Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go

Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go

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?

Continue reading “Fifteen Years of Learning to Let Go”

Nostalgia

Nostalgia

Ben Rector came out with a song called “Old Friends” and it became a brief topic of conversation with a friend this summer.  The song is catchy and provokes an immediate nostalgia within me.  However, as I spoke with this friend, we talked about how we don’t have “old friends” and, as Ben Rector spends over four minutes articulating, you can’t make them now.

Granted, I have friends that I went to elementary, middle, and high school with, spending about twelve years in the same classrooms in my small rural public school in South Dakota.  A few of them I even catch up with on occasion, but none of them know me through and through.  I grew up out of town and my parents were careful not to play the chauffeur for my siblings and me.  So I would see them at school, after school activities, and church if they were Catholic.

But we weren’t riding our bikes around town together in the summer or spending every waking minute swimming at the pool.  For me, summers were spent at my parents’ farm, isolated from the rest of the town about five miles away.  After school, I rode the bus home, preventing me from meeting someone up town at the popular hangout that served fried appetizers.  Even when I did drive, I had a younger sister to provide transportation for and it was also generally assumed that I would head directly home after my extracurricular events concluded.

These aren’t bad things, per se, I just offer them to point to the fact that much of what Ben Rector sings about felt impossible for me to have experienced based on my situation.  Most of my youthful memories are filled with my siblings.  The past couple weeks were filled with pretty intense and intentional family togetherness time and when it ended, it caused me to feel that wave of nostalgia that reminded me of “Old Friends.”

My two older sisters are in religious life and the older one has an annual home visit for two weeks.  As far as religious communities go, that is a generous amount of time yet it also constitutes the bulk of what our relationship looks like for the year.  Short occasional phone calls and letters (which were non-existent on my part this year) aren’t the best ways to sustain a vibrant relationship.  My other sister is a cloistered nun, meaning that she has answered God’s call to live as a hermit within community, essentially.  My family visits her annually on a weekend when my other sister returns from the convent.  While it varies year-to-year, this year I was able to have two hours alone with her to visit.  As with the other sister, the bulk of my relationship is found in those brief moments.

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During my semester abroad, I spent some time making my “snow family.”  This is of my two older sisters.

After we had left the cloistered monastery and my other sister was dropped off at the airport, I felt a nostalgia for the past closeness of my youth.  Naturally, as time passes, the family changes through new additions, losses, moves, and the like.  When my brother married, his wife became an integral part of the family and my nephews and niece also changed the family dynamic.  The vocation my older sisters have to religious life likewise shifts the family dynamic.  While I am thankful for their vocations and the joy accompanying them, I still miss what could have been.   Continue reading “Nostalgia”

The Burden of Perfection

The Burden of Perfection

When Jesus appeared to His Apostles after the Resurrection, His hands, feet, and side still bore the marks of the crucifixion.  His glorious, death-conquering body held the holes that won salvation.  To be certain, His body was different than it was before.  He was strangely appearing and disappearing, passing into locked rooms, and yet still able to eat and be touched.  Dying and rising had changed His body.  Gone was the appearance scarred beyond human recognition.  However, His body still showed where nails and a spear had pierced Him through.  Why was that?

There are several theological reasons, but I would like to focus on one minor, personal reason.  I would argue that Christ kept His wounds to destroy our image of perfection.  Here is the conquering King, the One who has fought death and won and yet–He still shows signs of this arduous battle.  As the commander of this battalion, as the King who leads His people into battle, Christ is not unaware of the price of this fight.  Our whole lives seem to be a battle towards Heaven.  Christ doesn’t need perfect looking soldiers; He simply needs faithful ones.

The burden of perfection is one we place upon ourselves.  We want lives that are neat and tidy, yet none of us have it.  Sometimes we brand others as perfect, but that is only because we see portions of their lives and not the whole of it.  And when we expect this perfection from them, we encourage them to fake it instead of living authentically.

