A Consecrated Life: On being and becoming a nun
By Alice Matisz
Come and see. John 1:39
Jesus’s invitation to his disciples over 2000 years ago, to “come and see”, is timeless advice. Recently a one-day Vocations Retreat was held in Calgary to provide such an opportunity for young women. It was attended by three people from Lethbridge. One of them was Meagan Gruninger, a Grade 12 student at Catholic Central High School. Meagan described the event as an informal, prayer-filled day, during which participants were introduced to the basics of being a nun (prayer, community, service, and vows). They also learned about many different types of religious communities.
There are over 20 orders of nuns in the Calgary diocese alone. In other parts of Canada and the USA there are many more. Some are cloistered, which means they work mainly within the confines of their house e.g. the Sisters of Precious Blood who make altar breads. Most however, work alongside lay people, often focusing on the poor, sick or marginalized. Whether by teaching, nursing, media outreach, social services, organizing retreats or mentoring, nuns use their individual gifts in creative ways to serve others. Meagan was struck by the variety of work available to nuns these days.
“You can find yourself and then find a community that fits you,” she said.
She went on to describe exploratory tours of religious communities known fondly as ‘nun-runs’. Meagan also noted that participants were strongly encouraged to remain in Canada where the need for religious vocations is acute.
Someone who understands this shortage is Sr. Theresa Parker from the Sisters of Saint Martha in Lethbridge. During a recent interview, Sr. Theresa noted that for the first time in 85 years, there would no longer be a Martha sister at St. Michael’s Health Centre following the departure of Sr. Ivy Maccan. Asked about her own retirement, Sr. Theresa laughingly replied, “Nuns never retire. This is a way of life; part of our life is service.”
Sr. Theresa’s vocation began with subtle, but memorable, callings from God. She recalls an afternoon when she was in Grade 8, walking home from school on a beautiful fall day. Her family lived on a dairy farm in Cape Breton, NS, so breathtaking coloured leaves were an annual fall treat.
“I remember feeling the presence of God and telling him ‘I’m going to do something great for you’. Imagine the audacity?” Sr. Theresa laughed.
Then she tells about being at a dance at 18 years of age, when she suddenly wondered, ‘Is this the way you want to spend the rest of your life?’ So she approached her parish priest who pointed her to the Sisters of St. Martha.
“There were no sisters in my life, sisters seemed almost beyond humanity,” she said, until the priest informed her that those particular sisters cooked at the local hospital and were “very ordinary people”. That persuaded Sr. Theresa to join them. First she acquired education certification. Then followed a teaching stint at the Eskasoni Mi’kmaq community, a Masters degree in Theological Studies, formation of novitiates, 6 years in St. Kitts West Indies, 5 years with L’Arche in Cape Breton, then back to Antigonish to serve as congregation leader, before coming to Lethbridge in 2009. “For myself,” Sr. Theresa says, “I consider it such a great, great privilege to have served in so many areas.” Currently Sr. Theresa spends much of her days on administration and ‘companion-ing’ people on their faith journey.
Being a spiritual director is something Sr. Theresa particularly enjoys. If a young woman was interested in joining the order, Sr. Theresa would mentored her for at least 6 months (postulancy period). Candidates can be as young as 18 years old, but most orders prefer women who have more life experience. Some require post-secondary education. The postulant then enters the community for a minimum-2-year noviate during which time she pays her own expenses. Then she is eligible to take temporary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, which she will live by for several more years before she can be accepted for final vows. The entire process takes 6-10 years, a period intentionally long enough to ensure candidates have rigorously examined their vocation.
All orders tackle the subject of vows frankly. A Franciscan pamphlet describes Poverty as “a life of active dependence on God…holding all in common.” Chastity is “an invitation to live one’s life exclusively for God enabling one to love God with an undivided heart and to be available to serve God’s people. And Obedience is “committing one’s whole being to search for and act according to the will of God…it presumes personal freedom and responsibility.” Sr. Theresa says it isn’t only the vows that scare off potential candidates. Often, with today’s smaller families, parents pressure their children to provide grand-children. She suggested parents need to remember that they are only stewards of God’s children. Other stumbling blocks to vocation are societal distractions and a desire to be independent.
“God moves within us,” Sr. Teresa said. “Listen to your heart.”
She also urges people to talk about the stirrings in their mind and heart. “Some people are scared to death (to discuss a vocation).” To facilitate the conversation the Sisters of St. Martha hope to host a Come-and-See event later this year.
“When I’m asked ‘how did you know?’ or ‘why did you stay?’ I say ‘peace-it’s the peace’.”
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:27