For the past three months, I have been happily preparing for the party of my life. This party will include a beautiful Mass, a locally-sourced dinner and a lively reception. The party of my life will celebrate my perpetual profession of vows with my community.
Preparation for my final vows has been busy and enjoyable. But, not everything has been simple and easy. Initially, I was really challenged by the task of balancing community traditions, my own personal hopes and the needs of my guests. Not everything has gone perfectly. I have had to re-learn lessons about flexibility and detachment. I have had to deal with disappointments and then adapt. Most recently, I learned that my friend who planned to offer the reflection during the Mass could no longer come. To this news, my incorporation director responded, “Even the prep for vows is its own formative experience!”
As I prepare for my final vows, I notice that there are certain questions that come up again and again, for me and the people around me.
Like a wedding, but not a wedding
“How are the final vow preparations coming along?” This is the most common and conversational question I have heard from all sorts of people: friends, family and other sisters in my community.
To this question I like to respond with a joke. “Jesus isn’t really pulling his weight in all the work. If I were getting married to a man then at least I could try to get him to do half of it.”
In many ways the tasks on my to-do list look a lot like what you would do to prepare for a wedding: select readings and music for a liturgy; find someone to preside at the Mass; figure out a guest list in spite of space limitations; design, print, and send invitations and then gather up replies; plan a menu and table decorations for a special dinner; find a dress to wear; pick out and order flowers and so on.
Overall, it’s true that many things in my final vows celebration will seem like a wedding and that’s OK. I want my guests to understand that we are celebrating my major life commitment. In some ways the outline of the day will flow like a wedding often does: there will be a ceremony (the Mass), followed by a lovely sit-down dinner (in the convent dining room) and then a dance and reception (happening in the high school gym where I minister.) Yes, I will get a ring and profess vows that I will remain committed to for the rest of my life. Yes, I am saying yes to my vocation just as a husband or wife says yes to their vocation through their wedding vows.
Yes, I am having a dance as part of the celebration. This is atypical for my community (and probably religious life, for that matter). But it is important to me. I am having a dance party reception in order to extend the celebration to my colleagues and students and their families. In part, I am having a dance because throughout my discernment journey, the biggest sadness for me about not getting married was trying to accept the fact that I would never be able to host a wedding dance. Once I found out I could, indeed, have a dance then it made it much easier for me to know I wanted to make final vows.
Yet, it is not a wedding. The sacrament of the day will be the Eucharist, not any sort of matrimony. I will not wear a white dress or a veil. A group of sisters, not my parents, will accompany me up the aisle. Similarly, sisters will receive my vows, not a man. When I enter the chapel, I will carry my community’s traditional lard-light symbol, not a bouquet. The vows that I profess will be vows of consecrated celibacy, obedience and poverty according to the constitutions of my community and the Rule of the Third Order Regular of Franciscans, not fidelity to any man.
Fear and commitment
“What if later on in life you meet someone and fall in love and decide you want to leave the convent?”
This question –occasionally asked by the teenagers I teach –upsets me. On my best days, I can respond compassionately and calmly to the hypothetical question with full knowledge that it is a natural thing for a teen to wonder about. I become instructive and remind the teen that it wouldn’t be polite to ask a bride who is excited about her wedding what she would do if her husband turned out to be abusive, likewise negative hypotheticals are not polite to Catholic Sisters either. Then, I probably bore the student with the facts when I define exclaustration and explain its process.
Even though I understand where this question is coming from, it upsets me because it is voicing one of my biggest fears that I have had to live with all throughout my discernment: “What if I discover that being a sister is not what God made me for? What if it all turns out to be a mistake?! What if something more exciting and adventurous comes along in life that is more appealing?”
My unfounded fears of commitment and failure may linger for me, but I have learned a healthy way to deal with them. Of course, commitment all comes down to choice. I understand this and I am growing to trust my abilities to make the best choices. Now I even expect to fall in love again after I make final vows; I am not terrified by the possibility. Even so, I intend and expect to remain a faithful member of my community no matter what happens to my emotions throughout the rest of my life.
No big difference
“So, what’s going to change when you make your final vows? Are you going to move? Do you have to go find a new ministry?
This question most frequently comes from my colleagues. Occasionally I hear it from other people in the wider community, or in places where I volunteer. When I hear this question I feel flattered as it seems to have a tone of, “Please don’t leave us yet,” and is connected to their experiences of ministers only staying with them for short periods of time.
My response to this question is a combination of facts and humor. “My life will be the same as now. The only thing that will change is that it will become much more difficult for my sisters to kick me out of the community. They’ll have to go to the Vatican to get permission.”
It’s true of course. After final vows, my life will look pretty much the same as it does now. I’ll still be teaching at the same high school and living in the same place and with the same sisters. Any changes that I experience, such as in relationships in my community, will be subtle. The major thing that will change is obvious: I will no longer have to be doing the work of discerning and preparing for vows as I have been for the past nine years!
As the work of preparing for my final vows celebration continues and the completion of tasks remains “its own formative experience,” I anticipate that the questions shall continue to remain holy companions. My attention to a lot of holy and hard questions has helped me to arrive at this moment in my life journey, as they are often my teachers and connection to God.
In the meantime, I continue to get ready for my final vows. Many of the final details are falling into place. With each task completed my excitement increases, as I am eager and ecstatic to officially give my whole self over to God. No matter what happens after the party of my life, I trust that God will continue to gift me with the blessing of more great questions.
[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]