Often, when I tell people that my two older sisters are religious sisters, I can see them mentally placing my family in a certain type of box.  Years ago, I gave my witness in preparation for a summer of catechizing youth, and one of the critiques I received was that teens probably couldn’t relate to my story.  While I understood what they meant, I couldn’t help but take it a bit personally.  My story of an aching heart being separated from my sisters was not something they deemed relatable.  Since then, I have discovered that it is something to which others can relate.  Perhaps they don’t have siblings in religious life, but many have experienced anger and frustration with God and a plan you never wanted for your life. Continue reading “The Burden of Perfection”

Ordinary

Ordinary

“What do your parents do?”
“My dad is a retired firefighter and now drives people at a retirement home.  My mom stayed home with us when we were young and now works as a receptionist at a clinic.”
“Hmm.  I thought it would be something different…I thought your dad would be a politician or something.”
“Nope.  My dad is pretty ordinary.”

Some of the people at the table laugh and one says that the next time he sees my dad, he will tell him that I said he is ordinary.

“What did they do to teach the faith?  Did you go to daily Mass?”
“No.  We prayed the rosary sometimes and usually prayers at night.  My parents just talked about the faith very openly and we always went to Mass on Sunday.  My parents are pretty ordinary.  They just did what they were supposed to: they were our primary educators in the faith.Continue reading “Ordinary”

Comparatively Speaking

When I was younger, people often compared me to my older sisters.

For the most part, I liked it.  My older sisters were involved in many activities at our small school and they were both really smart.  To me, several years younger than them, they were the type of person I wanted to be when I got older.  I enjoyed being known as the younger sister.

Following in their footsteps wasn’t something I minded, even to the point of telling people that part of the reason I chose the college I did was because my sisters went there.  When I went to college, I always hoped that I would run into someone who had known either one of my sisters.  Too much time had passed, but anytime I met an alumni who attended college the same time my sisters did, I would ask if they knew them.  In fact, it was strange to be in a place where my last name meant nothing and nobody had any expectations for me based on prior knowledge of my family.

The first feelings I had of not wanting to be compared to my sisters were when they entered the convent.  People assumed my following in their footsteps would lead me to the door of a convent.  For one of the first times, I wanted my path to be markedly different than my sisters.

“When will you enter the convent?” was a question I heard more times than I can count.  The fact that I liked Mass, Jesus, and my faith in general (combined with an introverted temperament) made people assume that I was going to become a sister, too.

My younger sister responded differently to people’s expectations.  She oftentimes felt annoyed by the comparison that inevitably happened in a small school.  I remember her battle cry in high school being something along the lines of, “I am my own person!  I am different from my sisters!”  And in many ways, I understand why she felt that way.  Her talents were different from mine and the comparisons she faced seemed to say she didn’t measure up.  People assumed she chose her college because her sisters had gone there but she was quick to declare that was not true.  She picked her college, she said, because she wanted to go there, not because of anyone else who went there.  In fact, it almost made her choose to go somewhere else.

I try to remember these differing views on comparison when I am teaching.  Sometimes the siblings are so much like each other, I can see the older sibling in the younger sibling’s expressions or phrases.  Other times, I have to keep myself from saying, “You are nothing like your sibling”–whether that is for better or worse.

For competitive souls like myself, comparison can become a dangerous road to travel.  I didn’t mind being compared to my sisters when I was younger, and in many ways, I still don’t.  Yet I can push the “competition” to the limits–how does one compete with a cloistered nun?

Someone even told me that one time.  I mentioned that my two older sisters were religious sisters and their comment was something along the lines of, “How can you top that?”  My response, filled with some subtle, yet biting sarcasm, was, “I can’t.”  And internally, But thanks for reminding me.

I believe they meant the comment in jest, but I couldn’t help but walk away thinking, Why would you even tell someone that?  If I’m not planning to be a religious sister, then clearly nothing else I can do could measure up.  So many people who enter religious life feel the pressure to not enter.  My high school and college years were filled with the opposite pressure to enter.  At times I even began to feel badly about wanting to get married and have kids.

