God has been pestering me lately.
My heart feels restless, agitated, shaken up. Perhaps it is appropriate in this season of Pentecost. Maybe the Spirit is blasting, once again, into the locked upper rooms of my heart, rocking me out of complacency and into the urgency of mission. I don't know what God is churning up through this lovingly persistent prodding, but I sense that I must pay attention.
This inner agitation started at an April gathering with my peers in the Sisters of Charity Federation, a group we call the Future of Charity. Heading into the weekend, I felt mostly steady and joyful, despite the busyness of life. I knew I needed to work on balance, but who doesn't?
Then, through our time together, the Spirit seemed to swoop in, catching me off-guard, quaking in me and urging me to something more.
As we prayed and talked about our experiences and dreams as younger, newer women religious, I felt a fire inside me reignite. Over the last months, I'd been pulled in so many directions that I'd be become something of a robot, going through motions and checking off lists just to make sure everything got done. I didn't even realize it before this Future of Charity weekend, but my passion had apparently dwindled to a weak flicker. Now, gathered with the women who share a similar experience and vision of religious life, entering at this time in history, flames sprung up in my soul again and jolted me awake. My sisters reminded me of what I know deeply but sometimes forget, because religious life can often go on with business as usual.
One of the questions that arose and stopped me in my tracks was this: What can we do because we're women religious that others can't do?
What could I be doing because I am a woman religious? What unique contribution does our lifestyle make possible? Am I using my time and energy on that which is most needed at this time in our world? Does my presence in the world say what I wish it to say? I believe in the goodness and rightness of my ministries, but sometimes the pace makes me feel like part of the rat race to which we women religious strive to offer an alternative.
Coming away from the weekend, I knew that my life had been disturbed. I carried a bubbling discomfort over the next few weeks, aware of it but with no time to delve deeper. All of it annoyed me to a certain extent. I couldn't believe that God would push me into a moment of intense questioning when I had just made vows, less than a year ago.
"Can't you just let me be, God?! Even for a little bit?" part of me cried out. "I thought I was done with this discernment stuff for a while!"
At the same time, I was grateful for this mysterious new movement. It felt good to sense urgency pulsing through my bloodstream again. It was similar to the energy I felt impelling me in my early discernment of religious life, but it was deeper now, infused with the profundity of my vowed commitment. The adventurous voice inside me seemed to say, "Yes! Remember, Tracy? This is why you came to religious life! You were made to be agitated, to be prodded, to be urged forward by Christ!"
This urging almost felt electrifying, like a cold shower on a sweltering day — the first splash might be unpleasant, but if you allow yourself to stay in the cascade, it will refresh you and remind you just how alive you are.
The first weekend of May, I traveled to St. Louis for a training with a group of Giving Voice sisters, women religious under age 50 from congregations across the United States. Being among them, like being with the Future of Charity, is always a time when my soul lets out a long sigh of relief.
As they often do when we're together, our conversations turned to our sense of the unfolding of religious life. I quickly found that the agitation surfacing in me was also simmering in my sisters. Many of these women are feeling powerfully drawn to a religious life that is somehow more radical and perhaps unconventional. And many of them have found themselves held back, in some ways, from pursuing the call that beckons them.
Many of my sisters feel drained by the countless demands of religious life. One sister offered that she feels challenged to live a "super woman" religious life. We are in full-time ministry, and we live in intentional community, which is of utmost importance to us, and, I think, to the world. And then, because we are part of a very small number of young sisters, we are invited to be part of numerous other ventures. We serve on committees in our congregations and in the community. We are asked to give vocation talks and presentations that aren't part of our full-time ministry. We are invited to write. We try to reach out and be present to young adults who are discerning their call in life. Our email inboxes are incessantly filling up. People hope that we will serve on boards. Somewhere in there, we need to nurture our relationships with family and friends. And, of course, we are called to draw from the well of a life of prayer and contemplation and taking care of ourselves.
The question of balance is present in every life, and it seems age-old in religious life. But I think that women religious entering at this time are confronted with the dilemma in new ways. Sometimes it feels like we are expected to be all of the places our sisters were when there were hundreds in active ministry! In the midst of it all, we must find the freedom to live the mission how God calls us to live it now.
One sister shared that she is seeking a new ministry, something truly on the margins. The positions most attractive to her and most in line with her congregation's mission, however, don't pay much, and so she has been dissuaded from them. In fact, this seemed common among my sisters as they shared. In conversations with their congregational leaders about ministry, one of the first things mentioned and most strongly emphasized is salary and benefits. Many of the congregations have some sort of fund or grants to subsidize sisters in unpaid or low-paying ministries, but turning to those seems to be discouraged. Sisters said they felt guilty asking for or accepting such a subsidy, and in some cases they even felt that they were expected to "earn their keep" first. When sisters want to explore a new kind of ministry that doesn't take the shape of a typical full-time ministry, they feel that some people assume them to be "lazy."
Other sisters shared that in many instances, it is difficult to make our voices heard as young women religious. Congregations claim to value the thoughts and visions of their newer members, but when it comes down to big decision making, our minority voice can be drowned out.
The agitation I've felt in my personal discernment seems to be an agitation that is being felt deeply by younger women religious across congregations. It feels like we are being roused to reclaim the power of mission! It is good to check ourselves from time to time.
Are we living the religious life we are called to live?
Are we putting energy into the right questions?
As individuals and communities, are we who we say we are?
Do we, like our earliest founding sisters, think of nothing before the mission of Jesus Christ?
I can't be sure what is stirring up in me or in religious life, but I there's no better time to be stirred than during Pentecost. Just like the disciples in the upper room, Jesus is breathing on us. His Spirit is empowering us.
Let us open ourselves wide, individually and collectively,
to powerful Divine Pestering that ushers us ever forward.
Let us jump into a cold shower of Holy Spirit that jolts us awake,
have conversations that fan our flickering flames into roaring fires,
feel the joy of urgency for the Gospel pulsing through our veins,
remember the passion that drew us here in the first place,
and live lives that make us credible witnesses of the radical, boundless, transformative love of God.
Come, Holy Spirit.
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as the Latino Ministry Coordinator at a local parish.]
Editor's note: This story was updated May 24, 2016.
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