Why I’m a Catholic sister

By Sister Su Fern Khoo, V.D.M.F.

After being “put on hold” by God when praying about her vocation, a little bell finally went off to point the way.

Sister Khoo talking to students

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"WHAT MADE YOU want to be a nun?” That’s what the teens and young adults I work with frequently ask when they muster up enough courage. They think it’s an intrusive question, but I think it’s a good one, and when they ask it takes a few minutes but I tell them this story of prayer, longing for God, frustration, and finally understanding that arrived in the midst of a bus ride.
God’s “busy signal” I remember well the day God gave me a big hint about my vocation. I recall storming angrily into the university chapel after an argument with my boyfriend. Our conflict was adding to my inner turmoil from weeks of trying to figure out what in the world God really wanted with my life. So far the quick response to anyone asking me if I wanted to be a nun was a definite: “No, I am not going to be a nun. It never even crossed my mind.” And it hadn’t—until more than two people asked me the same question in the same week.

I was tired of sounding like a broken record every time I prayed about my vocation because it usually went something like this: “God, I know you love me, and you know I love you so much. What do you want me to do?” To which God responded—with silence. I would even go so far as saying, “Lord, just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it. If you want me to be a teacher, a firefighter, a nun, whatever, just tell me and I’ll go do it.” To which God again responded with silence. Today I like to refer to that silence as a busy signal or being put on hold; it usually means that I’m going about my inner dialogue with God in the wrong way or that I’m not being sincere about the real questions at hand.
Just asking! That day in the chapel I wasn’t asking nicely anymore, and because no one else was in the chapel I exclaimed out loud, “What do you want from me? What? Is this what you want? That I live my whole life on earth without a significant other?” And to those tears of exasperation came the usual answer: stone silence.

“Fine,” I thought to myself, “don’t answer me!” Annoyed and with nowhere else to go for solace, I stayed in the chapel to do homework. Shortly after a sister walked in. She sat on the other side of the tabernacle and opened her Bible.

As I was getting up to leave, she suddenly said to me, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” “Sure,” I replied. “Have you ever considered religious life?” “Uh . . . no,” I stuttered, “I mean, I’m still a junior in college and I have another year of school and . . . .” Seeing me flustered, she calmly said, “Oh, yes, of course, don’t worry,” and she smiled.

Now I was curious to know more, so I asked her, “Can I ask you something?” She nodded. “Why did you become a nun?” I asked. “Oh, I’m not a nun, I’m a sister,” came the response. “What’s the difference?” I asked a little surprised because I didn’t know there was a difference. “Well, nuns are usually cloistered contemplatives, and sisters are more active in the secular world, but we still make the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.”

“Oh—OK,” I said, and as she continued to share her story, something went off in my head that felt like a tiny bell, but I couldn’t quite place why. When she finished speaking, she bid me farewell and left, but I stayed on in the chapel because I was beginning to realize what that little bell in my head meant: “You don’t have to be a nun, but you can be a sister.” I had to smile and let out a laugh. I couldn’t believe how sneaky God had been.
The bus stops here The next day I promptly ignored the impact of this event and went right back into my wrestling, questioning, and bargaining with God about my vocation. As anyone could guess, silence was God’s most appropriate answer. Who could blame God really? But in my stubbornness, I did.

While God and I were at a stalemate, it was my close Catholic friends who literally saved my vocation. They were my community of faith where we felt safe to have “God talks,” ask questions, have doubts, share our insights in prayer, and bounce ideas off one another without feeling odd or judged. It was with them that I found the companionship to keep praying, go regularly to Mass, and struggle in discernment. I realized that God communicates in a multitude of ways, and while personal prayer is essential, it is in community that you have the support and safety to keep growing in faith.

After months of light and dark, angst and peace, I knew my path. And it happened on a San Francisco bus.
After months of light and dark, angst and peace, I knew my path. And it happened on a San Francisco bus.

Then came the final breakthrough. After months of light and dark, angst and peace, I knew my path. And it happened on a San Francisco bus.

Every day the people I encountered on the bus moved me deeply. More than once I had seen people drunk, coming down from drugs, mentally ill, homeless, lonely, anxious. I used to pray a silent rosary for those whose faces touched me.

With time I was starting to realize that the closer my relationship with God became, the more I grew in awareness and compassion for those around me, whether they were my fellow university students or refugees from war or people on the bus. I yearned for others to know God as I was coming to know God: as a close friend and guide. It’s like when Jesus said to the woman at the well in the gospel story, “If you only knew the gift of God, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.”

It was becoming clearer to me why evangelization—sharing the Good News—is and has always been such a necessity because the decisions we make in life depend so much on the loving relationship we can have with God. It is often because we lack a deep understanding of God—the knowledge of God’s unconditional love, kindness, truth, courage, and mercy—that we live our lives misguidedly, our ignorance making life unnecessarily painful for ourselves and others.
A call for helpIt was on a bus ride home that a particular event seized me inside. A young mother with a 2-year-old son was sitting a few rows from me. The child was doing what any 2-year-old might do: standing on his seat trying to look out the window. His mother grabbed him roughly and slammed him to his seat while swearing and yelling, “Sit down! Or you’ll hurt yourself!” The child looked shocked and distraught, but he didn’t cry. He just sat there, despondent. And my heart broke.

I saw in front of me a sad child and a hurting young woman, perhaps a single mother at the end of her rope. “No one wants to be unhappy in life,” I thought to myself, and now I was praying, talking to God in my heart: “No one would freely choose it, except we just don’t know you. Lord, they are like sheep without a shepherd, because they just don’t know the real you, as I didn’t know you.” Then, in the depths of my heart, I understood God’s message: “You are right, my love, they are like sheep without a shepherd, and won’t you help me?”

Just then the bus came to my stop and I stepped off before anyone saw the tears rolling freely down my face as I replied to God in my heart, “Yes, Lord. Yes, I will help you.” It was the “yes.” The answer I was looking for came from my own being and affirmed who I am and who I was always meant to be: a woman whose whole life would be consecrated to God. I felt an explosion of joy and a sense of God’s playfulness that made me laugh out loud.
How will you answer?Vocation is never about what you do; it is always about who you are because it is already a part of you, already within you like a hidden treasure waiting to be discovered. In so many different ways God asks each of you the same question: “Will you help me?” It is in your friendship with God that you discover your deepest identity and path, wherever it leads.

Sister Su Fern Khoo, V.D.M.F. Sister Su Fern Khoo, V.D.M.F. is a member of the Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity. She is the religious education coordinator for adults and youth at St. Anthony Church in Long Beach, California. She also directs retreats and programs at the Verbum Dei Spirituality Center in Long Beach.


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