This is not how I enjoy being compared.  Who wants to have the battle over who is winning most at life, whether in a religious or secular context?  Because if I have expectations placed on me because my sisters are religious sisters, I am sure to disappoint.  But, as my younger sister recently pointed out, we love to be associated with them.  I will bring them up often and talk about their lives, but I don’t want to live life trying to compete with them.  They aren’t competing with me.

I want to run a different kind of race.  “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4: 7)  One where we are running together toward the same goal.  I can look at the people around me and see their gifts and how God is using those to help the whole Church.  People like to be seen on their own merits, not on what others expect of them based on siblings or parents.

However, sometimes the person it is hardest to get to stop with the comparison game is your own self.

The Date Was March 19th

The date was March 19, 2004.  I was a young teenager about to experience one of the greatest sacrifices of her life.  The sacrifice would begin on this day and continue for the rest of her life.  This was the day my sister entered a cloistered Carmelite monastery.  While I didn’t know exactly what to expect, I knew that it would be difficult and I knew that I didn’t want it to happen.  My family went to Mass in the morning and then out to eat at a restaurant.  We drove to the monastery, helped my sister into her postulant garb, and took some pictures.

I ruined the pictures.  I wanted to go last and so I let the others go first.  Each produced a lovely last picture with my sister.  When I got there, my dammed emotions overflowed in a torrent of tears.  My picture was terrible with both my sister and I having red eyes and trembling smiles.  We gave our last hugs and my sister entered the cloister.  To my knowledge, that would be the last hug I would ever bestow on her.  This was an incredibly difficult knowledge to accept.  I cried quite a bit and mourned the loss of the sister I loved so dearly.  I love each of my siblings for different reasons.  But this sister was the one who seemed to know me the best.  For my young melancholic self, that was a gold mine.  While six years older than me, she took the time to read me books with her delightful accents, build make-believe forts outside that I would imagine lavishly in my mind, and would eventually try to teach me Latin during one of our summer school sessions.  I loved her deeply and fiercely.

My mother will sometimes describe having a daughter enter religious life to losing a daughter to death.  One of the differences is that people will congratulate you on your sister’s vocation (or look at you curiously) but will never understand the internal mourning that is taking place.  I am a huge proponent of religious vocations but I try to be sensitive and understanding to the suffering that the family is certainly enduring.  While it is a great joy and blessing, it is also a sacrifice.  And the sacrifice is felt by all involved.

The date was March 19, 2014.  My sister had now been in the monastery for a decade.  In her mind I am still the young teen that I was instead of a young adult teaching high schoolers.  This is the day that she will move from the convent about an hour from our home to a new monastery being founded about six hours from home.  However, this day is one of rejoicing for me but still mixed with some sorrow.  My sister is saying goodbye, perhaps forever, to the religious sisters she has lived life with for the past decade.  I am saying goodbye to monthly visits at the monastery with my sister.

However, I am saying hello to wrapping my sister in a tender embrace.  My parents and I had the great privilege of helping the sisters move north and begin to set their monastery in order.  I rolled a cart outside of the convent and then I saw my sister.  This isn’t the first time I’ve hugged her since her entrance a decade ago, but each embrace is cherished and sweet because I know how rare they are.  I am near her and talking to her but she is the one who will initiate the hug first.

“Remember 10 years ago today?”  I’ve been thinking of this day so much as the day I will help my sister move that I had momentarily forgotten the significance of the day.  I briefly flash back to the young girl with tears streaming down her face as the convent door separates her from her sister.  I remember.

