A beginner sister keeps saying yes
Sister Theodora Hawksley plays guitar during a service in the community chapel. (Photo courtesy of Congregation of Jesus)
I have been on the journey of religious life for almost two years now, and I have a growing sense that life as a sister is about one gospel scene, repeated over and over: Jesus arrives on the shore and says, “Follow me,” and I answer, “Yes.” The challenging and enlightening experiences of my postulancy and novitiate helped me learn how to keep saying it as I continue to discern my call.
The first yes was exhilarating and easy. After years of careful discernment, it felt exciting to finally leave my job, clear my flat, and give away my possessions. I decided I would make the journey from my parents’ home to the Congregation of Jesus house in London on foot. This is less heroic than it sounds—the distance is only about 40 miles—but turning it into a pilgrimage felt like a good way to mark the act of leaving home and starting a new life. As I walked through the streets of my hometown and out into the wintry countryside beyond, I found myself praying, “O God, you are my God, for you I long, for you my soul is thirsting.” Leaving behind much-loved friends and my job wasn’t easy, but I longed for God above all else, and that longing made the leaving worthwhile.
Embarking on postulancy
I became a postulant a few days after I arrived in London, with sore feet but a happy heart. Postulancy is about learning to live in community, settling into the pattern of religious life, and learning a bit more about the order or congregation you are joining. It’s also a time of discernment, as both you and the congregation reflect on whether this is the life and the community to which God is calling you. For me, it was a time of real joy, growth, and confirmation that I had made the right decision. The sisters with whom I lived were engaged in different ministries during the day, from theology lecturing to hospital chaplaincy, and I enjoyed the new sense of shared purpose, shared mission, and shared prayer that came with community life. Learning to live in a very intergenerational community has its challenges, but there was a lot of encouragement and laughter, and I was also close to family and friends in London who were a good source of support.
Next step into novitiate
After seven months in London, I moved north to York to begin my novitiate. For us, novitiate marks the beginning of becoming a member of the Congregation of Jesus. This means I had to apply and undertake three interviews with sisters in the province, which was a good opportunity to explore how my call had deepened and developed during postulancy. In the old days, becoming a novice would have meant being “clothed,” but today it means receiving the distinctive cross of our order. (One of our older sisters said a full veil and wimple took some getting used to because they made it sound like World War II in your head when you ate anything crunchy. In my case, I just inadvertently dangled my cross in my dinner for a few days, and then got the chain shortened to a better length!)
The novitiate is the backbone of initial formation: It is what prepares you to speak the life-transforming “yes” of religious vows. Some of that preparation is quite practical, including studying the constitutions, history, and spirituality of your congregation. The more fundamental preparation, though, is spiritual. Novitiate is intended to be, at least in part, a desert experience where the call of God can be really heard and tested, separated out from all the hopes, expectations, and illusions that every person brings with him or her into religious life. In the old days, the desert was artificial, created by high convent walls, seclusion from the rest of the community, lack of contact with family and friends, and manual labor. (Sorting socks is what the older sisters in my congregation remember.) These days, the rules are more relaxed, and the desert comes through more ordinary experiences. Being a lone novice living with a much older community was hard work, and I missed the lack of purposeful activity I had enjoyed in my professional life. I found myself struggling with loneliness, boredom, and frustration. At times, it was hard to remember the vision of generosity in God’s service that had brought me there.
But for all of the struggle, that desert time was the grace of the first year of the novitiate. Ultimately, my life as a religious can only be sustained by the certainty that Jesus calls me, and that this crazy adventure is not my good idea, but his. I had found myself facing that moment that each of the disciples faced, when all the good reasons to follow the Lord seemed to disappear, and yet even in the most difficult moments, I could still clearly hear the call: “Follow me.” And though it demanded a much deeper generosity than ever before, I was still able to say, “Yes.”
The experience of the Spiritual Exercises—meditations, prayers, and contemplative practices developed by Saint Ignatius Loyola—was important for me in confirming this yes, this inexplicable, joy-giving choice for Christ. I did the “long retreat,” as it’s known, in our house on the North Yorkshire coast. During the retreat I was guided through four weeks of contemplating Jesus’ life from his birth, through his years of teaching and healing, to his suffering and death, Resurrection and ascension. Every single day, as I prayed, I walked along the beach outside the house and along the cliff tops that stretched away for miles to the east and west. This faithfulness to walking, in everything from blazing sunshine to thick fog and gale force winds, became an expression of my repeated yes to Christ, through all the ups and downs of my journey in religious life up to that point.
Where “yes” leads
If novitiate is about saying yes to following Christ, it’s also about discerning where Christ is calling you, and how you are called to follow. In our congregation, where we share the same constitutions as the Jesuits, this means doing what we call “experiments” or mission placements. These placements stretch and test you, encourage you to grow in freedom and generosity, and encourage you to develop the spirituality and practices of a “contemplative in action.”
My experiences of ministry have shown me that, in belonging to God in a new and deeper way, I belong to the People of God in a new and deeper way, too. Through ministry, I have found that being a sister brings me into contact with the most beautiful, sinful, and intense parts of people’s lives: a Libyan asylum seeker in a homeless shelter who told me in tears about his journey to the United Kingdom and his desperate struggle to find work, a woman recovering from drug addiction whom I accompanied to a court hearing to regain access to her small children, Sudanese refugees with whom I worked side-by-side sorting canned food, the countless tugs on my sleeve from people saying, “Sister, would you pray for . . . ”
The word privilege is too small for moments like these. As I give thanks at the end of each day, all these experiences feel like a miraculous, shining catch of fish: There is more grace, more joy than I can count.
Two years to the day after I started walking from my parents’ house to begin my postulancy in London, I will be stepping on board a plane to Guyana, where I will spend three months working in the interior with indigenous communities. I am still only at the beginning of my journey of saying yes to Christ’s call, but already it has been a most astonishing adventure.
Related article: VocationNetwork.org, “Enter the real world of community life.”
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