When I left my 9 to 5 job at a DC education research firm for a year of travel, my first destination was a three-month program to live and volunteer with nuns in New Mexico. Though I knew few details of my future day-to-day, the decision felt deeply right and I was open to the new culture I would experience. However, my friends and family were puzzled.
“Do you think they’ll try to convert you to become a nun?” asked my aunt, who had observed two of her sisters attend high school at strict convent before begging to go back to the public school.
“Are you going to be able to use your phone while you’re there?” asked another friend.
A coworker wondered, “Do you think they have wifi?” That much I could answer. “I’ve been emailing with one of the sisters there, so, yes.”
“Well, you better pack snacks, ‘cause who knows what the food situation will be.”
To that I agreed, and stashed a bar of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate in my backpack, picturing it as a lifeline in case of a bleak monastic diet.
These questions reflect unfortunate misunderstandings about sisters, some of which I once believed. I am writing to share what my greatest discoveries have been from living in one local community of one congregation. I hope that this information will lead to more open-mindedness about religious sisters, recognition of the ways sisters heal our world, and, most of all, encourage women to be open to the vocation.
Discovery 1: Sisters can inhabit normal houses, drive cars, and eat ice cream
My first discovery has been the sheer normalcy of the sisters and their daily existence. My experience feels more like living in a faith-based community of female social justice advocates than what one would expect from “living with nuns.” The sisters are clearly grounded in Catholic faith and connected to their religious congregation. But rather than the militaristically-enforced prayer requirements that movies portray, their faith and its practices are neatly incorporated.
I note that there are women religious who lead simple, contemplative lives in a convent, some dressed in a habit and spending the majority of time in prayers for the world and its people. These sisters tend to get a bad rap from judgmental and/or stodgy media portrayals despite the peace they truly embody. The lesser known, but more common experience of religious life is being present working in the world rather than away from it. This is formally referred to as “active apostolic religious life”, and it describes the sisters here where I lived.
Three sisters and a lay associate of their congregation occupy an eight-bedroom orange adobe style house in the farmlands of southern New Mexico. It includes a cozy chapel, breezy front patio, a peaceful garden, a hammock, lots of plants, and a motley crew of five dogs and cats. The house always seems to host someone new. While I’ve been here, long-term guests have included a priest recovering from surgery, a sociology undergraduate completing immigration research, a fellow program volunteer, and community friends and family. The sisters dress in normal clothes instead of habits. A few even wear a ring on their ring finger to signify their commitment to their vocation.
Prayer is Monday through Friday at a reasonable 6:30 AM and again after dinner. At these meetings we gather in the chapel to listen to music, read a scripture and reflection, spend 15 minutes in silent meditation, and recite a closing prayer. We eat together most nights and our food is quite the opposite of monastic (thanks Costco!). Cooking duties and chores are divided evenly. We have friends over, watch Rachel Maddow and Trevor Noah on TV, and often watch a movie or SNL on Saturday nights.
Amidst these activities, turns out sisters are humans too. They hope to get the good priest at mass, can get frustrated by traffic, sometimes want to sleep in rather than meditate, and, every once and awhile, have popcorn for dinner. And–regarding the snacks– wine, chips, and ice cream are welcome here.
Discovery 2: Sisters can be working professionals with evolving careers
I’ve come to think of religious sisterhood as a homebase to sustain a rich life of service to community, wherever that leads over time. Like a family provides grounding and support to a working parent or a child through their transitions, a congregation of sisters provides financial, spiritual, and social support for the sister throughout her years.
Each sister and lay associate here manifests their own version of social justice through their work. While these women were professionally prepared for ministries as a nurse, a teacher and a physician, over the years their ministries have evolved according to the needs discovered in their local community. The sisters use their gifts now as a spiritual director, physical rehabilitation educator and diocesan liaison for women religious.The lay associate developed and now coordinates a prayer flag cottage industry for women in Ciudad Juarez, and another sister is an assistant at a textile co-op for women. The sisters also created and now manage, fundraise for, and work at a health clinic for children with special needs in a colonia outside Ciudad Juarez. That’s where I serve.
In addition, the sisters volunteer at shelters for the homeless and for migrants, hold bible study at a nearby prison, write articles for the diocesan newspaper, and serve on a non-profit board. Many women in their congregation hold Masters degrees or PhDs.
Discovery 3: Sisters can experience great love
I once thought that experiencing love and being a religious sister had to be separate things. Catholic teaching taught me that nuns were married to Christ and that the deep love of God and the poor satisfied them more than physical relationships could. I appreciated that but couldn’t imagine it for myself.
My perception has expanded now. Rather than thinking of the sisters’ vow of celibacy as shutting out interpersonal love, I can see how the lack of an exclusive relationship with one person frees religious sisters to love more expansively. This inclusive freedom allows them to say yes to love, even in nontraditional forms. I’ll demonstrate this by explaining how being a part of a congregation gave two of our sisters the capacity to embrace others as family.
Sister Carol has become the adopted mother and grandmother of a young mother, Tanya, and her two children in Ciudad Juarez. From first meeting Tanya 10 years ago, then a 15-yr old orphan and mother of a newborn with Down’s Syndrome, their relationship has become one of the most transformative experiences of Carol’s vocation. As time and Carol’s openness more deeply connected her with Tanya, Carol was supported by her community and congregation. For example, Carol was awarded money from a congregational social justice fund to purchase a home for Tanya’s family when they were homeless. Carol stays overnight with the family weekly.
I’ve seen Carol support Tanya’s family as any mother would: taking the family on errands, getting a little inflatable pool set up for the kids, instating a controversial ban on Coca-Cola. I’ve seen her granddaughter Reyna crying from missing “Abuelita Carol”. I’ve seen how happy Carol is when she receives a call from Reyna.
Sister Peggy also has received a family with the support of her community. About ten years ago, a local mental health counselor connected the the sisters to Yessenia, then an 17-year-old unaccompanied minor refugee in detention after fleeing domestic violence in Guatemala. With nowhere to go and no family to house her after her release, the sisters welcomed her into their home. Yessenia then resided with the sisters for four years! Yessenia and her husband now have a precocious 6-year-old, Chris, who adores Sister Peggy and calls her “Grandma”. Peggy or one of us picks Chris up from school every day. Peggy takes him to McDonald’s, the pool, and birthday parties, and babysits him as needed. The funny things Chris says and questions he asks are often our dinner table discussions. Sounds like grandmotherhood to me.
Conclusion: The many possibilities within being a sister
I’m leaving here with a better understanding of all that religious life can be. The sisters’ open hearts, commitment to serving where needed, and their radical hospitality is unforgettable. The women in my community integrate work, faith and love to make big-scale change with the backing of their community and its values. It’s not fair that religious sisters face negative stereotypes when they do so much good. I hope that learning more about sisters will inspire others to further support them or even join them. So much possibility–not limitation–lies within the vocation of being a religious sister.