Sr. Marla Marie Lucas is proof that God can call one to the religious life from anywhere — even the Washington Post newsroom.
In 1982, as a 21-year-old graduate of George Washington University’s journalism program, Lucas was employed as an assistant to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Post editorial cartoonist “Herblock” when a chance meeting with two Daughters of St. Paul changed her life forever. Last month, after spending the past quarter-century as a Parish Visitor of Mary Immaculate, Sister Marla Marie embarked upon a new mission, one that takes her back to the roots of her faith: At the request of Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron in Brooklyn, she is founding the first congregation of active religious sisters of the Maronite Church within the United States.
The Maronite Servants of Christ the Light will live “a contemplative prayer life centered on the Eucharist and devoted to Mary as their wholehearted response to God’s merciful love, and as a vital means to nourish them for community life and apostolic service,” according to the congregation’s mission statement. Sister Marla Marie, who is currently based in Washington, shared with InsideCatholic.com the story of her “call within a call.”
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Dawn Eden: How did you first come to discover you had a vocation to the religious life?
Sister Marla Marie: My discovery was in a brief encounter with two Pauline sisters in a gourmet kitchen shop on Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown. They were out selling their religious books as part of their street ministry. After my sister and I politely purchased a few books at their insisting, one of the sisters asked me if I had ever considered being a religious. “No, not that I can recall,” was my response.
She persisted and invited me to a discernment retreat, and then asked again, “Marla, you’ve never thought about being a sister?” I didn’t, I was on a career track in print journalism fresh out of college with my degree.
And besides, I thought to myself, this nun doesn’t even know me. So I decided to end the exchange with an answer that I knew would settle the issue: “Look, I’m not worthy to be a sister.”
My Pauline friend gently responded with a statement that changed everything. She simply said, “But Marla, no one is worthy.” In that moment, my mind and heart were filled with an incredible light, and I realized that it was God asking me to be His. I then agreed to go on the retreat.
What happened after that?
The sisters were asked to leave the store because they were soliciting. Shortly after, my sister left the shop with me, and she turned to me with a look of shock, “I didn’t know you wanted to be a nun!”
“I didn’t either,” was my honest reply. A year later I entered the Parish Visitors community.
What were some of the most fulfilling aspects of your life and work as a Parish Visitor?
Their charism as contemplative missionaries evangelizing and catechizing in a parish was most appealing. The strong prayer life coupled with a person-to-person ministry to those away from the Church spoke to my heart. I remember enthusiastically telling a friend, “I’ll be talking to others about God all day.” Throughout my 26 years as a PV, I’ve had the privilege to serve the poor, catechize children and adults, evangelize door-to-door and on the streets of the parishes where I served, visit the sick, and work with youth groups, just to name a few.
How did you receive the call to found the Maronite Servants of Christ the Light?
A call is gift and mystery. When Bishop Gregory asked me to help him found a community of religious for our Maronite Church, my immediate response was one of surprise and simultaneously one of a deep internal peace.
I was humbled, and answered, “Bishop, I know God works in mysterious ways. I will take what you have asked me to prayer and discernment.” Here I am today, founding the Maronite Servants. It is a great joy for me to return to my Maronite spiritual heritage, and to invite women to join me in serving the pastoral needs of God’s people.
Why does Bishop Gregory believe such a congregation is needed?
Since 1961, we have had our own Maronite seminary here in Washington, D.C. As Bishop Gregory explained to me, it has been a longstanding desire to one day likewise establish our own foundation of religious to serve our U.S. communities. Bishop Gregory has been zealous in praying and seeking for ways this could become a reality. He values the place and need for a consecrated woman’s “feminine touch” in parish life.
What is your current status with the Parish Visitors?
I am at present in a period of canonical leave from my community, with the aim of transferring my vows to this new foundation.
What is the charism of the Maronite Servants of Christ the Light?
In imitation of Mary, we are called to be spiritual mothers to God’s people radiating the light of His hope and mercy through our prayers and our pastoral ministry. Mary’s pronouncement at the Annunciation is our biblical model for total self-giving in a consecrated life, as a spouse of Christ.
The Parish Visitors describe themselves as “Contemplative-Missionaries.” How do you envision the balance between the active and contemplative aspects of the Maronite Servants’ life will compare with the balance that you maintained as a Parish Visitor during the past 26 years?
The gift of this charism in my vocation will carry through to the Maronite Servants. It is a gift for the Church, and my living of the harmony between apostolic works and contemplation has been part of the bedrock of my vocation. All are called to contemplative prayer — isn’t that what heaven is? This being so, those called to minister to God’s people must strive to this prayer.
What are some of the aspects of Maronite spirituality and practice that most significantly distinguish it from that of the Roman Rite?
The Maronite Church traces its origins back to Antioch, where St. Peter founded the Church and followers of Christ were first called Christians. Our roots go back to the early Church, and this is reflected in the Semitic nature of our theology and worship. In our Liturgy, we have preserved the language of Christ, still praying some parts in Syriac-Aramaic, especially the Words of Institution. You will notice in our Divine Office and Liturgy an abundant use of the poetic prayers of St. Ephrem. The Maronite Catholic approaches God as mystery based on a biblical spirituality rather than a philosophical view. The Church of the East is, in the words of Pope John Paul II, the other lung of the Church.
We all want to know about the habit. What was your inspiration for it, and what is the significance of each aspect of it?
I have been receiving numerous compliments on the habit. I would like to think it was designed by the Holy Spirit because I haven’t had to think about what to wear for decades.
After listening to the Bishop, I chose this habit with some features that connect with our monastic traditions. The Maronite Church is an outgrowth of the monastic community of St. Maron. A staple habit was considered a simple black tunic bound by a leather belt. However, I did not want our members to be mistaken for the wife of a Taliban. I was looking for modesty, but one that reflected our femininity.
This brought me to select the shade of grey for the tunic, still speaking of simplicity and poverty. I kept the black in using a scapular, and I added a gold embroidered Rabbula Cross, part of our Syriac tradition. The contrast of the brilliant cross on the black is symbolic of Christ’s light radiating through the darkness bringing God’s hope and mercy, which is significant to our charism. Our habit rosary is made of the olive pits, a connection to the earthy simplicity of the villages in Lebanon and a sign of our dedication to Mary.
What are your current prayer needs for the Maronite Servants?
Thanks for asking. I ask readers to please pray for me and for holy vocations. Also, to lay the groundwork for this community requires funding, especially for the purchase of a convent. Visit our Web site, maroniteservants.org, and let me know what intentions you would like me to pray for.