Last week, fifteen years ago, my sister entered a Carmelite cloister.
At the beginning of the school day, I sat for a couple minutes, looking at my calendar announcing March 19th and remembering what had transpired other years on the Solemnity of St. Joseph. Fifteen years ago, we embraced, believing it might be the final time here on earth. Five years ago, we embraced as she moved north to establish a new monastery. And every year in between, I have recalled with tenderly fond pain the life we have been called to enter into as the family of religious.
I spoke about my sister’s vocation with my sophomores at great length this year. While I didn’t intend to spend so much time on it, they asked question after question and I found myself desiring to share this story with them. They were particularly struck by the great physical sacrifice that is found in the life of a cloistered nun. While I have been able to embrace my sister since her entrance, each time is a gift and never expected or something I can claim as my due. I explained that it is because my sister loves us that it is a sacrifice for her to not embrace us or be present for some of the big moments of life.
“But you didn’t choose that life. Why do you have to make that sacrifice when God didn’t call you to be a cloistered sister?”
Perhaps without knowing it, they stumbled upon the question that must be answered for each family member of a religious brother or sister. Why must I make this sacrifice when I’m not the one with the call?
There is an innate desire to possess another or to be able to dictate, at least partially, how a relationship is lived out. With a family member in religious life, you are necessarily forced to surrender that desire to have a relationship based on your terms. It is very clear that even my claim on my sister as a sister is a very limited claim, something that is now usurped by the sisters in her order who now live the role of her family.
Does this make me ache sometimes? Yes, of course. Do I wish it were different? Sometimes, when I consider that my relationship with my older sisters will always be of a different class entirely when compared to my relationship with my younger sister.
Having a sibling in religious life forces me to acknowledge that my desire and my will are not paramount. It makes me yearn for eternity, when I will no longer need to fight the inclination to cling to them. I am quick to see the similarity between myself and St. Mary Magdalene who, upon seeing the Lord risen from the dead, clings to His feet until He must say, “Do not hold me.” (John 20: 17) Which then makes me think of Fra Angelico’s painting Noli Me Tangere.
This life is a continual process of letting go and of not hanging onto things or people gifted to us for a time. Mary Magdalene wanted to grasp onto Jesus and keep Him with her as she saw Him. She didn’t want the relationship to be altered from what she had known before. So often this is my response to life, too. I want to keep certain people in my life or particular situations or make some feelings/experiences last. All of life teaches us that we are not in control, but loving someone in religious life can help teach this in a new way.
Despite the sacrifice, I am convinced that having a sibling in religious life has made my heart learn lessons that I am unsure it could have learned any other way. This reality makes me long for Heaven with greater sincerity, seeing it truly as the fulfillment of all desire and not simply as a place I hope to go someday. Instead, I yearn for it, at times wishing it would come soon so that I could be home instead of continuing to be a wandering pilgrim.
For now, I continue, striving to embrace living in the tension of the already-and-not-yet found in this place where we will live (hopefully) with our hearts and minds in Heaven while our feet remain planted on Earth. St. Mary Magdalene must have understood this tension, too. May you find the freedom to live in this tension and to embrace the growth that happens there.