A new sister looks at the vows

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Image: The author ministers at Project Rainbow, a transitional housing program for homeless women and children.

IN THE PAST FIVE YEARS I’ve learned a lot about the three vows sisters and others in religious life make: poverty, chastity, and obedience. I’m a novice with the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer, which means I’m learning about this life and making sure it’s for me.

Poverty is about more than the stuff

Let me start with the vow of poverty. Certainly I started out with an understanding of material and financial poverty, but my notion of what sisters meant when they vowed “poverty" was pretty basic. The first year or so I was very caught up in how much stuff I had and how full my closet was. As I began to understand more, I realized I was missing much about the vow. A lot of the discussions I found myself in helped me to see beyond the materially poor to the spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally poor. This realization helped me connect with those we served in our healthcare ministries as well as those we ministered with who weren’t materially poor but needed attention just the same.

As a sister, my community meets all my needs for food, clothing, shelter, and other material needs. I have struggled and continue to struggle with having so much while proclaiming to live a life of poverty. But I have come to believe that the vow of poverty also has much to do with an attitude of gratefulness. Am I grateful for the many things God has given me? Am I grateful for the opportunity to minister more fully to others because my community supports me financially and spiritually? Do I use these gifts mindful of others? Do I have things, or do my things have me?

These are all questions that I have reflected on to help me understand the deeper value of the vow. These questions will always be timely for me. They serve as a sort of reality check when I lose focus on authentic ways to live this vow.

Struggling with chastity

All of the vows are significant, and some will demand more attention than others at different times in life, but the vow of chastity seemed like the big one. About three years into my formation, or preparation, period I found myself really attracted to a man who, because of my schedule, I encountered on a fairly regular basis. When I first met him I thought he seemed like an OK guy, and that was it. We began to talk with each other, finding that we had a lot in common and shared many of the same interests. As we got to know one another better, it became easier and easier to be open and honest. We began to forge a very close friendship. I found him sensitive, genuine, and open, and I loved his sense of humor. And at some point—it’s hard to pinpoint when—I realized that I was falling in love.

 At this stage in my formation I had a fairly good understanding of what it meant to be celibate. I knew I needed to be free to share my love with all of God’s people, not just one person. But I also struggled with wanting the security of one person I could always count on to be there for me. I still wanted the reassurance that comes with having someone’s arms around me. It was a painful and confusing time; I didn’t want to jeopardize our friendship because it was an important relationship, and I didn’t want to jeopardize my vocation.

I felt called to religious life. I just didn’t know what to do with the love I felt for this man. So I talked about it with appropriate people, I wrote about it, and I prayed about it. I tried to be gentle with myself and accept the fact that I am a sexual being and I couldn’t make myself not love a person. I had to really face the questions: “Can I live without a significant other? Can I live with the loneliness I will sometimes feel because there is not a human being to love me as a husband would? Has this man helped to surface some feelings about whether or not I am really called to religious life even though I have no intention of pursuing a relationship with him in particular? Am I attracted to this man and desire to pursue a relationship or am I attracted to this man, but feel I am still called to religious life?"

As much as I didn’t want this dilemma to become a question of vocation, in essence it was. It was a question of being able to live celibately. It was scary to me. I was confused, and I needed to discover what God wanted of me. As I continued praying, writing, and talking, it became clear to me that God was still calling me to religious life as a Sister of the Holy Redeemer.

Obedience requires listening

The vow of obedience has also given me the opportunity to grow in trust of God and the Holy Spirit. I knew the vow was very different from “Mother Superior said to . . . ." I knew when I started that the word obedience means “to listen," to God specifically and also to my community. In fact it all sounded very nice to me. It seemed like a pleasant way to do things—a mature and healthy way to make decisions. However, the charm I originally found gave way to the reality that the vow requires a great deal of thoughtful decision-making and acceptance.

I had planned to go to the next level of entry into the community, becoming a novice, in August of 2001. That year at the end of March I realized I would be better off if I waited longer to take that step. I wasn’t questioning my vocation. Rather I needed time to get to know who I was and what I was offering the community. In the months before, I concluded that I felt "off," but I couldn’t figure out why. My formation director and I talked about the possibility that I was nervous about the upcoming change. "Nervous" wasn’t the answer, and it was by talking to her and listening to God that I came to realize I needed more time.

One day my formation director and I were casually eating ice cream when the topic came up. “Maybe it would be best if I extended my postulancy for another year," I blurted. “I’m not sure I’m ready to become a novice." She paused for a moment and replied, "I would support you in that."

I felt like a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I was really at peace and happy that we could arrive at this decision together. I have no doubt that the Spirit was at work.

There have also been occasions when I did not initiate a decision but instead had to sift through the needs of the community and balance them with my own needs. I recall a time when I was scheduled to change ministry sites. I had my eye on a position at Drueding Center/Project Rainbow, a transitional housing program for homeless women and children. It looked like a great place to minister, and the position was a good fit with my skills. I talked about it with my formation director and our provincial superior. The timing was ideal, and it seemed like an easy decision for me to move there, but things were going on I was not aware of.

The community needed support for our lay volunteer program, Redeemer Ministry Corps. I knew that we were looking for someone to act as interim director until a full-time director was hired. One afternoon our provincial superior called to ask me to fill in as interim director. I was completely surprised—and torn. I wanted so much to work at Project Rainbow. But I also wanted to support the community. For me it was like choosing between chocolate cake and key lime pie: two great things, but in choosing one I miss out on the other.

My community gave me the opportunity to discern which ministry I was being called to. I was asked to listen—to listen to the input of my community’s needs, to what God was asking of me, and what would be life-giving for me. Taking it all into consideration, I decided my community’s volunteer program was where I needed to be.

Life has a funny way of working out. I eventually ended up teaching and coaching drama at Project Rainbow. As I write this, I know I’ll be leaving Project Rainbow in a few more months to move back to a location where I can begin preparing for my first profession of vows. As my life shifts and takes a new turn, I continue to grow in my experience and understanding of the vows that will anchor my life: poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Sister Brenda Marie Brunston, C.S.R.Sister Brenda Marie Brunston, C.S.R. expects to make her first vows with the Sisters of the Holy Redeemer in 2004. She can be reached at srbrendamariecsr@hotmail.com.




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