Historically, as waves of Catholic immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe settled in America, where the predominant Catholic Church is Roman, young women who have felt a calling to religious life have often ended up joining communities where their Eastern spirituality and traditions had to be put aside or mixed in with Western practices. But in recent years, just as Eastern Catholics are recovering practices such as a married priesthood, women and men religious are finding ways to return more fully to their roots.
Even in Australia, where Maronite parishes are larger than those in the United States, there was not a place where a young Maronite woman could go to live a religious life according to her spiritual heritage, unless she went to Lebanon.
Sister Therese Maria Touma is one of two Maronite Servants who hail from Down Under. “I was drawn to the Maronite Servants congregation because of their contemplative apostolic life and mission in living out spiritual motherhood in our Maronite Church,” she commented.
Like Mother Marla Marie, she grew up in a Maronite family. A pivotal moment in her vocational discernment came in 2008, when she attended World Youth Day in Sydney. She said Pope Benedict XVI’s “profound and encouraging words spoke to me personally: ‘Do not be afraid to say yes to Jesus, to find your joy in doing his will, giving yourself completely to the pursuit of holiness, and using all your talents in the service of others.’”
Though the sisters do most of their apostolic work in the parishes near their convent in Eastern Massachusetts, they do quite a few speaking tours as well. They were recently in San Francisco for a national gathering of Maronites. They make good use of social media to minister to youth.
“We do a lot of spiritual and pastoral counseling over the internet and social media because that’s where most teens and young adults interact,” Mother Marla Marie said. “We focus on helping young women to begin a regular prayer life. This is where they can hear God calling.”
But she insists that there be a balance to the life they lead. Just as important as the apostolic work is the time spent in contemplative prayer.
“We live a deep Eucharistic prayer life,” she said. “Much of our day, outside of mission, is a prayer life that is scriptural, liturgical and Eucharistic: the daily Divine Liturgy, the Maronite Divine Office, which is called the Divine Praises, a daily hour of adoration, meditation, spiritual reading.”
Prayer in the Maronite Church comes from the Syriac-Antiochene tradition, she explained, and includes poetry composed by St. Ephrem. “It’s a form of mystical prayer. I’ve heard it described as: our prayer is praying to God Who is mystery, and mystery is best expressed in poetry because how do you grasp mystery? How do you encompass mystery? You can’t.”
And yet, eight years after launching the community, Mother Marla Marie feels very much at home.
“Coming to this foundation was like coming home,” she said. “The spirituality of the Maronite Church is such a fit for me, spiritually—not that I was malnourished in the Roman Catholic Church, but it just resonated in my heart.”
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