What will I be when I grow up? It's a familiar question. As a happy and energetic farm girl in Iowa, I frequently imagined what my life would look like as an adult.
While I helped my mother with chores or ran around exploring the woods and the farm buildings, I dreamed about how I might run a household if I ever were a mother some day. I looked forward to when I would be able to do adult things and make my own choices. I saw myself acting a lot like my own mother and grandmother: gardening, cooking and baking in a big farmhouse and offering care to a lot of happy and playful children.
I also dreamed about being a teacher, a writer or maybe a missionary in another country. I did have a vague idea that I might like to be a Catholic sister, based largely on my love of films like “The Sound of Music” and “Sister Act,” but my childhood dreaming never included the picture of me actually being a nun.
What remained a constant in my childhood thoughts about being an adult, however, was an experience of relating to a large, loving family. This makes sense. I never knew any Catholic sisters as a child, but with over 20 cousins and many aunts and uncles living nearby, what I did know was a large, loving family.
Later, as I grew into early adulthood and started to discern God’s will for my life, I quickly noticed that I couldn’t shake my strong curiosity about Catholic sisters.
During my college years, as I grew to better understand the wider world and my place within it, I was able to articulate my deepest desires and dreams. I wanted to live a Gospel life that was centered on service, simplicity, community and prayer. I wanted to give my whole self to God, and being a sister was a way that I could do that.
While I grew to admit my attraction to religious life, I wondered if God was inviting me to give up my dreams from my childhood. What about that farmhouse full of friends and family?
As I started the process of trying to find a community of sisters that would be a good match for me, the experience of the search for the right congregation initially felt much like the college search I had completed a couple years prior. The experience of reading pamphlets, talking on the phone to recruiters and making visits felt familiar, yet very confusing.
My search began to take a different shape, however, when things became more relational. I got to know wise women who reminded me of my aunts. I looked into faces that looked like my grandma's. I didn’t want to reject or hurt them when I sensed that a certain community wasn’t the right fit. Truly, the deeper I got into it, the more discernment felt like dating. I had to pay attention to what felt attractive and comfortable. I’d track what caused me to feel joy and peace. Did we like each other? Did we fit? Was there a spark between us? Was this a community I could imagine spending the rest of my life with?
I was searching for a group of women who helped me to feel spiritually at home. I wanted to see them living prayerful, fun, meaningful and modern lives together, focused on social justice and serving the poor. I hoped to find a group of women who would help me grow into the best version of myself and let me experience health, holiness and happiness. I desired a healthy family life.
Most of the communities I visited had few members close to my age. I was not naïve about the shifts that were occurring in religious life. During my search it became important for me to belong to a community that had other young members whom I could have a future with. I wanted a lasting family group.
My dreams from childhood remained active and alive as I found my way into my community, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration (FSPA). I have been with my community for over eight years and am presently discerning whether to ask to make final vows next summer in order to stay in this family, forever.
As I presently discern perpetual commitment, I continue to dream about the future just like I did when I was a little girl. Compared to when I was searching for a community in college, I now have a fuller picture of what I am really getting myself into: family dynamics. When I am honest, I can see that in my FSPA family I have a lot of grandmother and great-grandmother figures and just a handful of peers. Intergenerational communal living is nothing new for religious life, but the current imbalance among demographics might be.
With this FSPA family, I understand that I am more likely to attend funerals for sisters I love than entrance ceremonies for other new members. While many of my sisters are overwhelmed by the realities of aging and suffering, I get frustrated that my schedule and obligations prevent me from being as present to them as I’d like. During this stage of my life, when I am appropriately busy and excited about growing as a professional and minister, some of my dearest friends in community are busy going to doctor’s appointments and dealing with end-of-life questions.
The familiar adage “you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family” has new meaning for me now. It is God who put us FSPA together, and being sisters is deeper and more lasting than being friends. It’s also much more complicated, difficult, intense and messy, just like Gospel living can be.
I still get to be an adult and make my own choices. Gardening and cooking and baking are all covered. And I am a part of a large, loving family – just one with more 90-year-olds than 9-year-olds.
In a way, it’s a strange family that God put me in, but I am deeply grateful for it and at home in it. Even with the generation gaps, this family continues to enrich me, give me joy and peace and amazingly, help me to feel hopeful and excited about the mysterious future.
We’re uncertain in what new ways we might organize, elect leadership, manage properties and serve. We aren’t sure how we will deal with changing demographics, part of our unique family dynamics.
We work to keep God the head of the family, though, because we believe that God is worth trusting. After all, it’s God who called us together in the first place, who made us sisters, who made us family.
[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]