The best decision I ever made
Sister Terry Rickard, O.P. meets with young people during a RENEW International visit to El Salvador. (Photo courtesy of Renew International)
The poet Mary Oliver poses this question in one of her works: “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 Catholic sister. I chose to be a Dominican sister at a time when many of my peers rejected the institutional church and didn’t consider a vocation as a sister, brother, or priest a viable option. Many thought I was 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 still jog, play golf, 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. Yet, 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.” There are fleeting moments when I wonder. But I believe that being a sister 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 that life is all about 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 young laypeople and traveled each week to a different parish where we offered spiritual renewal—preaching through personal stories, music, and meditations. I realized then 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. The people in my parish warmly welcomed me into their hearts and families; that time and those relationships were deeply formative. 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.
Since becoming a sister, I have done parish and retreat ministry, I was the vocation and formation director for my Dominican congregation, and now I serve as president of RENEW International.
As a Dominican, I choose to minister at RENEW International because I am able to fulfill the Dominican mission of advancing the word of God in today’s church and world through workshops and presentations but more important by forming and fostering small faith-sharing communities. RENEW International is dedicated to the work of spiritual renewal of individuals, parishes, and other faith communities primarily through small communities. In small groups, people connect the word of God with their daily lives, which encourages conversion of heart and acts of charity and justice.
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. Noted author Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. 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 obedience means attentively listening to God, the church, my religious congregation, 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 to people who are struggling.
As I reflect on my life as a Dominican sister, I’m reminded of an afternoon I once spent with my youngest niece, Marifaith, when she was a 7-year-old. She was 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, had 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 in God’s limitless possibilities, always asking what I shall do with my one wild and precious life.
Related article: VocationNetwork.org, “Proud family watches sister’s first steps.”
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