Surrender Dorothy! I keep the image of these words, writ large across the sky from the "Wizard of Oz," when I feel myself resisting a stirring in my being to move deeper into my quest for union with the Divine. It's my mantra to let go.
My journey to vowed religious life is not a unique story among sisters who joined later in life. Religious life was not the path I expected for myself. My life was comfortable as far as creature comforts were concerned. I had a solid group of friends and family. I was out and about the social scene.
Yet, as many sisters will tell you, something was missing. Eventually, I took the step to investigate religious congregations. (Only investigate, not make a commitment!) After contacting the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the Woods, I was hooked, or in love, with all that I experienced in the discernment process prior to entrance.
Sister Nancy, who companioned me during that year, answered my deep questions about the vows.
Poverty: I recall asking, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, if I could still have a cappuccino now and then. Of course you can. Each sister is allotted discretionary money for her personal needs. Not to worry.
Chastity: Could I still visit with my friends — even male friends? Yes. Chastity is about our relationship with God in order to embrace our mission to honor Divine Providence through works of love, mercy and justice with a greater focus and intention.
Obedience (shudder): I didn't even know quite what to ask about that one. All I could think about was taking orders from superiors. There is always consultation and discernment with leadership because the vow of obedience is listening to the movement of the Spirit within each sister. I loved that explanation. So that was it. I could do that! I could not understand at that time what a gift the vows are in religious life.
At some level, I assumed that I might tweak myself here and there and all would be well. The vows were reasonable. I would follow them, as I understood them at that time. But I wanted to know what I could still hang on to so as not to lose my identity.
What I didn't realize at that time was that by accepting a call within myself to embark on the Providence journey, I was bound to let go of those aspects of my life that didn't resonate with the life of a woman religious.
In initial formation years, the interpretation of the vows is presented as embracing the grace that is inherent in acceptance of the vowed life. The vows are the essence of religious life because they provide the framework.
Our response to the rigors of the vows provides the basis for our individual and communal relationships to God, our sisters, associates, the global community and all creation. Love, mercy and justice become incarnate through our openness to let go of thoughts and actions that prevent the flow of grace in our being. The vows give us the tools to create a liberated life in union with Divine Love.
Poverty gave me the strength to let go of harmful opinions and to live simply. Chastity gave me the space to embrace a ministry with a greater focus and intention. Obedience moved me to bring the presence of Divine Providence into my consciousness. And to act on that through serious discernment. It wasn't about tweaking; it's about transformation. I had to surrender to the choice I had made in my daily prayer. Daily!
I have to surrender to the reality that I don't always consider the consequences of my ideas, let alone ask all the questions needed to arrive at a solid decision. I have to surrender that my preconceived opinions and ideas might not hold all with wisdom I needed to discern well. I am challenged by others to be open to other considerations for the greater good.
After seven to nine years, we take perpetual vows — not final vows. The deepening of our unfolding lasts a lifetime. We don't reach the summit and shout, I made it! I'm here. Simply put, there is no summit.
Rather, we are in perpetual transformation. Always growing, expanding our consciousness as does the universe. There is both an intimacy and mystery to our relationship to the Divine. Mysteries that engage our imaginations, and understandings that clarify the depth of the mystery that is God.
Living the vows is more difficult some days than others, yet I know deep in my being that surrendering to the rigors of the vows affords me great freedom to move with Divine Providence. It is about allowing the grace that is present to be incarnated in our being so that it can be a witness to the great love that is God.
So my daily prayer is: Surrender Sue!
[Sue Paweski has been a Sister of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods for 20 years. Currently, she is leaving her position as a fine arts teacher in elementary education to assume the position of co-director of her community's associate program.]