This day there will be no tears.  Those will come a couple days later when I must say goodbye to her again.  Today I am reveling in the joy of simple things.  Riding in a van with my sister driving and seeing her eyes in the rear view mirror as she looks back at me.  My sister stopping by the room I am working in and smiling briefly at me.  Going out for lunch at a restaurant and hearing her order her food.  Watching her fill the van’s tank with fuel as we stop briefly.  Meeting her eyes during supper conversation or seeing her appreciate one of my quieter inputs to the conversation.  The things that are so easy to take for granted, the things that I didn’t even realize were gifts until I experienced their deprivation.

As I was at the new monastery, moving boxes and unpacking various items, I would see my sister and think, “This is how it should be.”  This is what it would be like if my sister was like most sisters.  There was also the realization that everything I did was simply to put her once more outside of my grasp.  I was cutting open boxes and sorting through bubble wrap so that my sister could be enclosed in a cloister again.  Yet I was thankful for the grace of those few days.  For a short while I was able to be with my sister in a way that I hadn’t been for 10 years.  I could see her living joy, I could feel her arms embrace me in a hug, and I could be with her for this time.  I was not bitter or unaware of these manifest blessings.  Most families of sisters in cloistered orders can only dream of this privilege.

While I was helping for the few days, I was preparing myself for the end.  I was trying to soak up the experiences of the present so as to endure the remaining years ahead.  “Heaven will be amazing,”  I thought to myself on numerous occasions.  Of course it will be because we will be in communion with Our Lord, but also because I will be reunited with people I love so dearly.  I will see the joy that has been stored up while I sacrificed and cried on earth.

On the final day I felt unprepared to leave.  The sisters gathered to send us off and my sister was the first to give the hugs.  I wanted to save her for the end but it wasn’t to be.  Instead we embraced and it was far longer than usual.  Her arms were firmly around me and she kept them there when she would usually not.  I couldn’t stop the tears and soon I was shaking with tears.  I could feel her nod her head.  She understood.  She also suffered.  It is not as though the family only suffers.  The sister suffers, too.  She must give up all else to follow her Beloved.

“You are gaining great merits.”  I wasn’t certain how to respond to that as I looked at her through reddened eyes, tears coursing down my cheeks.  I know the reward will be great in Heaven.  “And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.”  (Mt. 19: 29)  So while she left me and it wasn’t my choice, I claim that verse for all who have offered siblings or children to the religious life.  It is a sorrow and a joy that is impossible to put into words.

I left the convent and drove most of the six hours home.  The first couple hours were marked by sobbing and then eventually silent conversation with the Lord.  Unlike a decade ago, I wasn’t accusing Him of taking my sister away unfairly.  I wasn’t even upset really.  My conversation went more like this, “It hurts, Lord.  My heart hurts and this sacrifice seems too much at times.”  The last decade has assured me that God provides and that God knows best.  I was able to view this time not as my right but as a grace that I did not expect.  “It is a privilege I think not of” kept coming to mind and I was certain it was a quote from something but I don’t know what.  It was the Lord’s gift to me and I was hesitant to let it run its natural course.

March 19th.  It is a day that is etched into my memory.  Each year the Church celebrates St. Joseph, the protector of the Church, the guardian of the Virgin, the terror of demons.  And each year I celebrate his life as well as my sister, Sr. Mary Joseph.  It is a day of gratitude.  It causes me to remember what the Lord has done in my life and the great graces that He has bestowed upon me.

All of this toil on earth will be worth it.  Someday, I pray, I will come to the Heavenly Banquet of the Lamb.  I will meet my Beloved face to face and be filled with such a joy that my earthly heart would burst if it hadn’t been widened.  He will lead me to a place at the table and I will look about at the faces there with eyes shining with tears of joy.  Among the glorious faces around me I will see hers, my beloved sister.  She will be radiant with joy, intoxicated at being in such intimate communion with Our Lord.  I will look at Jesus, sitting beside me and gazing at me with eyes of complete understanding.  And I will say, “My Lord, if I had known on earth the joy that suffering would produce, I would have gladly suffered more.”

This is what I must remember now.  I am allowing the Lord to prepare my heart for the joy that is to come.  Praised be Jesus Christ!  Now and forever!