At the age of 13 I knew what I wanted. But then, I always knew what I wanted. The burning question at the moment was the direction of my life. I had decided, and when I make a decision, no one changes my mind except perhaps God Himself. After considering the merits of being a teacher, a veterinarian, a religious sister and a doctor, it seemed obvious that the medical profession was for me. Marriage was not in the picture, as I wanted to be independent, live in a house that I owned myself and furnished to my taste. Not knowing much about the life of a Sister and not bothering to find out, I based my negative assessment of such a life choice mostly on the bad example of an irritable and irritating religion teacher. If that was what it meant to be a Sister, then I wanted nothing to do with it.
It is ironic that this very Sister was to be the instrument by which our Lord would show me His own decision for my life. For that is what a vocation is, not a personal career choice among many, but a personal call from God. One day, Sister religion teacher walked into our 8th grade class, and instead of giving us boring exhortations about the evil of walking on the grass of the school lawn, she spoke to us about prayer, though she did not call it that. She said that if we thought quietly about God He would talk to us. At last, here was something of interest! Almighty God might speak to me, if I just thought about Him. It was worth a try.
That night, full of zeal, I lay in bed and thought quietly about God, just like Sister said. Nothing happened. I had no clue as to how long I was supposed to wait for God to speak, so after I had gone on for about 5 minutes, I was ready to give up. Just as I turned over, and closed my eyes, I remembered the story about the rich young man who knelt before Jesus to ask what good he had to do to enter the kingdom of heaven. I heard the answer, “Go, sell what you have, give to the poor and come follow Me.” And I knew those words were directed to me. Unlike that young man, however, I said “yes”. Also, unlike him, I did not have anything to sell, but I could give up the future I had planned. For a moment I did look wistfully at the fading dream of medical career, independence and a nicely furnished and decorated home. But I did not lose any sleep over them, neither then nor later. I smile to think of how easily my firm course was changed. God knows best how to call. He knew He had to be direct with me or I would not get it. And He also knew He had to get me early before I got too involved with my own plans.
Soon after this experience I began my quest, first to find out about religious life and then to find the specific religious family I was destined to join. Before the days of the Internet, the place to go for information was the public library. There I checked out all the books on nuns I could find. Unfortunately, most of the books were written by ex-nuns. I read them anyway, making allowances for any bias. At least I was able to become familiar with the terminology associated with sisters: postulant, novice, religious vows, etc.. Then at last I found one book written by a still existing nun, a Sister Mary Francis, who wrote “A Right to be Merry”. This book described the life of a cloistered contemplative order, the Poor Clares. I was immediately enthralled. This was it! But when I told my parents who up until this point had been very supportive of my vocation, they exploded, “You are not going to a place with bars and walls!” “A Right to be Merry” was returned to the library and I continued my research for the next few years. But no other religious family attracted me, so I literally shelved the issue, at least outwardly.
By the time I reached my senior year of high school, I had determined that I would be a Poor Clare after going to college for 2 years. I had gotten the impression from one source that the order required some college before entrance. So I went through the motions of visiting colleges and making applications, but more and more my heart was less and less interested. I was college material, everyone said so. It is what I should do; I should be excited, but I wasn’t. What was wrong with me? Finally, I sat down with myself and admitted the truth. The Lord held my heart and college was nothing to me.
An old, downtown Gothic Church became my refuge. Each day I visited our Lady’s side altar, but soon the place became an uncomfortable spot to be. She seemed to be urging me to write to the Poor Clares. Not being one to waste my time, I complained that it was useless to make contact now because I had to go to college first. Like a good mother, she insisted and like a bad child I sullenly gave in. Back to the library I went to find the address of the nearest Poor Clare monastery in the Catholic Directory. I wrote and received a reply the next week. No mention of college! I could come right after graduation from high school! But what about Mom and Dad?
It had not been my plan to ruin Christmas for my family, especially as it ended up being our last Christmas together. But almost nothing about the fulfillment of my vocation has been according to my plan. Scheduled and controlling as I am, here God has delighted in thwarting me at every turn. We came home from Midnight Mass and my parents began to reflect on how life was going to change for us in the coming year. I felt urged at that point to reveal what was in my heart. Although I had not talked about the Poor Clares for the last four years, it was still my desire to enter the monastery. A long and painful confrontation followed, lasting about two months.
I was prepared to leave home, with or without my parents’ blessing once I reached 18 and graduated. But the Lord had mercy on us and granted my parents the grace to accept my vocation. My Mom said that while she was ironing it dawned on her that she always wanted me to be happy, and if being a Poor Clare would make me happy, then it was all right. Dad’s acceptance soon followed. Over the years, acceptance became approval and then admiration. After my Solemn Profession, Mom and Dad moved from Connecticut to be near our monastery. They became some of our best public relations people. I have lived a very challenging and very grace filled way of life for over 30 years. One thing for sure: it has never been dull!
Mother Clare is the Mother Abbess of the Bethlehem Monastery of Poor Clares in Barhamsville, Virginia. Mother Clare can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please visit their website at http://www.poor-clares.org/.