Full Q & A with Dominican Nun from St. Dominic's Monastery
How did you come to discover your vocation as a cloistered nun?
“O God, ruin my life!” Such was the prayer the conference speaker dared us to pray. His point was we need to ask God to shake us up every now and then—even to pull the rug out from under us—and then… just let God take control. We can become so comfortable with our plans. That was me. As a young nursing student at the University of Maryland I wanted nothing more than to meet the man of my dreams with whom I could raise a strong Catholic family. My faith was something I took very seriously. Daily Mass; weekly adoration; FOCUS bible studies. Yet religious life—and especially the cloister—was nowhere on my radar. I was dead-set on marriage.
The conference speaker’s dare, however, piqued my interest. “Oh, why not? Let’s see what God has in store,” I thought. … “O God, ruin my life!” Sure enough, three months later the seed was planted and the cloister was all I could think about. Through many precious graces and miracles of divine providence my heart was completely won over. What can I say but that God “ruined” me for himself?
What have you found easy about life in the monastery? What have you found difficult about it?
In the monastery, it’s certainly easy to find God, to be with him. Even people who just come to visit “on the outside” testify to this fact. There’s something different about the atmosphere. You just get a strong sense: God is here. That’s what initially drew me to the monastery. I simply wanted to be with God. But alas, this is easier said than done—what with our busy lives and secular surroundings, simply being with God is more of a nice idea than a reality for most of us. Let’s face it: we live and breathe in a culture that is largely anti-God. I found myself fighting a constant uphill battle. Surely, I thought, there must be an easier way! A monastery is like a little oasis of the sacred in the midst of our secular world. It frees us from the noise and distractions which turn our attention away from “the one thing necessary.” Here I am free to simply be with God.
Yes, God is here. In fact, he’s inescapable! And as ironic as it may sound, I have found this difficult. For me, living in the monastery’s enclosure is like making oneself a sitting duck. You say, “Ok, God, here I am. I’ve cast my oars aside; I’ve burned my bridges. Now come and get me!” And when he does come to get you, you may find yourself hurrying to make a plea bargain. “Alright come near, Lord, but not too close.” For God’s love can be very demanding. It can make us uncomfortable. It calls us to surrender our ego and secret insecurities. Quitting our games, lowering our masks, and surrendering to the full force of God’s love are tough things to do day in and day out. Yet this is why we come to the monastery! We take the risk and dare to allow God to love us into true freedom. I have found such radical love to be difficult indeed.
As a group, millennials are identified by their political activism, both on university campuses and in the public square. It would seem that by entering the monastery you left politics behind, but that is not quite right. Even in the cloister, Dominican religious life possesses a political element. What does politics look like in the monastery, and what do you think are its lessons for politics in the world?
Correct, I still lead a political life. A monastic community has its own system of government, elected and appointed authorities, laws, and structures. The Dominican form of government, enshrined in our Constitutions, is characterized by its broad spirit of freedom and its trust in the principles of popular rule. Just like any political community, we work together toward a common goal. And what is the ultimate goal of a monastery’s politics? What is the point of all the structures, authorities, and legislation? An important phrase from our Rule says it well: “to form one mind and heart in God.” In other words: communion with God and neighbor. Politics in the monastery is for the sake of our communion with one another in God. Communio! That’s the reason for it all. That’s why we come together, and that’s what we’re working towards. Perhaps this is the greatest lesson a monastery can offer for politics in the world. Politics which loses sight of the human person’s ultimate destiny and happiness in God has lost its way.
For all their concern about “marriage equality,” millennials are by and large hesitant themselves to marry. Or, at least, they’re marrying much later than their parents did. How is the “nuptial mystery” of human life lived out in the cloister? How are you, as a woman, a “bride” and “mother”?
I am a bride in the sense that I have been wholly given over to Christ through my religious profession of vows. A real and unbreakable bond has been forged between us, so much so that the Church does not hesitate to acknowledge this as a kind of nuptial covenant. Writing on the dignity of women, Pope Saint John Paul II said: “The evangelical ideal of virginity… cannot be compared to remaining simply unmarried or single, because virginity is not restricted to a mere ‘no,’ but contains a profound ‘yes’ in the spousal order: the gift of self for love in a total and undivided manner.”
Moreover, this total gift of self is perfected in fruitfulness. Like any bride, I desire to give my Spouse children “in his own likeness” (see Gen 5:3)—but on the supernatural level. Of course, this maternity relies entirely upon his grace and comes about by purely spiritual means. Although I remain hidden within my monastery, withdrawn from the world, I believe that God indeed uses my life for the good of souls. St Teresa of Avila, the Carmelite reformer, is a good example of spiritual maternity. I remember hearing it was revealed to her that more souls were saved through her hidden life of prayer and penance than were saved through the apostolic efforts of St. Francis Xavier (who reportedly baptized tens of thousands of souls!). I simply believe in faith that he who has made me a special kind of bride also makes me a special kind of mother.
Can you say more about the vow of chastity that you’ve taken? What does it entail concretely? Though you live this vow inside the monastic enclosure, what witness does it give, if any, to the outside world?
In negative terms the vow of chastity means the forsaking of marriage and family life. That means no husband, no children. It also includes the forsaking of other related goods: no cozy hearth and home, no family vacations, no hope of grandchildren, no experiences of physical affection with spouse or offspring… Yikes! That can sound pretty dismal. After hearing that who would say, “Sign me up!”? And yet… people do “sign up.” In fact, people have been “signing up” for nearly two millennia! Consider for a moment all the monks, nuns, priests, and religious who have ever walked this earth. Were they all nuts? Sexually maladjusted? Devoid of options? Marriage and family haters? … What possessed them to sacrifice the goods of marriage and family life? … Could they perhaps have found the pearl of great price? Evangelical chastity witnesses, first, to the fact that such a pearl EXISTS and, second, that it’s worth selling everything in order to possess it. In addition, the world need not see me nor hear me in order to receive that witness. The monastery itself stands as witness. It says: God is worth it. Yes, I can say without flinching: God is worth it.
What is the one thing that you would like your fellow millennials to know about monastic life?
It’s not uncommon for young women preparing to enter the monastery to receive the reaction, “What a waste of your life! What of all your gifts and talents? Don’t you think God wants you to use them for the good of others?” But, you see, a life wasted on God is never a waste. It’s for him, and for him alone, simply because he’s worthy to be praised! The contemplative nun is like the woman in the gospel who did not hesitate to break the jar of costly perfumed oil to anoint Christ. We know how our Lord defended her against her detractors. “Why do you trouble the woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Such an extravagant outpouring of love indeed chafes some people. The monastic life offends their modern sensibilities. So be it. As for my part, I make no apologies.
How would you encourage your contemporaries to find in Jesus Christ the satisfaction of their deepest desires?
I can think of no better words than those of Pope Benedict XVI: “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? . . . No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen.”