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. :)