I am in the unusual position—for this century, anyway—of being the mother of a young woman who has seen four of her friends enter a convent in the past two years. Three of those women are postulants in cloistered Carmelite convents. Elizabeth has celebrated more wedding showers for brides of Christ than for brides of men. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a very good thing. The strangest and most difficult part of this experience for me has been telling people about it, including nearly all of the Catholic people in my world. Flannery O’Connor had a point when she said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” A contemporary Catholic young woman who freely gives up the world for the convent strikes just about everyone as very odd.
Every single one of these women who have chosen the religious life is attractive, dynamic, smart and gifted. Every one of them would have had no trouble in the “real world” finding good jobs, nice houses, handsome husbands. Because this is true, the most typical response I hear when I mention that Hannah, or Brigitta, or Michaela, or Lisa has entered the convent, is “Oh! But she is so (fill in the blank): Pretty! Smart! Talented! Gifted!” This sentiment is always expressed in a tone of bewilderment and regret.
I am not immune to this reaction. I attended the “clothing mass” when Elizabeth’s friend Hannah entered Carmel, and I was acutely conscious, the entire time, of Hannah’s parents in the pew across from me. I found myself musing about the hundreds of thousands of dollars her parents spent on her college tuition. I thought about the holidays they would celebrate without her, the loss of Hannah’s presence in their daily lives, the children she would never have. To be honest, these thoughts prevented me from entering fully into the quiet joy of the day, and when I found myself seated (at breakfast after Mass) across from parents whose own daughter had entered Carmel a year earlier, I asked many questions about the difficulty of living with such a choice. Brigitta’s parents seemed grateful to acknowledge some sadness about what they had given up when their daughter chose a cloistered life, but they kept coming back to the same refrain: “Brigitta is at peace.”
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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After breakfast, it was time for everyone to say their “good-byes.” My husband, daughter and I entered a room where Hannah sat behind a screen, utterly serene in her simple brown habit and veil. In that small space I was confronted with a reality that blew away every thought and reservation I had been harboring: Hannah radiated joy. It was a joy so palpable that it shimmered, a physical force in the room. Whatever questions I had, whatever doubts, whatever fears, were swept away by the force of that joy.
Of course, most of my family and friends were not witnesses to that moment. My Catholic friends and family know better than to say “What a waste!” when hearing of a woman entering religious life, yet that sentiment is clearly written on their faces, is the undercurrent of their voices. The elephant in the room is the unspoken but very present question: Why would someone with everything going for her run away from this glorious world and hide in a convent?
These reactions, in addition to my own, have had me deep in thought these past weeks. What does such a response say about who we are—not who we say we are, but who we really are? On the way home from Hannah’s clothing Mass, I found myself thinking, “These women act as if they really believe it all. My God, they really believe it.” Of course, my next thought was, “Do I?” What, I asked myself, does my own reaction say about what I truly believe? Do I live as if I really believed it all? And if not, what would my life look like if I did?
These were not easy questions. In some ways, I can definitely check off some boxes and get myself off the hook: I am a sacramental Catholic in union with the Church; I have reared three children who are still, as young adults, practicing Catholics; I teach at a Catholic university and give talks in my archdiocese about Catholic issues; I write articles for Catholic periodicals that people tell me are helpful. All well and good—but my reaction to these women entering the convent was a symptom too bothersome to ignore. And I do not think I am alone.
Several years ago, a young sister from the Sisters of the Good Shepherd gave a talk about vocations at a local Catholic high school. She told us that when she told her very Catholic family that she had been called and would be entering the novitiate, her sister wailed out loud, “If I had known it would be you, I would never have said the Prayer For Vocations!” Another young Catholic woman, after a few years of not dating despite having many opportunities, finally told her family that she experienced same-sex attraction and so would be living as a chaste Catholic woman. One relative burst out, “What a relief! Thank God you’re just gay! We were all afraid you were going to be a nun!”
What does it say about our world that families have an easier time dealing with a gay child than a Carmelite child? The answer is pretty clear, I think. We inhabit a culture in which everything must be acceptable, must be tolerated, must even be celebrated. In this world, no choice can be deemed too radical or strange—except the choice to give one’s entire life—beauty, talent, intelligence—to Christ and to Christ alone. That is too weird, too strange, too hard.
Perhaps this should not be a surprise. Jesus, after all, never once said, “Come follow me, and you will fit in very well with your peers!” He never said, “Take up your cross, and your friends and family will say ‘Wonderful! Good for you!’” What Jesus did say was “You will be hated because of me.” Throughout the Gospels, he warns the Twelve that people will vociferously reject those who follow him.
Edith Stein (Sister Teresa Benedicta) reminds us that Jesus “asks each one of us: Will you remain faithful to the Crucified? Consider carefully! … If you decide for Christ, it could cost you your life.” Stein tells us that the Cross creates a division “between those whose first love is God, and those whose first love is self.” In similar fashion, St. Paul taught that “The message of the cross is complete absurdity to those who are headed for ruin.”
A few months after Hannah entered into life as a bride of Christ, I attended a wedding shower for a young lady who will soon be the bride of a man. A few days before the celebration, I had heard the news that Lisa—one of the other guests—is joining a dynamic new order of nuns—The Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus—in a month. While the bride-to-be opened gifts and exclaimed over each one, the married women in the room smiled and nodded at each other. Mary-Catherine is choosing marriage, and we know that choice well. We “get” the ways in which our vocation—the vocation of marriage—is our road to heaven.
Lisa’s vocation to the Handmaids, however, is unfamiliar to us. The vocation to marriage can get us to heaven, but as St. John Paul II wisely reminds us, Lisa’s life will most accurately reflect to us what the kingdom of heaven will be: “The consecrated life proclaims and in a certain way anticipates the future age, when the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven, already present in its first fruits and in mystery, will be achieved and when the children of the resurrection will take neither wife nor husband but will be like the angels of God.”
When one of the other women at Mary-Catherine’s shower heard about Lisa’s call to the Handmaids, she mused to me privately, “Wow. So no sex, no husband, no children. What if she gives all of that up, and she’s wrong? What if this life is all we have, and she gave it up for nothing?” That is certainly an intriguing question. A more important question for the rest of us, however, ought to be, “What if she is right?”
Every vocation, properly accepted and taken up, leads us to God. For many of us, that is marriage. For others, a single or chaste life. God gives us everything we need, and our individual vocations are uniquely suited to the temperament and dispositions with which He endowed us. Still, it is worth asking ourselves, whatever path we are on in this life, “What would my life look like if I lived as if I really believed all this? Do I look odd to the world at large? Is my life a sign, a contradiction, a stumbling block? If not, why not?”
These are questions well worth pondering.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Maternity” painted by Edmund Blair Leighton in 1917.