by Sister Edith Bogue firstname.lastname@example.org
One question comes up quietly near the end of every "Ask a Sister" interview session. Students raise it tentative, uncertain if it's an acceptable question, or how to phrase it. Sun Ny started "How did you know to, well, to..." and he gestured. I understood: Why did I - why does anyone - join a monastery? What happens, and how?
That question has at least as many answers are there are Sisters in the monastery. Some grew up in devoutly Catholic homes and can't remember a time when they did not want to be a sister like the teachers in their school or the nurses at the hospital. But that's not the most common story. Some Sisters grew up in homes where religion didn't much matter, or parents had different faiths. Several of us were not raised as Catholic. Quite a while ago, when we had a boarding school on campus, some girls became "Aspirants" as young as 13 or 14. The age range now is pretty wide, the youngest of our newer members was in her 20s when she entered while another had reached retirement age. Each sister tells a unique story when you ask her, "Why did you..."
There's something strange about the question itself. Students who easily ask each other, "Why did you major in nursing?" or "What made you choose history?" hesitate to ask it. I said so to one student, who replied "Well, it's easy to change a career, but if you miss having a family..." she trailed off. She's right: choosing religious life affects your whole life. But then - still being sociological - why does no one ask, "How did you know you wanted to become a father?" or "When did you decide you wanted to grow up to become a wife?" Sisters probably hear this question because they followed an unusual path. Perhaps it's like asking, "How did you know you wanted to be an Arctic explorer?" or "...a daredevil tightrope walker?"
Listen carefully, if you do get to hear a sister tell her story, and you will hear one common element: it was the religious life that chose the sister, called out to her, not the other way around. One sister tells about agreeing to accompany a nervous friend to a "Come and See" weekend at the monastery. Her friend, who wanted to be a nun, never joined - but our sister heard something that changed the course of her life. In the language of the Church, a person comes to the monastery to see if she "has a call" to this way of life. When we knock on the door and ask to enter, it's always in response to a mysterious tug that drew us here.
Sun Ny and Hannah were surprised to hear that, after that first knock, it takes at least five or six years to become a full-fledged member of the monastic community. It's a time of trials and of transformation: studying St. Benedict's Rule and then learning to live by it, letting your schedule and your heart be shaped by a rhythm of prayer and work, coming to a deep dedication to seeking God in the companionship of these Sisters in this location. Everyone thinks of leaving during those years; some do. The rest keep hearing that same voice or feeling the tug on our heart. Beyond all our rational reasons for doing good works and helping others is a simple reality: each in her own way, we've fallen in love with the God who is love. When he "popped the question," who could say no?