I remember a conversation I once had with a college student. She had been commenting on the good looks of a man we had passed on the street, and I remarked, “Yes, he is easy on the eyes.” She quickly reprimanded me: “You aren’t supposed to look at men that way!” I laughed out loud and replied, “I may be a sister, but I’m not blind.” Her comment, however, reminded me of how people assume what sisters should think. For this young woman, the fact that I could appreciate a man’s looks was somehow contrary to being a sister. But promising chastity does not take away a person’s sexuality or gender.
Reprinted with permission from Sisters: An Inside Look, by Kathleen Rooney, S.S.J., © 2001 St. Mary’s Press, Winona, Minnesota, www.smp.org. All rights reserved.
Of the three vows—poverty, obedience, and chastity—the last causes the most confusion. Two questions loom: “Does this mean you cannot have sex? If so, do you miss it, or do you regret not having the chance to experience it?” I answer yes to the first question; the second question requires a more personal response. I can only give my own reply here: a qualified yes. Having been married, I know the experience of sexual intimacy, and being human, on occasion I miss this expression of my sexuality. However, I am not consumed with thoughts about this “lack” in my life. The truth is that I’ve fallen in love with Christ. Love for Christ and the intimacy of this relationship are at the heart of the promise of chastity and, in fact, of all three vows. This love compels religious to make their commitment to Christ joyfully, knowingly, and freely. Love is at the core.
In my own life there was a time when this love was not at my core. In the years following my divorce, I enrolled in college and took on numerous jobs to pay for my education: cocktail waitress, bank teller, office worker, and receptionist. Eventually, with my academic degree I obtained a position as a social worker in a hospital. The men I dated were as varied as my jobs—from professional businessmen to a man who turned out to have ties to the Mafia. Through all these experiences—jobs, relations, education—I was trying to find my center, something that would complete me. Yet, I was not fulfilled intellectually, emotionally, or professionally. The hollow center remained.
Seeing the hand of God
Then came an event that allowed me to “see” the outstretched, caressing hand of God: the divine finally took center—fulfilling me, empowering me, and loving me as no one and nothing had been able to do before. Two of my sisters in my own family had become involved in the Catholic charismatic movement, which stresses both a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and the gifts of the Holy Spirit as outlined in 1 Corinthians 12. During that period, I witnessed significant changes in them. Their happiness no longer depended on the events of the day, the moods of their spouses, or how well their children were behaving. A quality of peace was ever present. This was quite a change from my pre-charismatic sisters! I was skeptical; surely this new behavior would not last. Despite normal ups and downs, problems, and difficulties, their peace and joy remained.
One day while driving home from work, I was thinking about the changes in my sisters. I knew the source was their relationship with God. I envied them, and I recall saying to myself, “I wish I had that kind of relationship with God.” This was the thought that opened the door for God to come in. My twin sister invited me to go to a prayer meeting with her. It was a Friday night, and I wanted to go out to a club with my friends. But they had other plans, and I found myself facing a boring evening, so I said yes to my sister. The prayer meeting opened with three songs. I was sitting, head bowed—not out of reverence but out of embarrassment. I hoped no one there knew me! With eyes closed I sat, and then Jesus came to me. I saw him in my mind’s eye, his arms opened wide, looking at me with tenderness and compassion. He said, “Kathy, come to me.” I began to cry as if a dam had broken. I was overwhelmed with the knowledge of God’s love for me. I wept throughout the entire two-hour prayer meeting. I can remember little else of the remainder of the meeting, but engraved in my memory is the vision of Jesus and his words to me. He changed my life.
I returned home, and an overriding sense of love and calm never left me. I awoke the next morning feeling very different. Within a week I had purchased a Bible and was conversing with Jesus with an intimacy and ease that astounded me. I could not get enough. I went to those Friday night prayer meetings for the next five years. I eventually returned to Mass and to the sacrament of Reconciliation. I read the Bible; I prayed daily. “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17) This is what happened to me. The “old life” was leaving, and the new life was filling me. My love relationship with Christ had begun.
The promise of chastity
Six years after this conversion experience, I joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph. When I first considered being a sister, I assumed that the promise of chastity meant no more male friendships, limited family contact, and female friendships restricted to other sisters. My understanding of chastity was incorrect.
The promise of chastity, I learned, does not prohibit human love and friendship; rather, it insists on them. When I learned the truth about the promise of chastity, I was ecstatic and relieved! So, too, I might add, were my family and friends. To promise chastity as a priest, sister, or brother requires a willingness to love and to be loved. However, self-discipline and limits are understood in these relationships. Are these boundaries not true for everyone if relationships are to be life-giving rather than harmful? Like most people in religious life, I have close friendships with men and women, both religious and lay. I value these relationships and need them in my life, but they remain chaste. Although sisters, priests, and brothers have promised to remain unmarried, they continue to have loving relationships.
Along with the deep human need to love and be loved is the need to give and foster life. Religious community members do not have children of their own, a reality that brings a keen sense of loss for some of us. In the time before we promise chastity for life, we need to look honestly and openly at our ability and desire to live the vow of celibacy with joyfulness. And although we freely choose this life, there are still times we’re reminded of the sacrifices we’ve made. Watching a romantic couple, a family enjoying time together, a woman holding her child, a father gathered with his children—these times of poignant awareness come to all of us. We handle these experiences by turning to prayer and by sharing our emotions with friends. It’s important for us, as religious, to look again at our commitment, at the “why” of our choice, and to recommit ourselves to our vowed relationship with Christ.
During the early years of formation (or preparation for life as a religious), some people come to realize that religious life will not bring them the fulfillment they seek, and they leave—a choice, made in personal honesty, that is the best decision for them. A person does not need to be a sister, priest, or brother to live a life of faith. Many lead lives committed to Jesus and the gospel within marriage, family, or the single life and make significant contributions in the world. The giving and fostering of life is not limited to childbearing and child-rearing. Priests, brothers, and sisters give life through witness, prayer, community bonds, and ministry. How often is life fostered by helping individuals overcome an addiction, by supporting them in their journey to recovery, by training people in a skill that will bring them out of poverty and restore their self-esteem, by helping abused women break the cycle of victimization and restore their sense of worthiness and value? Examples like these abound. Sisters, priests, and brothers have no children of their own, but they can give and foster life. Indeed, to live the vow of chastity well, we must give and foster life.