Sunday, June 27, 2010

Those Nashville Dominicans

Here's an article about a girl who'll be joining the Dominicans Sisters of St. Cecilia, better known as the Nashville Dominicans, on August 11. She started thinking about being a nun in college when a priest suggested it. Amazing. When I was in college I was far from knowing what I was supposed to do with my life.

As it happens, today I was chatting with a girl from my own parish-- Hi, Teresa!-- who's also going to be joining the Dominicans on that day, and she's going straight from high school. She tells me there are nineteen girls so far in this year's postulant class, with time yet for others to join them before the entry date. There are two other eighteen-year-olds, so Teresa's glad not to be the only one who hasn't been to college. Anyway, they'll get their degrees and teaching credentials during the years of formation. I think of my mostly-wasted twenties and admire the girls who live their lives deliberately while they're young.

Apparently three of the nineteen incoming postulants are named Courtney. And whaddya know-- I happen to know one of the Courtneys, and here's her blog, currently featuring a great post about finding her vocation.

All this news about the Dominicans' latest postulant class has me remembering my own visit to them. I went in May 2009-- that's where I met Courtney-- and I posted pictures of it on Facebook soon after, but I never wrote much about it. I'd asked the Dominicans about visiting because I thought they had an important apostlate and I loved all the studying and learning they get to do. But I knew almost as soon as I arrived at the motherhouse that this wasn't the place. It was obvious how good the order was-- there's a sense of mission and purpose and joy there; they love being teaching sisters and they're in love in God. The girls who were on retreat with me were fun too, friendly and interesting. Yet I felt detached from all the awesomeness. It was as obvious as could be that this was not my call.

So I philosophically settled in to enjoy the five-day retreat as a nice visit with a great religious congregation. The joke is that discernment is the fourth state of life (the others being singleness, marriage, or consecrated life) and one benefit of living in the fourth state is that you can travel around enjoying the hospitality of various orders, and meeting a bunch of holy nuns. How many laypeople get to do that?

Everyone was fond of the dorms they had us sleeping in with their rows of white beds. Back in the 1800's when the convent was also a boarding school, the girls who lived there had exactly the same sleeping arrangement. They would goof off at night and sisters would come upstairs to hush them up, but they could never catch the girls in the act of breaking the rules because the girls heard them coming by the rattling of their Rosaries. Finally one night a sister kept quiet by clutching her Rosary in her hand, and she succeeded in sneaking up on the reprobates.

We retreatants didn't goof off at all-- we needed the sleep! Our days there were so packed that we all just dropped dead at lights out.

One girl on our retreat had come all the way from Australia, and the sisters picked her to perform a little nightly ritual for us. It's the custom after the sisters retire for one of them to walk by the closed doors of all the cells, blessing them with holy water. So the Australian girl did the same for us visitors: at bedtime each night, she'd go around the dorm flinging holy water at each curtain and murmuring "Hail Mary..." every time. It was comforting to hear as I drifted off to sleep.

The order is huge-- something like 250 sisters. Everything was on a big scale. The day we arrived there was a constant parade of vans between the motherhouse and the airport to pick all of us up. Fortunately the parking attendants let the sisters park for free. At the motherhouse there are about a dozen visiting rooms and a gigantic common room, dozens of white rockers on a lovely back porch, and so on. The chapel is new, big, and gorgeous, and is packed to the gills when all the sisters are home on vacation and pretty full even when half of them are out on assignment.

Our meals were mostly eaten in silence while a sister read to us from "Peter on the Shore: Vocation in the Scriptures and in Real Life". I was sorry she didn't finish it before the weekend ended because I found it fascinating, no doubt because it was so relevant to my situation.

Towards the end of the retreat we broke into smaller groups and I found myself with two sisters and three other girls in one of the pretty visiting parlors. We asked the sisters lots of questions and I was completely absorbed by the conversation, but there's only one topic I recall now: Sister Michaela urging us to ask God for big things. When I heard her say that, I at once asked Him to change my attitude in a certain way, and almost at once, He did! No one else knew anything about it, but I knew a little miracle had happened in my heart.

There was a young priest on the retreat, who in one of his talks to us mentioned the irrational fears the devil uses to keep you from pursuing a vocation. He illustrated with his own story. He'd always wanted to be a lawyer, and he became one, and he was dating a woman he thought might be the one. But he was hesitant to propose to her and he didn't know why, and he also wondered from time to time, "Is this all I'm supposed to be?"

