A little over a week from now, I will make my final vows as a Sister of St. Joseph. With nearly a decade of formal formation behind me and many more years of informal discernment, it's hard to believe that I've come to this point in my journey as a religious sister. Yet, through joys and sufferings, laughter and tears, I now find myself on the cusp of final commitment.
This past year has been one of intensive discernment of what it means to say yes to forever. My tertianship, the designation my congregation gives to the year before perpetual profession, has been one of remembering why I came to this life, refining my relationship with Jesus, and reconciling the imperfections of religious life with the deepest desires of my heart. Truly, the year has been a blessed moment of discernment.
Looking back, I see pathways that were forged in trust and companions who have inspired hope, offered wisdom and borne witness, time and again. Looking forward, I see a hopeful horizon and a promise of change that will actively engage every angle of my faith. And for all this looking back and forward, I find myself solidly planted in the present, ready to commit and consumed by the core truths of the religious life I am called to live.
In one of my first columns for Global Sisters Report, "Considering Commitment," I wrote, "When I return to the question of why — why I would choose to make a vowed commitment now — my heart cries out: Love! That is what I am committing myself to." Now, more than five years later, I know this sentiment to be all the more true. There are things I know now about what that Love demands that I couldn't have possibly known as a novice considering first vows, and I imagine, in time, my understanding and experience will only deepen more.
Love, it turns out, is a messy thing. It is holding those who mourn as they weep; it is naming hard truths for your own liberation and that of others. It is trusting the One who calls you, even when the path isn't clear and consolation doesn't come easily. Love is showing up, shutting up, and stepping up. Love is a God who knows me better than I know myself, who loves me more than I can comprehend, and who calls me to the truest version of my being. Love is a commitment, and as much as I am committed to Love, I've also come to know and believe that Love is committed to me.
Living forever in union with that Love is part of what drew me to religious life in the first place. Recently at the final vow celebration of a dear friend and fellow sister, I got into a conversation with a peer. "I can't live any other way." She said to me as we talked. "My love is too large." It's a love of God that is beyond and within all other relationships, that is part and parcel of this forever commitment. Neither of us denied that we had and could still fall in love with an individual. "That's only human," we agreed, "but our vows … our commitment is to live out a love, that's larger."
The love we are called to is all inclusive and without distinction. It finds God in every neighbor; it longs for unity and bears all things for the sake of the Gospel truth. In theory, there's a beautiful aura around such love. When I first entered religious life, I imagined at its core this perfect love was what I would come to live out and which would, in turn, perfect me. I soon realized that reality is far from ideal.
The love I live out is, in fact, perfectly imperfect, just as my (and every other) religious congregation is. Recognizing and reconciling this fact comes only with time and commitment. Rather than the perfect love of perfect people bringing about perfection, it is instead the imperfect love of people trying their best that draws forth a more perfect union within us with God and one another. To this end, to say forever is to commit to a community, foibles and all, and to recognize that we are a part of the imperfection that we often rub up against. We are all human, and when we can embrace that fact, love can flourish.
Laying claim to our commitment and those we commit to is core to this step on the journey. I claim this congregation. I claim this vocation. I claim my faith and I proclaim God's claim on me. For all the steps ahead, I claim what is core to my being — Love through and through.
Each step I take now is one of trust. I trust in a God who loves me unmistakably and unreservedly. I trust in Jesus Christ and pray each day to imitate his compassion and to give my life to the Good News of the Gospel he proclaimed. I trust in the Spirit, whose promptings I hope always to be attentive to and who has guided me by grace thus far. I trust that God is working in and through the congregation I am committing to to create union in the world by the very grace and gift of our humanity and imperfection.
As I walk in trust, my sole desire has become union with God and a life dedicated to love of neighbor lived out in chastity, poverty and obedience. This desire has called me this far, and I pray that it may be the desire of my life as I live this vowed religious life each day, for now and for forever.
[A Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, Colleen Gibson is the author of the blog Wandering in Wonder and has been published work in various periodicals including America, Commonweal and Give Us This Day. She currently serves as coordinator of services at the SSJ Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey.]