I recently wrote an article for National Catholic Register on the challenges cloistered religious orders faced in terms of attracting vocations. (You can read it here.) For it, I interviewed several recent entrants of various convents about why they chose this very different yet traditional path for their vocation.
The first I spoke with was an African American young lady named Sr. Angela Helm, 24, who is a Discalced Carmelite at the order’s monastery in Port Tobacco, MD, and originally from Washington, DC
When I asked her why a cloistered life and not that of an active religious life (e.g., as part of an order that teaches, works with the poor, does nursing, etc.), she told me, “I find it really hard to focus on more than one thing at once, so it would be hard for me to live in the world and live for God. So I wanted to be somewhere where they choose living for God specifically.”
Through her research she says, “I became interested in Carmelite spirituality. I Googled Carmelite monasteries near me. There was one in Baltimore, but the one in Port Tobacco looked more like what I was looking for, so I drove over and checked it out. I became a postulant last August. I’m scheduled to receive the habit on February 22, 2016.”
I asked her what she did before becoming a religious. She says, “I was working my way through school and working a few part-time jobs at the same time.”
How did she come to realize she wasn’t supposed to finish school but that God was calling her to the religious life? She replied, “At times I kinda felt called to it. It was a struggle for me, but once I made the decision, it was a huge relief. It pushed me back into my faith and made it strong. I asked God, ‘What’s next?’ at Mass, and I then had an image of me kneeling in a Carmelite habit. By the end of Mass, I knew. It made me chuckle because after Mass was over, a seminarian announced it was vocations awareness week in the archdiocese.”
Sr. Aisling, 39, came all the way from Dublin, Ireland, to enter the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, NJ.
So how did a nice Irish girl like you find your way to New Jersey, I asked her. She said, “I’d known about the monastery for a decade because of the blog. Of course, I tried to find something closer to me, but nothing was working out in Ireland. About three years ago, they invited me to make a visit, and I just fell in love with the place.
“I’ve always been attracted to the idea of cloistered life,” said Sister, “but I did look at active ministries for quite a long time. I was a nurse for 20 years and the idea that I wouldn’t necessarily use those skills again … But the idea of cloistered life kept coming back to me, and after doing more investigating, I discerned much more of a call, that I was much more drawn to that type of life.”
Asked what other things the Sisters had done to make themselves known to her, she replied, “They published a few books I’ve read over the years. The website’s very attractive, and when I contacted the novice mistress, they responded right away and were very friendly. And when I went to visit, I really did fall in love with the place.”
Sr. Jacinta, 20, originally from Montana, chose the Benedictines of Mary in Gower, MO.
She told me, “What attracted me about cloistered life was the true joy that radiated from the community. [When I went to visit], using my eyes of the world, I couldn’t perceive why the Sisters were so happy, and their joy attracted me. When I looked at them, I thought, ‘They shouldn’t be happy, and they shouldn’t want to be here,’ but you could tell they didn’t want to be anywhere else. They had what the world didn’t: Jesus. I had never considered myself ‘religious growing up, but the contemplatives attracted me because they were out of the world, and it felt like a strong fortress of faith and goodness.”
I asked what other factors contributed to her vocation. Sr. Jacinta said, “I was so blessed to grow up in a strong close knit family, and when I was discerning and visited, I found that same atmosphere of love.”
Another thing, she said, was “the silence. It was so utterly beautiful and so different than anything I had experienced. I could finally hear my soul, and it was crying for this sort of experience.”
Being a religious was not her first choice. “I had originally planned to be a nurse in the world,” she said, “when God asked me to do something else for Him. Once I discerned I had a vocation, I was hoping for an active order of nurses, but there weren’t any that attracted me. I started looking into the religious life and the differences amongst the various types of callings, and I learned what contemplatives were. When I started talking to my spiritual director and looking at websites, I could not get it out of my head how people could live in a small area for their whole life. The thought wouldn’t leave me alone, and it went from a constant wondering to where I finally had to try for myself.