So he decided to sort things out on a weekend retreat, and he made arrangements to stay at a monastery, but driving up to the place he suddenly panicked, felt he couldn't do it, and nearly drove right away again. However, he knew it would be rude to just take off when the monks were expecting him, so he went up and knocked on the door just to say he wouldn't be staying. A monk answered and immediately began to show him to his room, and he had to keep up and didn't really have a chance to say, "No, I'm leaving!" They arrived at the room and the monk disappeared at once; our hero was left alone. He went looking for the front desk to cancel his reservation, but monasteries don't have front desks, and finally he decided to just settle down and stay.

On the Saturday evening of his little retreat he prayed the Litany of Loreto and was moved to tears. He realized he'd never asked what God wanted him to do. He was terrified of being asked to be a priest because it seemed like it would be the end of his life; all his work as a lawyer and his relationship with the girl would be for nothing. But he realized that if he left the chapel without asking the question, he'd be saying to God, "I don't care what You want." So he gave up, and prayed "If you want me to be a priest, I will," and he felt his fear disappear. In due course he became a Dominican priest, and he told us, "You couldn't give me anything in the world to make me go back to the life I had before."

I loved his story because part of it reminded me of me: the whole approach-avoidance nonsense. Afraid to stay and afraid to go, afraid to ask and not to ask, wanting to speak but feeling inhibited, unwilling even to think of certain possibilities-- yet once the obstacle is overcome you wonder how it ever seemed so insurmountable. That dynamic cropped up a fair bit when I was converting, and again when I was first feeling drawn to become a nun. The stress and nervousness I sometimes felt was out of all proportion to the situation; I remember wondering why I, a theoretically mature person in my late twenties, was having such a hard time calling up the nearest parish to say I wanted to be Catholic, or asking a priest if I could talk with him about religious life. I can be inconveniently shy, but I suspect that most of the problem was flat out spiritual warfare, and that it's very common whenever anyone's on the point of doing something the devil really, really doesn't want him to do.

Anyway, I left the retreat glad to have had the experience. The Nashville Dominicans are obviously not hurting for vocations, nor are they the least bit interested in pressuring girls to join, so I had no problem telling Sr. Mary Emily what was thinking and how I didn't seem to be called to their congregation, and she set up a meeting with the priest, who had the scoop on some places that might fit me better.

Now let us pray for the continued discernment of the nineteen-and-counting girls who are heading to Nashville this August. :)


Anonymous said...

Hey Rachel!

Wow, now I can say I've been written about in something significant! Haha, praise the Lord! Funny thing...I actually connected with someone on Facebook who reads your blog and wanted to get to know more about the discernment process. You go girl! Disciples in mission.

God bless, know of my prayers!

Linda said...

I've been working as an RN for almost 30 years. About 12 years ago we moved and I got a job for the 1st time at a Catholic hospital. For too long a time I was "afraid" to go into the chapel--don't ask me why, it makes NO sense to me now. One day I mentioned this to my spiritual director who simply said he thought the evil one was behind that fear. Once said, the "fear" was dispelled and I can't imagine spending my 30 minute "lunch" break with anyone else except Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, nor can I imagine beginning my shift without a visit to Him.

Rachel Gray said...

Good, my blog's significant! Thanks for your prayers, Teresa, and I'll pray for you. :) That's great about the person on Facebook. I'm glad to hear it because a big part of the reason I write long posts about the orders I've visited is that there isn't enough info about most of them online, and for girls who are discerning I think having little details about what a visit was like can help them to picture themselves there and make it easier for them to contact that community.

Linda, I didn't know you had a chapel at work-- how great! That does sound like exactly the kind of crazy fear I'm talking about, and often it takes a spiritual director to point it out.

Kestrel said...

I have just stumbled upon your blog. I follow daily the photos posted at Rome of the West.
I recently saw on EWTN a show about the Nashville Dominicans and was intriqued by the number of novitiates (?perhaps the wrong term) for this order. I am a 54 year old Catholic man who has witnessed the removal of the habit and now am amazed at how the orders who wear what I would consider the most traditional are the ones that appear to be growing the fastest.(the French sisters in St Louis) I have no facts to back that up, only speculating. An order very near my home has had no new members in years and only the oldest of retired nuns wear any form of habit is there a correlation to be drawn??? I wish you luck in your search for an order.

Rachel Gray said...

