Religion

Byzantine Catholic Nuns Provide Place of Encounter With Christ

Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Ohio is part of trend in Eastern monasticism in U.S.

It wasn’t unusual for young Celeste Strohmeyer to want to get married and have a dozen kids. After all, she was one of 11, which, she said, “provided a lot of hands-on experience with children.”

But there was a competing tug in her heart, beginning in early childhood — a call to religious life. It kept calling to her: when she was 12, when she was 16, when she was 22 and later, after establishing a promising career.

She had a good job, independence, a home of her own, the freedom to travel. She still could have married. But the thought of being a nun kept presenting itself, and, as she describes it in her written “vocation story,” she found herself anxious and constantly praying, “Jesus, help me.”

“I just wasn’t at peace. No matter what I did, what I had, what I thought, it just wasn’t enough; there was something ‘more,’” she wrote.

The inner struggle came to a crisis point, and she says she actually heard Jesus answer her cry for help with the words, “Let me.”

She spoke with a priest and took time off from work. “I disconnected the phone and kept silent and prayed throughout the day,” she wrote. “Somewhere within the silence of that day, I realized that I surrendered my resistance and said yes to God’s invitation. I found myself smiling uncontrollably. The relentless, deep, aching vacuum that nothing seemed to satisfy was now filled with an exciting peace and joy that I had never experienced before.”

As a Byzantine Catholic, Celeste entered an Eastern-Catholic religious order that she had kept in touch with, the Sisters of St. Basil the Great in Pennsylvania. She who had once dreamed of being a mother was now a sister, and with her work in youth ministry, experienced a kind of spiritual motherhood.

And yet, “that familiar nagging” came to her again after 13 years in religious life. Again, it’s not an unusual thing. There are examples of people in religious life who discover a new path after some years in the community to which they had been called: Mother Teresa’s “call within a call” as a Loreto Sister, for example, to leave that community to serve the “poorest of the poor” in India.

Around the same time Sister Celeste entered religious life, Pope John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter, Orientale Lumen (“Light of the East”), which emphasized the Eastern Catholic churches’ need to revive their ancient identity. Part of the letter contained a call for the Eastern churches, especially in the diaspora, to revive the monastic tradition.

“In the East, monasticism has retained great unity,” wrote Pope John Paul, whose mother was likely a Byzantine Catholic. “It did not experience the development of different kinds of apostolic life as in the West. The various expressions of monastic life … correspond more to different stages of the spiritual journey than to the choice between different states of life.”

Sister Celeste said she was attracted to and edified by the pope’s call and wondered if it was the “something more” to which God seemed to be calling her.

More to read: Maronite Nuns: A Light From the East Grows in Massachusetts

Providentially, in 2008, Bishop John Kudrick of the Ruthenian Eparchy (Diocese) of Parma, Ohio, published a letter based on Orientale Lumen, which expressed his vision for monasticism in his Eastern Catholic eparchy, which covers 12 Midwestern states.

“It is clear to me that the Eparchy of Parma needs the witness, example and service that only well-established and vibrant monasticism can give,” the bishop wrote. “The monastics will not be substitutes for the holiness of the rest of us but will ‘witness to the fact that we Christians are at different stages of the spiritual journey,’ inviting all to a deeper spirituality,” he wrote, quoting from John Paul’s letter. “They shall engage in study to ‘contemplate Christ in the hidden recesses of creation and in the history of humankind … seeking the meaning of life’ and to provide the Church at large with inspiration to respond to the needs of the moment.”

Sister Celeste faced a “gut-wrenching decision,” but the call was strong enough for her to seek a leave of absence from the Basilian Sisters. Along with another young aspirant who had read Bishop John’s letter, she began to live a monastic life in Parma.