Ordinary lights

During a recent volunteer stint at the local drop-in center for people who are homeless, I overheard a conversation between two of the guests. A man gestured toward me and said, “Don’t talk like that here, especially with her around — she’s a nun.” I don’t know what they were talking about or what words they were using, but I noticed the woman he was talking to squirm in disbelief and embarrassment.

She turned to check me out, to see if he was telling the truth. I introduced myself and explained that yes, I am a sister, but that they shouldn’t worry or try to be any different around me. I asked her to be herself and said I would be myself too. I said that I am an ordinary person who just lives a different type of lifestyle. After commenting on my simple outfit of leggings and a sundress, she relaxed and said, “Yeah, you seem like an ordinary person.”

It shouldn’t feel like news that I actually am a fairly ordinary person, who enjoys ordinary things like beer and bike rides. I struggle with my prayer life, and my mind wanders during Mass. I have questions about my faith and am challenged by doubt. I love God and love serving God and neighbor. And, just like everyone else, I am a human whose growth is a work in progress.

Problems with pedestals

Becoming a sister has included many challenging adjustments. One aspect of religious life that I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable with, though, is other people’s expectations of me just because I am living my vocation. It never made sense to me that others would place in me in a different category just because I was doing what I was made to do. I am not more special than any other person who is living a life of commitment and love.

I have encountered this dynamic in a lot of different forms. I’ve heard other adults tell my students to respect me because I am a sister. When I can, I respond and say that I deserve the same respect as everyone else, not because I am a sister, but because I am a person. It feels flattering but odd when complete strangers give me warm hugs and tell me, “Thank you!” just because they are excited I am a sister. And although I don’t like it, it doesn’t surprise me anymore when people ask me to pray for them and insist that my prayers have more power because they believe I am closer to God. (Of course I am happy to pray for others, but I don’t believe that I am closer to God.)

I’ve been told that I am held to a higher standard because I am a sister. This belief is not particularly helpful to me. I am human and on a journey of growth just like everyone else. When I fall short or make mistakes, I want to be treated with the same compassion and kindness that every person deserves. I don’t believe anyone in any vocation needs additional pressure to be perfect. I am pretty sure I struggle with shame and guilt just as much as the next person. Additionally, if some people are held to a higher standard than others, then there is a danger of dismissing our mutual call to contribute. No matter who we are, all of us are called to be our best selves and “shine our lights before others.” (Mt 5: 16)

Universal call to holiness

The past few weeks of my life have been full of goodness and celebration. I made my final vows as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, followed a few weeks later by my 34th birthday. I was abundantly showered with cards and notes of support, love and congratulations. One of my favorite messages was a simple and profound statement from a close friend: “Thank you for being who God made you to be.” I loved it because it acknowledged my conviction and experience. Living a religious life is a life of blessing for me because it is the best way for me to offer my gifts to the world.

As stated in Lumen Gentium (a document of Vatican II) we are all called to holiness no matter our role in the church. This means that no matter what part we are playing, or which particular lifestyle is the best way for us to offer our gifts for the common good, all of us are made to shine as lights who glorify God through our being.

When I consider how our church could grow more fully into a community of love, I think of healthy ecosystems. God’s creation provides an expression of the mutuality and community that is needed in our church. In nature, the abundance of biodiversity ensures that no species is more important or powerful than another. No certain creature is in complete control. Rather, through the natural interplay between the species, there is a communion and exchange while each creature lives out the freedom to be who they were made to be. By being who they are meant to be and participating in interdependent relationships, each part of God’s creation glorifies God. Likewise, I believe that if we all participate and contribute what we can to the church, we will become a diverse community united for God’s glory.

Consecrated for a prophetic purpose

We are all called to manifest God’s glory — young and old, single and married, men and women religious. No matter if you are a parent or a priest, you are called to glorify God by your being, through your acts of love and service. So, if we all matter equally, what difference does it make whether there are some of us who are sisters, brothers, nuns or monks? What unique gifts are we permitted to contribute to the church through this role of offering ourselves as consecrated people?

According to Pope Francis, the point is being prophetic. As he wrote in his Apostolic Letter to All Consecrated Peoples for the start of this Year of Consecrated Life:

“[T]he distinctive sign of consecrated life is prophecy. . . . Prophets receive from God the ability to scrutinize the times in which they live and to interpret events: they are like sentinels who keep watch in the night and sense the coming of the dawn (cf. Is 21:11-12). Prophets know God and they know the men and women who are their brothers and sisters. They are able to discern and denounce the evil of sin and injustice. Because they are free, they are beholden to no one but God, and they have no interest other than God. Prophets tend to be on the side of the poor and the powerless, for they know that God himself is on their side.”

In the end, I am an ordinary woman who has been called to a unique lifestyle. We are all called to be holy and give all we can for God’s reign. I will continue, awkwardly, to still shine my light and be who God made me to be. I know, though, that I am only one light among many. It will take all of us, shining our ordinary lights mightily, to bring about the blaze of God’s glory here on Earth.

Let your light shine!

[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]

Check out Horizons, featuring reflections younger sisters.