Hi Kestrel! I don't know if anyone has compared the vocation rates of non-habited orders with those that wear habits, but I did read somewhere that the LCWR has a vocation rate of 0.01%-- dying off-- while the CMSWR has a rate of around 10%-- healthy growth. The LCWR represents more than 90% of the nuns in America and most of the orders have liberalized quite a bit, though my understanding is that the orders themselves are not nearly as crazily anti-Church as the dreary women who've taken over the leadership positions at the LCWR. Because the LCWR was so awful, the Vatican allowed the unprecedented formation of a second conference of religious orders in America (all other countries have just one.) All the great, orthodox orders of nuns that I know then left the LCWR and reformed under the CMSWR. The CMSWR orders nearly all have habits, while the LCWR orders seem to wear habits occasionally or never.

All this is off the top of my head, so I could be wrong about parts of it. In particular, I am NOT saying that I think all good orders are in the CMSWR and all LCWR orders are bad. Nor would I say that non-habited nuns are automatically less good than the habited ones, because I've met at least one sister who wears no habit and does amazing work for the pro-life cause. I think there might be many, many older nuns who dropped the habit reluctantly out of obedience to their order's leadership, and are living out their religious lives as best they may, suffering quietly from the loss of tradition.

Those caveats aside, you are DEFINITELY correct that there's a strong correlation between a traditional habit, and the tradition, fidelity, orthodoxy, and vibrancy of an order. Also the habit in and of itself is an important part of consecrating one's life entirely to God. For myself I'm not the least bit interested in an order that doesn't wear a habit all the time, and all my friends who are joining religious orders are going for the habits too.

I've visited the French sisters in St. Louis at their convent in Italy. I posted pictures at .

By the way, since I wrote this post, the Nashville Dominicans have gained eight more novices-- they're up to 26 now! The entry date is just a few weeks away.

Kestrel said...

I dont want to become a pest but permit me to share another thought on the Nashville Dominicans. But first a preface, I was taught by nuns in grade school, for the most part I never got the impression that nuns were fun loving, laughing, giggling, except for the occasional very young nun or that traditional 1960's picture of the fully habited nuns at the St.Louis Cardinal game (I thought all nuns were "cardinal" fans). When I watched the Dominican show I thought to myself, look at the fun and joy filled behavior that was portrayed and yet in an order that was so very traditional. I thought perhaps we have turned a corner young devote women yet fully capable of enjoying themselves and displaying a youthful enthusiasm for life which was so very much suppressed or hidden from view in the past. It was a pleasure to watch.

Rachel Gray said...

No worries, I love comments! It's interesting that the nuns when you were younger didn't seem joyful. I have often thought that something had to be very wrong beneath the surface, both in religious orders and the Church in general, for everything to collapse as quickly as it did. Sometimes I hear that things were great in the 50's and went completely to heck in 60's, but I think there couldn't have been much solid faith in the 50's, if the storm of the 60's made the house collapse. Perhaps I'm wrong.

Anyway, I've visited nine different orders, all of them faithful, all of them attracting new vocations, and one thing they all had in common was joy-- they were very happy to be nuns.

Kestrel said...

Keep in mind that at times like the depresson a daugther of a large family was "sent" to the convent. Almost a forced vocation. Three meals a day, a warm safe dry place to live. Some accepted the vocation others rejected it. This is fact it happened! Perhaps those stories that commedians love to tell about the ruler swinging, knuckle cracking nuns are the bitter ones. Keep in mind however that there were Sisters and Priests who were peacefully marching for civil rights during the 60s and truly living as examples of Christ so the 60s were not all bad for the Church.

Anonymous said...

I am a mom of a Nashville Dominican and I loved reading your blog about them. My daughter has blossomed since entering and has become the woman God created her to be. He calls us to joy and she has found it in the Order. I pray for all young women searching for their answer to God's call for them. Our family has been truly blessed by being a part of the Dominican family!
Lafayette, In Mom

Rachel Gray said...

Kestrel, I don't know about the situation you describe-- it seems to me that very, very few parents would actually push their daughter into a convent for life, even if they were very poor. I've heard rumors of such, often from Protestant sources, but if it was as common as some people seem to think, I'd expect to have heard a few actual accounts from the nuns themselves who had this happen to them.

Maybe it is true, though, that some women became nuns only because it seemed better than the alternatives. In the 50's and early 60's the Catholic culture in America was much stronger and Hollywood was even making movies starring nuns. Maybe religious life looked a bit glamorous, and maybe family life also seemed less attractive and more sacrificial, back when families were twice as big and houses half as big. However, that's just my speculation.

Thanks Lafayette Mom, especially for the prayers. :) That's exactly how I feel about the nuns I know-- that they've become the women God created them to be.