It seems to me that our culture thrives on stereotypes. When people hear the word “nun,” the associations that come up are generally ones that are found in movies such as “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” “The Sound of Music,” or “Sister Act.” Some might remember the sisters that taught in their schools or worked in the hospitals. Yet few, if any of us, know what it’s like on the other side of the cloister door and what happens there. We love to speculate and ask questions. We thrive on gossip and stories. Indeed, what we often hear is very different from what can be found on the other side. For those discerning, there is always the dream of a vocation and then there is the reality.
Joining a religious order is not similar to going into a new career. Religious orders, in general, tend to be extremely careful about the people that are allowed to become members. The application process is long and tedious. There are mounds of paperwork that need to be filled out. Physical examinations are mandated. There are also psychological examinations. Indeed, the list of paperwork goes on and on. Sometimes, it takes up entire portions of filing cabinets in the offices of the provincialate or mother house. Sometimes, it doesn’t.
After the letter comes in the mail notifying you that you are being invited, there is always the joyful anticipation of leaving the world behind and going to meet Our Lord and the future family that beckons beyond the convent door. Selling everything you own and then going to say goodbye to your real family and friends as well as the parish that you have grown to love so much. One day, you’re on the plane, train, or in a car that whisks you to your new life. The romance part is over and the reality starts to set in.
The thing about the novitiate is that it is not something romantic. The lives of postulants are regimented beyond anything that we can imagine. In many ways, it’s like joining the Marine or Navy Seals. There is constantly someone asking for something to be done. Sr. Y. needs a hand down at the infirmary, Br. Z. wants to know if you can make fried rice that doesn’t taste like swill. Then there is the lack of sleep, the classes in which you are taught about the Rule, and so much more. There are opportunities to visit family are few and far between. If you are lucky, you visit them once in a while for Christmas and Easter. Sometimes, you don’t see them until your profession comes.
During the years of temporary vows, the schedule changes little. Of course, there are the courses that your superiors believe you should take to become a valuable member of the team. While you may have been a trained nurse in your former life, Reverend Mother might decide that you are better off in the classroom. All that you can do is obey. And yet your obedience is not forced because it is done out of love for Our Lord. Even working with those sisters that nobody can stand is a joy to you. Or, at least, you fake it when you’re there and forget about it.
No, a vocation is not what it is in the movies or in popular culture. The life of a nun or friar is one of endless toil for one’s salvation and that of those that surround us. A friar’s day is never over until the lights are out and even then, the friar is sometimes awake at night thinking about the work that couldn’t be accomplished during the day and that has been left over. There are those days, of course, that are filled with consolation and the Lord comes and visits us. But then there are times of dryness and depression, when the Lord doesn’t grant us any light at all. We just keep on toiling, praying, and sacrificing ourselves for those that need us the most: the poor, the sick, the helpless, the dying.
Of course, the religious life is not mirthless or joyless. St. Therese participate in amateur theatricals at the Carmel and her sister, Sr. Genevieve, painted beautiful pictures. There might be recreation periods in the day for talking or playing volleyball, tennis, or basketball. If silence is not observed at meals, you can ask questions and listen to stories. Yet the diversion is only a small part of the day. The rest of it is spent doing things that need to be done and that the superiors ask you to do.
While I’ve never lived in a convent or monastery, I know that this is true because I have read many books on the monastic life and have known different sisters. While the details are always different, the similarities are always the same. Vocations are the same across the board, but it is the specific apostolates that are different.
When discerning a vocation, it is important to keep the realities in front. Of course, it might be nice to romanticize them every once in a while. But one cannot live in constant daydreams. It is pointless and harmful to our vocation if we do. Indeed, the reality is sometimes more important than the dream and it is our job to ask God to fill us in before we make the jump.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!