Nun love

by Hannah Vanorny


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"Wow, he's hot!" I exclaimed recently as I gazed at a good-looking guy in a television commercial.

The young woman standing next to me looked at me in shock.

"You can't like guys, you're a nun!" she said indignantly.

My immediate reaction was: "Yes, I can!" I proceeded to explain to her that a woman does not shut off her sex drive when she joins a monastery or convent, even if that might make life a bit easier.

Yes, I am a religious sister, and I like men. I nearly got engaged to a kind, handsome guy I met in graduate school. We started dating, and he eventually asked me to marry him. His proposal threw me into a discernment quandary. Did I really want to get married and become a wife? Or did I want to pursue that call I had been feeling for several years to do something unconventional with my life, something different from the marriage-and-children path most of my friends were taking?

On the one hand, I could see myself as a mother of a busy, happy family. That picture definitely held appeal. On the other hand, I could also see myself as a sister, free to help those in need and make a difference in the world. I agonized and prayed hard over the decision, making my poor boyfriend wait out my discernment process.

Some sisters say they never felt a call to get married; they never saw themselves as wives or mothers. Not me! I grew up with four great siblings and two parents who were happily in love. I loved kids (still do) and baby-sat a lot when I was younger. Getting married eventually and raising some of my own kids one day seemed like a natural thing to want.

Growing up, I enjoyed romantic movies, especially ones starring Julia Roberts. One of my all-time favorites was "Notting Hill," starring Roberts and Hugh Grant. I am embarrassed to recall how many times I watched the DVD as a teenager. I thought Hugh Grant was very good-looking and sexy even though he was a bit older than my other major crush at the time, Leonardo DiCaprio.

I loved DiCaprio's three-hour-long "Titanic" so much that I sat through it three times in the old theater in my hometown. I grew numb after two hours in those uncomfortable seats, and after the third hour, I was in some serious pain. But I did not care if I could barely walk afterward — I was 17 and in love with Leo.

One line in "Notting Hill" always got to me. Roberts' character, a famous movie star named Anna, admits she still loves Grant's character, Will. She apologizes and asks to renew their relationship. She then looks right at Will with great vulnerability and utters that famous line: "I'm also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her."

Something about those words tore at my heartstrings every time I heard them. Anna had, earlier in the movie, yelled at Will, accused him of untrue things, and stormed out. Now, she is back asking for love and forgiveness, which he eventually gives to her. I have not seen the movie for some time, but just thinking about that scene still makes me feel all warm inside. I wanted that kind of love with my future spouse, the kind where we could fight and argue, yet always make up in the end because of our deep, never-ending love for one another.

As a younger religious sister, people ask how I can stand living a celibate life without the joys of marriage or kids. I have been accused of wasting my life or squandering my God-given maternal instincts.

Many young women want to find a good man and have children to love and care for. I can understand that. As humans, we yearn to make real and deep connections with others. We want to have people in our lives who love us unconditionally and who care about the events in our everyday lives. I do not think there is anything sadder than to have something wonderful happen and have no one to share the happy news with. We want someone to care. We want what television character Cristina Yang said to her best friend, Meredith Grey, on "Grey's Anatomy": "You are my person. You will always be my person."

I think most of us have a basic fear of being lonely, and we deal with it by trying to find our "person." We marry, have kids and try to develop those close and loving relationships, which may or may not ultimately end up making us happy.

Recently, I was struck by a line in The Abbey: A Story of Discovery by Jesuit Fr. James Martin. In the story, the abbot of a monastery laments how, as a monk, he will never get to have an exclusive relationship with just one person, will never be the most important person in anyone else's life. As a Benedictine sister, I was unexpectedly moved and saddened by that line. The abbot was right. I could have God as the center of my life in the monastery, of course, but I could never have that one person who would be my other half.

As I was discerning to become a sister, I grappled with these issues. First, my own sexuality. How could I live as a religious sister and still keep being attracted to guys? Second, would loving God be enough to satisfy my need for deep relationships? Could God really be my "person"?

After saying no to my potential fiancé in graduate school, I started my official religious formation at age 26. I am not sure I really understood at the time how becoming a sister would affect my sexual being. As I talked about these issues with other sisters and delved into them during my years in formation, I became more and more comfortable with my role as a young woman who also happened to be a celibate religious sister. I took my cue from sisters who freely admired men in movies or on the street. They had no problem revealing when they thought a guy was good-looking, but they were also committed religious women who knew that a physical attraction to a man would not go any further than looking. I have discovered that sisters often have wonderful relationships with male friends because there is no worry or expectation about anything sexual happening between them.

My worries that I would have no one to be vulnerable with or that I would not have a "person" disappeared as I matured into a religious sister. I think one of the great secrets of religious life is the way that it reveals how wide-reaching a person's love can be. I may not have a spouse who cannot live without me, but I do have a community of sisters who love me no matter what happens. As sisters, we are not limited to just loving our families and our communities; we are free to spread our love to all.

I have found that love has no boundaries or limits. Just as a mother loves a new baby without losing any love for her other children, sisters can and should have endless love for others with no strings attached. My community spreads its love by treating, as St. Benedict says, all people as Christ, no matter who they are. We seek out ways to spread our love, especially to those who need it most through the college and hospitals we sponsor and our work with those who are living in poverty, imprisoned, orphaned, and other marginalized peoples.

God did turn out to be my "person." Nowadays, I am still in love with Leonardo DiCaprio, but I no longer want to marry him and have his children. I am not called to be a wife or mother, but a religious sister. I am called to share my heart full of love with the whole world.

[Hannah Vanorny is a Benedictine sister at Annunciation Monastery in Bismarck, North Dakota. She joined her community in 2006 and made her final monastic profession in 2013. After serving as the assistant director of Campus Ministry at the University of Mary in Bismarck, she is currently the vocation director of her community, where she has the privilege of working with many women, young and old, as they grapple with God's call in their lives.]