Why I'm giving religious life a try

By Rita Hennessey A persistent yet gentle voice began to ask questions and offer a way of life that was previously anathema to me and all my plans for the future. I had a sense of Christ inviting me to something more.

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rosaryWhen I consider why I’m drawn to religious life, I realize that this call has taken shape within the simple reality of my life experience. While this may sound obvious, it nevertheless has taken much reflection, prayer, and surrender for me to allow God to reveal the hidden truths and depths behind my experiences so that I could learn from them and make enlightened decisions. From early adolescence on, I knew I wanted to engage in some kind of service with those who are poor and ignored. Specifically I wanted to serve in light of gospel values. Furthermore (and I may not have been able to admit or even realize it at the time), I wanted Christ at the center of my life, second to no one, and service seemed to be the natural way to live out this relationship.I planned to squeeze a husband and children somewhere into that life as well.

In my own backyard

Eager to serve and intrigued by the prospect of distant places, I sought out a volunteer program one year after college. I had always assumed that this service would be in some remote, exotic locale because that was where I thought the most need would be. My service proved quite different, partly due to my own choices, mostly due to God’s loving, gentle wisdom. I ended up working in a shelter for homeless women and children in central Philadelphia. The shelter was less than 15 miles from my home. I lived in a community with three other women engaged in similar ministries. We witnessed together the havoc wreaked on the lives of people living in poverty and how this suffering was not always deemed important enough to make headlines or call forth public outrage and action.

The year with Mercy Volunteer Corps increased my own awareness of suffering in the world (a world much closer to home than I would have guessed). Perhaps more important, it allowed me to encounter many wonderful women and men engaged in the real, messy, sometimes mundane work of trying to live out the gospel. Most important, I came to know the Sisters of Mercy both through their works and hospitality to our Mercy volunteer community. I had never had such contact with sisters or vowed people before my volunteer year—only preconceived notions and stereotypical images. The sisters I met were holy, humble women who also loved to have fun and experience life deeply. While I didn’t necessarily feel drawn to join them at that point, I recognized early on that much of what they held as important and life-giving was attractive to me as well. Still, I didn’t feel a pull toward religious life as my service year ended. I felt that one chapter had closed and that I could continue a life of service to the poor and marginalized on my own.

After volunteering, I took a job in a shelter for battered women and their children and worked even more closely with kids who had experienced multiple crises and injustices. The first few months at this new job were intense and would prove to be the time when what had been germinating within me during my service year began to surface. At this point my job was very meaningful to me because of how the work tied into my values. Also, it seemed to be work that was close to the heart of Christ’s gospel and was what he was calling me to do and learn more about. I became reconnected with old friends, and I also stayed connected with some other former volunteers. I was involved in a weekly prayer group at a local university that never failed to inspire me. For all intents and purposes, I felt extremely fulfilled.

Invited by Christ

Yet during these months a persistent yet gentle voice began to ask questions and offer a way of life that was previously anathema to me and all my plans for the future. I had a sense of Christ inviting me to something more. Oddly enough, this idea no longer terrified nor repulsed me. The year with Mercy Volunteer Corps had been the key to allowing myself to be open to the idea of religious life. I know religious life became more appealing and tangible because God allowed me to glimpse how women religious live their lives. In my case, I was led specifically to the Sisters of Mercy. I felt then and still do that my call to religious life is inseparable from my call to Mercy.

Before I could feel comfortable enough to talk to the Mercy vocation director, one big issue still weighed heavily on me: never having a husband and children of my own. I had always seen myself married with kids, and I didn’t think I could let go of that hoped-for future. Finding value in a celibate life seemed beyond my capability, so I had to pray very specifically for the wisdom, grace, and clarity to make sense of why I might need to forgo marriage to engage more deeply in a life of ministry. No easy, clear-cut answers to this question came, but, again, God simply called me to look at my life experience instead of focusing so much on what I was giving up.

Looking at my life until that point, I saw that I had not really invested time and energy into romantic relationships that could have led to marriage. I was placing value on marriage for the unseen future, but it had not figured prominently into my past or present. When I was honest with myself, I saw that Christ had been the most intimate relationship in my life, past and present. He was indeed all I could see in the future. I spent time with friends, for sure, and this circle of people had fortunately expanded to include those with similar desires to live out their faith in ministry. My experience in community with Mercy Volunteer Corps had shown me how much growth and intimacy could be inherent in that kind of living arrangement. I felt the need to experience community life even more deeply.

As for my desire to have children, I realized that even this perception had shifted. I felt God inviting me to something new. More than anything, I wanted to be able to have a positive impact on the life of children, particularly since I had now been exposed to some of the suffering and indignity that children can experience. Then I reflected, and continue to ponder, the simple pragmatism of leading a celibate life while engaging in ministry. Not only does a celibate lifestyle free me in terms of time and energy, but as an unmarried person I am able to make different choices, perhaps even more radical choices, without considering how my family would be affected. For instance, if I were called to live and minister for an extended period of time in a low income, dangerous area, or even in another country, I would be willing to do that with the support of my religious community, but most likely I would not or could not go if I had children to care for.

Religious life takes shape

So, basically as I looked honestly at the desires of my own heart and at the life I had led, I realized that the Christ-centered life I had hoped for had begun to take form in the context of religious life. It was not the life I would have designed, but its potential blessings and joys were becoming more apparent. In the four months since I entered the Sisters of Mercy, I continue to face many questions regarding my decision to choose religious life. Already there have been moments of clarity and certainty as well as times of confusion and doubt.

I continue to be awed and inspired by this community of dedicated women who strive to live gospel values both in ministry and community. I feel that my relationship with Jesus has already deepened, and I believe that he will continue to guide my steps. Many of my anxieties so far have centered on questions related to time and numbers. Will I be able to live a sustained commitment to religious life? Will I be able to do so even though there will be a limited number of others close to me in age? At these times of worry, I find myself being called to remember and reflect on two realities: the nature of commitment and the nature of Christ. No matter what vocation I choose, there will be inherent joys and difficulties. Any life commitment would require honest, disciplined efforts for me to remain dedicated and faithful. The only alternative to this would be to choose nothing. As for the future of religious life, I can only try to let go of my need to know everything and instead trust God’s plan for me and for the nature of vowed commitment.

I try to remind myself that if Christ is indeed calling me to this life, then he will provide the sustenance I need, in whatever form that may take. I was reminded of the intercon-nectedness among vocations recently when I spent the night with my sister and her new baby son. He had been slightly ill, and she was in tears as she held him and spoke to me of her fears that he might get worse, or that she would do the wrong thing for him. In my sister’s and the baby’s vulnerability I was reminded of how fragile life is for all of us. Mirrored in my sister’s anxiety for the present and future of her beloved was my own. Her own questions—Will I love enough? Will I do the best I can? Will my actions lead to a good outcome? Will I have the grace to handle the suffering that may come?—echo my own. My prayer for her new life would be the same as for my new life—that we recognize always the real, constant presence of Christ in both of our journeys. 


At the time this article was published, Rita Hennessey was working to become a candidate with the Sisters of Mercy, Regional Community of Merion, Pennsylvania and ministers in child care. She also served with the Mercy Volunteer Corps in 1996-1997.
2002 © TrueQuest Communications

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