Getting intimate with a Millennial, young adult sister

I’ve been thinking a lot about intimacy lately. 

Yes, of course sexual intimacy enters the realm of my desires and thoughts – I’m a 28-year-old woman. But I mean intimacy in the way that our culture often misses. We discussed this at a January workshop for novices by Lynn Levo, CSJ, about celibacy and sexuality. To someone only slightly familiar with the religious life, the theme of the workshop might seem comical.  Celibate means no sex, right?

Lynn speaks of sexuality as the human energy for connectivity and generativity. Sexuality is in a sense the human search for wholeness and finds expression through intimacy. Genital sex is one expression of that innate desire for giving and receiving love and life, but of course it is just a small part of sexuality in general. As a celibate woman, my desire for deep connection and life-giving creativity does not turn off. I must pay attention to and nurture this sexuality. To be a healthy person, I must have intimacy in my life.

I am exploring what this means for me right now, a Millennial and a young adult sister.

Toward the end of our canonical novitiate, we read an excellent book called In the Service of Life: Widening and Deepening Religious Commitment by Elaine Prevalet, SL. It’s an innovative exploration of the vows in the context of our current reality, especially the reality of Earth. Her vision of the vows is relevant and revolutionary. I underlined phrase after phrase, thinking, “Yes!” After reading, we gathered with a small group of sisters from our congregation who agreed to reflect with us.   

As we talked about poverty and obedience, I found the conversation to be rich and stimulating. I felt grateful for the call that led me to share this life-form with such thoughtful and radically caring women. When we moved into discussion of the chapter on celibacy, I clamped up. Each woman in the circle began to share a bit of her honest and lovely journey with that particular vow. In the surprising way it can, tension bubbled up in my stomach and resistance flowed in the form of heat in my cheeks. I felt myself inside saying, “Blah, blah, blah,” to the concepts about celibacy that had thrilled me as I read. Where is this coming from?  I asked myself. 

I think that the conversation was highlighting to me something I’ve felt often throughout the year: loneliness. For the most part, the women in the circle, aged about 50 to about 80, were looking back on their major struggles with the vow of celibacy. Of course no one admitted to having reached a full understanding of the vow or perfect ease in living it. But in my late 20s, I’m in the thick of it! Friends are marrying, having children and dating. Hormones are doing what hormones do. As many people in their 20s, I am wrestling with the question, “Who am I, and what am I to do with my life?” 

Around our Motherhouse on most days, there are no other 20-somethings in sight.

I had a bit of a romanticized idea of what the canonical year might be like for me. Every Friday would be Sabbath Day, a time to pray and process. I hoped for peaceful walks with God, joyful prayer experiences, and deep spiritual insights. Picture the opening of “The Sound of Music.” I could just see myself doing the Julie Andrews spin through the hills of Cincinnati. Sometimes I felt like that, but often, I felt a bit lonely on this often very internal journey with my seeking young adult self. I have very intimate, loving relationships with many of my sisters, but the age difference makes true understanding a bit more difficult.

I know God has used the loneliness I’ve felt for good. Noticing the growing ache inside was the springboard to intentionally look at my experience of intimacy. Sr. Lynn said that we could change the word intimacy to “in-to-me-see.” Who is really seeing into me? Into whom am I really seeing? Where do I have real, authentic, loving connection and sharing? What does intimacy mean for Millennial and young sister? 

I have grown up in an age where I see sitcom and movie characters jumping in bed after the first date and in which teen magazines publish stories like “The 10 Best Sex Moves to Please Your Man.” I have grown up in an age in which our computers and cell phones are an extension of ourselves. I have grown up in an age in which the whole world has been magically opened to me by technology and travel. I have experienced romantic intimacy through several serious relationships prior to entering religious life. Some parts of all this have been wondrous gift, and some parts contribute to my baggage.

As I reflected, I realized that I have cultivated many intimate relationships in my life, but the people with whom I have intimate relationships are scattered throughout the country and world. I met dear friends working during high school, and then at the University of Dayton for four years, and then as a volunteer in Ecuador for two years, and then discerning the religious life with the Sisters of Charity in El Paso for three years. I am grateful for each of these relationships and the experiences that made them happen, but it is difficult that most of them are now long-distance. I feel disjointed, like there are little pieces of me spread out all over the place. Sr. Elaine  even acknowledges this in her book – in an age of mobility that has brought us so many gifts, could a downside be rootlessness?

In this information age, it is gift to be able to stay connected through the miles with various forms of technology. I have to admit that I also find it can be draining. When the times face-to-face interactions (literally, NOT the iPhone feature FaceTime) are so few, it becomes extra effort to continue cultivating intimacy. Social media has broadened the spectrum of who we keep in touch with – or simply what we know is going on in people's lives from a distance. I imagine that school reunions used to be about catching up with old classmates. These days, chances are that even if we haven’t seen or talked to someone in a few years, we already know that they got married and maybe have even seen pictures of their baby. Our spectrum is wide, but is it deep?

And how does being a young sister play into my experience of intimacy? In some ways, it affords me a freedom to relate with and enter into the lives of many people. In some ways, it can be an inhibitor to being understood and understanding. With peers, there is a natural connection and bond that comes from shared experiences of growing up together in this time, but the vast difference in our life commitments makes true understanding more difficult.

As I talked with my housemate Sr. Terry about this blog, she listened and nodded.

“You know, when you’re not sure whose you are, you come to really know that you are God’s.”

This search for human intimacy will never be totally fulfilling. Our sexuality keeps us longing for that Divine experience of love that can only come from God, whether we are celibate or not. As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O God.”

I know, I know. I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.

[S. Tracy Kemme is a novice with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati.  Author of the blog, Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She has a background in Hispanic ministry, having served both in Ecuador and at the U.S.-Mexico border prior to novitiate.]