9 things religious life has to offer
Image: Sister Shannon Fox, S.S.J.-T.O.S.F. is joined by Sister Kimberly Mulhearn, S.S.J.-T.O.S.F. and a fellow sister from Giving Voice during Pope Francis' 2015 visit to Washington, D.C.
In article I recently read listed all the things you have to “give up” when entering religious life: marriage, children, a personal house, and—at least for singles—a great deal of autonomy. It’s true you make sacrifices when you join a religious community, just as with any life commitment, but I have found the sacrifices I make help me to be a better person. They have left me free to live more fully.
I have gained much in the process of living out my call as a Franciscan, and I share with you my own list, knowing that each religious would write his or her list a little bit differently.
1. Opportunities for leadership.
Let’s face it, when opportunities for women were fewer, women religious were some of the first female CEOs and have been running schools, hospitals, non-profits, and all kinds of other organizations for years. This is in addition to managing the affairs of their own congregations at the same time.
My own sisters have managed hospitals and schools in Mississippi, Tennessee, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Sister Camille Guzman is one such sister who was the administrator of Marymount Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio for many years, earning the respect of her male counterparts at other hospitals with her knowledge and commitment.
As a young person in religious life there are plenty of opportunities to hone your leadership skills within your congregation, your ministry, and your community-sponsored institutions—if you take advantage of them. I have been part of my community’s social justice commission and have actively participated in my community’s chapter process (by which we elect leaders and set our direction).
2. Encouragement to be your best self.
In my experience with community, my sisters expect the best from me. They do not expect perfection, but they really want me to give all aspects of my life due attention. If I’m not contributing to community the way they think I am capable, they will call me out on it and ask me what’s going on. They won’t settle for me coasting or giving less than my best. They also support me if I’m having a hard time doing my best.
3. A support network.
As a sister I have a huge support network available to me when I need it. If I need spiritual support, ministerial support, or just someone to talk to or share my day with, the sisters are there. Since I met my community, they have seen me through deaths in my family, car accidents, my entrance into the field of education, and all kinds of trials and tribulations. I am also expected to be a part of that support network for other sisters. They have taught me so much about a true sisterly bond that I want to pay it forward every chance I get.
The sisters in my community have accomplished many incredible things. They have founded nonprofits, run school systems and hospitals, worked as executives, and served the poorest of the poor overseas—just to name a few. I am blessed to know these women. I look to their example as I try to become the woman I believe God is calling me to be. Having good mentoring is critical.
As a religious sister there is no shortage of accomplished women I can look to. Women in my community have been there when I’ve needed to discuss ministry challenges, spiritual development, and when I’ve needed to discern what direction I’m being called to take in other aspects of community life.
Often these sisters have faced similar challenges successfully and offer counsel and advice, or just provide a listening ear when I need it.
5. Freedom to not just work for the paycheck.
Lay people often must make decisions about where they work based in part on being able to earn a certain income. Even if they are unhappy, financial obligations, insurance plans, or other circumstances may drive them to take or stay in an unfulfilling job. As a sister, I am encouraged to find a ministry based on where I feel God is calling me to serve and where I can use my gifts the best.
As religious men and women, we also pool our resources in order to allow at least some community members to work in lower-paid ministries, possibly working for organizations that would otherwise be unable to afford their services. This pooling of resources often allows for a certain freedom in ministry choices. The financial aspect of a ministry decision does not always have to take top priority.
This is not to say our ministries are easy. We often work with vulnerable individuals who require a lot of physical, emotional, and spiritual energy, but my experience has been that my vocation provides me with the balance and stability that I need to be an effective minister.
6. Making time to balance our lives.
Being a sister leaves you without the demands of raising a family. In my experience religious have time to balance their lives between ministry, friends, prayer, reflection, and hobbies. There is also both the opportunity and responsibility to take time for prayer and a retreat. Our rules for religious life often help us move toward a balance of work, prayer, and recreation. For me this call to balance has been invaluable.
7. Sense of self.
During my formation (preparation to be a sister), I was encouraged to examine my gifts, my weaknesses, and my relationship with God. All these things helped me discern what God is calling me to. Having gone through my initial formation program, I now have a better sense of who I am and who I am being called by our Creator to be.
8. Prayer life.
This may seem obvious, but one of the biggest things I have gained by entering religious life is a deeper prayer life. Not only was I given classes on prayer and theology, but I also had the gift of a novitiate experience that proved to be the foundation of my prayer life. Novitiate is a year (approximately) of prayer and study that is set aside for all new sisters, priests, and brothers as they begin religious life.
I now have the opportunity to take yearly retreats during which I can focus on my spiritual development and relationship with God. In addition, I participate in community prayer that helps to bond and ground my sisters and me. Praying together helps us deepen our communal relationship with God. Regular communal prayer times help keep me accountable and assist me in developing the discipline needed for a deep prayer life.
The biggest gift of my religious profession has been my sisters. They love me and I love them. We share all of life’s ups and downs. When I received my master’s degree, they were there cheering me on. When beloved members of our community have passed away, we have cried and reminisced together. In short, we live our lives with each other, and we are the richer for it.
Adapted with permission from the blog entry by Sister Shannon Fox, S.S.J.-T.O.S.F. on wakeuptogod.org.
Related article: vocationnetwork.org, “Ten things to know about discerning a vocation,” Vision 2012.
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