–by Sister Shannon Fox, SSJ-TOSF
I recently read an article that listed 10 things you have to “give up” upon entering religious life. The article was written in a hurtful and sarcastic tone and failed to capture the spirit and joy of being a religious sister. As with any life choice, there are sacrifices you make when you join community. Some sacrifices are easier than others, but I have found that the sacrifices I make help me to be a better person. They have left me free to live out my vocation.
There are many things I have gained in the process of living out my call as a Franciscan. In that spirit, I thought, it would be appropriate to list 10 things that you gain by entering religious life. This is my own personal experience in community and does not necessarily reflect the experience of other women religious. I thought this was important especially with this being the year for consecrated life.
10. Opportunities for leadership – Let’s face it, when opportunities for women were fewer, sisters were some of the first female CEO’s 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. As a young sister, there are plenty of opportunities to hone your leadership skills both within your congregation, your ministry, and community sponsored institutions, if you take advantage of them.
9. 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 its due attention. If I’m not contributing to community the way they think I am able, they will call me out on it, and ask me what’s going on. They won’t settle for me coasting by or giving less than my best. They also support me if I’m struggling or going through a rough time, so I am my best self.
8. 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 need 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 the family, car accidents, entering the field of education, and all kinds of trials and tribulations in my life. I am also expected to be a part of that support network for other sisters. I learn so much and they have taught me so much about a true sisterly bond that I am able to pay it forward every chance I get.
7. Mentors – The sisters in my community have accomplished so many incredible things; founded nonprofits, run schools and school systems, hospitals, served as executives and served the poorest of the poor overseas just to name a few. I am so blessed to be able to know these women, and to be able to look to their example as I try to become the woman I believe God is calling me to be. Having good mentoring is so critical to success in life. As a religious sister, there is no shortage of accomplished women I can look to.
6. Freedom to not just work for the paycheck – Out in the secular world, people must make decisions about where they work partially based 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 a job that is unfulfilling. 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. The financial aspect of the decision is low priority in the discernment. This is not to say our ministries are easy, we often work with the most vulnerable individuals in society who often require a lot of our 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.
5. Time to do what’s important to you – Being called to be a sister leaves one without the demands of starting a family. We have the time to balance our lives with ministry, friends, prayer, reflection, and even hobbies. There is also the opportunity and responsibility to make sure you take time for prayer and retreat. Our rules for religious life often call us to ensure we have a balanced life with work, prayer and recreation. In my lived experience as a sister this call to balance has been invaluable in enabling me to be effective in ministering to those around me.
4. Sense of self – Part of our formation programs call us to look at ourselves, our struggles, our gifts and our relationship with God. All of these things help us to discern what God is calling us to in our lives. Having gone through my initial formation program, I have a better sense of who I am and who I am being called by our creator to be.
3. Quiet time – We are asked and encouraged to take the quiet time to pray and reflect. In the silence we can hear the voice of our creator gently loving us and calling us. One of the benefits of my vocation is that after an especially noisy or busy day, I can take the quiet time to de-stress and reflect on the day.
2. Prayer life – This may seem kind of obvious, but one of the biggest things I have gained by entering religious life was a deeper prayer life. Not only was I given classes on prayer and theology, but I was also gifted with a yearlong novitiate experience that proved to be the foundation of my prayer life. Novitiate is a year of prayer and study that is set aside for all new sisters as they begin their religious life. Since novitiate I have had the opportunity to take yearly retreats were I can focus on my spiritual development and relationship with God. I also participate in community prayer that helps to bond and ground us as sisters and deepen our communal relationship with God.
1. Sisters – The biggest gift of my religious profession has been my sisters. They nurture me, support me, challenge me and love me. We are there for each other throughout all of life’s ups and downs. When I graduated with 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 share our lives with each other, and we are richer for it.
–Sister Shannon is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis, based in Stevens Point, Wisconsin