The poet Mary Oliver poses this question in one of her works:
The picture of normal
“Tell me. What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This question haunted me throughout my adolescence and into my young adult years. It continues to challenge me as I walk with God as a nun. I’ve chosen to be a Dominican Sister at a time when many of my peers have rejected the institutional church and don’t consider a vocation as a sister, brother, or priest a viable option. Many think I’m crazy. For me it’s been the hardest, yet best decision I’ve ever made.
I was brought up in a middle-class family in the suburbs of New York City, the fifth of six children. My parents were committed Catholics who sent me to Catholic schools, and I felt nurtured and strengthened by my faith. I partied in college and played varsity sports. I was engaged to be married. I run, bike, and love life.
I have deep and long-standing friendships with women and men, and I’m close to my family. I’m crazy about my nieces and nephews. I struggle with celibacy, and my heart yearns when I hold a baby. One of our sisters who taught high school in the Bronx told her students one day, “No, you won’t die if you don’t have sex. I stand before you as living, breathing proof.” However, there are fleeting moments when I wonder. I believe that being a nun is not about what I have given up. It’s not just about sacrifice. If that were the whole story, I would be long gone.
A friend of mine once told me, “You don’t want to be a nun because all that life is about is none of this and none of that.” But I didn’t become a sister to do penance or to escape life. Instead, I became one to engage in life in a fuller way. I have a fire for God and a passionate desire to make a difference in our church and world. I’m energized by being part of something greater than myself. In my senior year of college, I had a deep experience of Jesus’ personal love and call, and I began to refocus and rearrange my priorities putting God first in my life.
For three years after graduating, I taught in a public high school. I then ministered for three years as a member of the parish mission team of the Archdiocese of New York. I lived in a praying community with nuns, priests, and other young laypeople, and traveled each week to a different parish where we offered spiritual renewal—preaching through personal stories, music, and meditations. I realized that volunteering for a few years in church service was not enough. God was asking me to radically give over my life.
At age 26, I finally took the plunge and entered the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt, New York. I began my life and ministry as a sister in the South Bronx, where I was shaped and formed by the people with whom I lived and ministered. My theological studies and graduate degrees from Fordham University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where I received a Master in Divinity, were opportunities to reflect theologically on my experience and hone my pastoral skills. The people in the Bronx, whom I served and love, continue to shape my spirit and deepen my compassion. They warmly welcomed me into their hearts and families.
They put up with my imperfect Spanish, lack of experience, and pale skin. They taught me about the variety of their cultures and invited me to bless their children and listen to their stories of brokenness and to their dreams for a better future. The Latinos served me rice and beans; the West Africans shared cola nuts with me and explained their tribal customs. I became minister, healer, godmother, confidant, friend, and most important, sister.
By word and deed
I’m now a vocation minister for my Dominican Congregation, where I help young adults grow in their faith and discover ways to serve God. I act as a companion to those who are exploring a call to serve the church by becoming a Dominican sister. I also have a preaching ministry and offer retreats to a variety of people and age groups. In my preparation I reflect on the community I will be addressing and try to tap into their issues, values, and struggles. I share my faith, hoping to connect with their life. My prayer is that a word will inspire and lead them into the process of healing, forgiveness, and to a deeper and more personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The vows at their best
The vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience that I’ve embraced and continue to struggle with are vehicles of life for me. Sister Joan Chittister, a noted author, states, “What the world needs now, respects now, demands now, is not poverty, chastity, and obedience; it is generous justice, reckless love, and limitless listening.” She does not mean we should abandon our traditional vows, but reinterpret them in a way that makes sense in today’s world.
The vows I took commit me to rail against the status quo and what most people in our world value. So I now understand poverty as sharing my life generously with others; I live a simple lifestyle, am committed to ecological stewardship, and have a deep concern for the poor. I believe in chastity as a radical love of God and all God’s people, especially the marginalized and oppressed people of our world; and that obedience means attentively listening to God, my church, my religious order, and the needs of God’s people.
My vows give me a framework to shed the materialism, consumerism, and excessive individualism that permeate our society. While learning to do with a lot less, I have experienced not deprivation, but freedom and inner peace. I find joy in the simple things of life and continue to discover that more is not necessarily better. The spirituality behind these vows can be helpful to anyone seeking the spiritual life: living simply, loving faithfully, and listening to others, especially the poor.
As I reflect on my life as a nun, I’m reminded of an afternoon I spent with my 7-year-old niece, Marifaith. She’s quite a character, always collecting rocks, insects, and other creepy little objects and sticking them in her pockets. This day, she dug into her oversized school uniform and pulled out a large shiny rock in the shape of an egg. I was relieved that this time it was not something that flew or squirmed.
She asked me, “Aunt Terry, is this a lucky rock or a wishing rock?” Without much thought, I said, “I think it is a lucky rock.” “Oh, rats,” she spontaneously responded, “I was hoping for a wishing rock. Oh, how I wish I could fly.” “Marifaith, when you become older, you can be a pilot and fly a plane.” She gave me a bewildered look. “No. Aunt Terry. Don’t you understand? I want to fly like a bird.” Marifaith, still fresh from God, has an active imagination and a creative spirit.
Our imagination is what enables wishing. When we no longer wish or desire our hope is lost. Marifaith reminds me that, with God, we dwell in possibility. I’ve tried to live my life with a little of Marifaith’s spirit. I strive to keep one foot in the here and now—along with the poor, the hungry, those yearning for God—and the other foot dwelling in God’s limitless possibilities, always asking what I shall do with my one wild and precious life.