing everything? Or from eating alone to dining with 40-some other women? Or from holding the TV remote to relinquishing it to group control?
Sr. Claudia, a 49-year-old novice who is nearing the end of her second year with the Sisters of St. Benedict, agreed to discuss some of the challenges and joys of learning to live in community.
Q. You moved here from Florida in September, 2004. What were your first impressions of your new living arrangement?
A. I was on a high. I had visited twice before I entered the community, so I had met all the Sisters and loved the place. I felt like I had finally found home. I had been searching for a long time. It was a relief to finally have found where I was supposed to be. Another reaction I had was awe. It is amazing that we all can live together, seeking God, desiring this way of life, following the Rule. I’m amazed at that a lot. But I was tired, too. Sister Audrey Cleary explained that my fatigue was being caused by being present to everyone when I wasn’t used to it. It still can happen, but I recognize it now and know I need to be alone awhile.
Q. What were the next reactions you had, once you had lived here for a time?
A. I had to give up old habits of living alone. For example, I had to relearn how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I no longer dig the peanut butter knife into the jelly jar, like I used to. I get a new knife. When I’m finished, I wipe up the crumbs right away. And I don’t stack the dishes in the sink for later. I put them into the dishwasher immediately. I push the chair back into the kitchen table.
Q. How would you characterize this year, your novice year?
A. As a novice, I am studying Benedictinism and Scripture under the direction of Sr. Mary Core. And I am strengthening friendships. All my Sisters are my family and I have a special connection with each one. If I’m lacking in something I know where to go get it. I love hearing Sr. Estelle Ternus’s laugh. I love feeling Sr. Martha Herzog’s energy.
Q. It sounds ideal!
A. Oh, it’s not always ideal. We’re all human, and conflict occurs. We had a guest Sister make a presentation on how to deal with conflict. She said to resolve conflict within 24 hours or no one will remember it precisely. I really have used that lesson. We talk about it and then it’s over. Resentment can build if you ignore a situation.
The best blessing is our silence in the morning. You can wake up naturally, say your prayers, go for a walk. You acknowledge Sisters at breakfast, but there are no conversations till after Mass. By the time you get to the handshake of peace, you’re really ready to connect!
Q. Do you have any advice for inquirers?
A. Come spend four to five days here, in addition to your first vocation weekend. Come with an open heart and be open to the entire process. Write in a journal about your experience. Always leave time for reflection so God can speak to you. It’s a wonderful life. But it requires adjustment. Not everyone likes the same TV shows. Not everyone is easy to live with. But community life will stretch you and push you. Every time I feel internal resistance to a change brought on by living here, I know it’s God reshaping me. And God is what this is all about.
|How Can You Know?
One Woman's Vocation Journey
Heather* was sitting by herself at Mass, praying for the world. It was the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and she felt called to pray for the victims, to pray for the perpetrators, to pray for peace. That was when she knew.
“The priest was talking about how much our world needs prayers,” Heather remembers. “Then he prayed for vocations. Suddenly I knew: I wanted to join a religious community and dedicate my life to Christ. This wasn’t the first time I had considered a religious vocation, but it was the first time I knew.”
Heather, who was 47 and a board-certified family nurse practitioner, went home to tell her mother. I said, 'Mom, guess what? I'm going to become a nun.’ She knew. I was amazed. She said, 'I hope you find your peace.’”
Heather's experience mirrors what so many women find by midlife. Following the mainstream out of college and into the workforce, many women never quite feel as if they have found their calling. They may always feel, as Heather puts it, like square pegs in round holes.
The next step, for Heather, was to pick up books on various religious communities, and make plans to visit them. I was attracted to Benedictine communities, but also looked at a couple of Franciscan communities. I guess I was looking for the right fit.
The discernment process took over my life, Heather says. I tried to focus on my job, on my life as a daughter or a sister, but then it suddenly stopped me dead in my tracks. It totally pulled me away from my regular life. It woke me up at night.
I never thought I would explore a vocation, Heather continues. I had a great career and a great family. I had wonderful friends. I was even engaged to be married at one point. I had a really good, normal, middle-class life. But I always felt something was missing. I felt kind of like a square peg in a round hole. Now I feel like I'm finally finding what I'm meant to do and meant to be.
Heather's vocation journey brought her to St. Mary Monastery, where she says she was overjoyed to find people like me!
I loved attending the Benedictine Experience Weekend with other inquirers, she says. It was very peaceful and spiritual. I enjoyed the community of Sisters, and praying and talking and eating with them. They were so open. They shared their life stories with us, and that was so helpful.
I really felt like the pieces of the puzzle started coming together for me over that weekend. Anyone who is trying to discern her vocation should schedule a visit to the communities she likes. It will help immensely.
*Heather is not her real name.
|Sr. Martha Blessed with Big Family
The one thing young Martha Herzog knew she would aspire to when she grew up was a large family. An only child who had lost her mother as a toddler, Martha craved the companionship and chaos of a large, bustling household.
I planned to get married and have lots of children, laughs Sr. Martha, who recently celebrated her 70th jubilee as a Sister of St. Benedict. But God had other plans. Instead, I entered this community, and got lots of mothers and sisters.
Indeed, Sr. Martha got daughters, too, by way of the high school girls who attended St. Mary Academy, the Sisters' college preparatory boarding school, in Nauvoo, Illinois. In the kitchen and dining room, Sr. Martha meted out board jobs while getting to know and love the girls she supervised. Although the school closed in 1997, Sr. Martha still hears from her many daughters nearly every day, by phone, mail and visit.
I went to the doctor recently and was told, ‘It's a good thing you entered the monastery, because you couldn't have carried a child, Sr. Martha says. I would have been broken-hearted. But here, I have had a big family. I have the love of those girls, and the love of my Sisters. I have been very, very happy.
Today, Sr. Martha serves the community in prayer ministry and in care of her Sisters.