“The impact my first visit made on me left me in shock. ‘Common sense’ was failing me. Inside the walls of the convent was such joy—especially during recreation when the roar of laughter shook the house—that I didn’t want to leave. My mind was telling me that everything they were doing was pointless and a waste of time. Yet people in the world who had all they wanted on a material level did not have the true peace that radiated from their whole person.
“What I was experiencing was the joy of the cross, and that is what attracted me and drew me to the contemplative life. The convent did nothing special to draw me in except share the love of Christ and just live their life.”
Sr. Maria Faustina, 25, from Mason, OH, is at the Passionist monastery in Whitesville, KY.
She says, “There were several elements that attracted me to the cloistered life. First of all, I instinctively knew that if I was ever called to the religious life, I had to be a contemplative religious. In the midst of my busy daily life, I felt very drawn to spending extended periods of time in prayer and I would strive to find time after a busy day to go into my room and just be alone with the Lord. Prayer energized me more than anything else, and if I filled my day with constant activity and hardly any prayer, I was left feeling very frazzled and spiritually empty.
“I especially enjoyed Lectio Divina, praying with the Scriptures and just speaking to the Lord from the heart and listening to Him. Gradually, my call to prayer became stronger, until I was ultimately inspired to give my entire life to prayer and adoration of the Lord – to be a living, breathing prayer to the Lord.
“Secondly, I truly began to understand the value of prayer when I read writings from the saints, such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. Faustina. I was also very impacted by Our Lady’s messages at Lourdes and Fatima. I realized how essential prayer truly is for the world and for souls. Prayer changes history: world history and personal histories. Fr. Thomas Nelson, OPRAEM says somewhere that cloistered contemplatives are called to fight in the front lines of the spiritual battle. In light of all of this, I began to feel an increasing urgency to give myself to the Lord in a life of prayer. It felt as though this was how I could best unite myself with the Lord in saving souls.
“Thirdly, I had a great desire to be completely set apart for the Lord. Cloistered contemplatives are called to be like Mary of Bethany, sitting at the feet of Jesus. We give up the freedom to roam around physically in the world, so that our souls have the freedom to fly to God. What we give up in physical freedom, we truly do gain in spiritual freedom, which is a freedom that will endure eternally. The enclosure is a very efficacious aid to staying recollected in God throughout the day, to give whole-hearted and undivided attention to Him. For me, this all became increasingly attractive.
“Ultimately, we are all called to be saints, and after much discernment I became convinced that this was the path that God had marked out for me, and I just needed to go forward and follow Him. I felt a great attraction to cloistered life, but what ultimately made me choose it above all other paths was the conviction that it was God’s plan for my life.
Asked how she found her vocation and, in particular, found her monastery, she responded, “When I was studying abroad in Rome during my junior year of college, I began searching ‘signs of a religious vocation’ (or something along those lines) on the Internet, and the website to St. Joseph Monastery kept coming up.
“When I went onto the website and read about the charism and devotion of the Passionist nuns, it seemed that this group of nuns practiced the very spirituality which God had already been forming in me throughout my life. Nevertheless, I put the website and the community in the back of my mind and didn’t think much more about them.
“A year later I began meeting with a Dominican priest for spiritual and vocational direction. I had not said anything to him about this community, but about five months into meeting with him, he found the website of this very same community and recommended that I visit them, since they seemed to match my personal spirituality.
“To me that was a pretty clear indication that God wanted me to visit this community. As I continued discerning with them, their blog was a helpful way to follow the life of the community. In the end, it was helpful that St. Joseph Monastery had a website that was easy to find. That, combined with direction, aided my discernment.
Before entering the religious life, she had graduated from the University of Dayton where she majored in foreign languages with a concentration in Italian and Spanish and minored in business administration with a concentration in international business. Following graduation, she “worked for two years after college as an SAP (Systems, Applications & Products) Consultant before I entered the religious life.”
Please pray for all of these great young women.
(Cover photo credit: Toni Greaves)