When 19-year-old Courtney told her family that she had been called to religious life, they were, in her words, “not the happiest”.
“They think I’m throwing out my potential for a really successful career,” she tells the Catholic Herald.
It’s a big undertaking, particularly for a young woman in the 21st century. In addition to her vow of poverty, Courtney (not her real name), who is from New York State, will have to part ways with all mod cons in order fully to immerse herself in religious life.
“As well as my family, I will most miss being able to be in contact with my friends in an instant,” she says. But “as religious sisters, we are called to live in the world but not of it. This means we separate ourselves from all worldly goods and modern things.”
She won’t be cut off from her family entirely: “We will be able to write letters and I have one home visit a year – but absolutely no phones! We need to be separated from the world a bit, so we can focus intensely on our relationship with God.”
Courtney reached her conclusion after a 24-hour retreat with the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’s not the only one. Sister Joseph Andrew, vocations director, estimates that the retreats help foster about 30 vocations a year.
“Some girls have to wait because they aren’t mature enough. Some are ready to enter, but at 17 they aren’t old enough. Others want to complete their education or work as a professional for a short amount of time. Sadly, some girls have been wounded by life and need some therapy before they can enter a total commitment. It doesn’t have anything to do with age.”
The convent is home to 150 nuns, with an average age of “about 32”. The 24-hour retreats, which run three times a year in a school associated with the Sisters, welcome girls from the age of 16, up to their early thirties.
The agenda is straightforward. The girls – approximately 160 at each retreat – fly in from all around the world. The retreat begins on Saturday with a conference on spiritual life. They are encouraged to discuss and reflect, with lectures, “fun competitions” and one-on-one guidance (“only if they want”) from Sister Joseph Andrew, who set up the retreats 23 years ago.
The retreats “are not just for girls who believe they have a religious vocation”, she says. They are “for any young woman seeking to know God’s will for her in regards to her life. Whether it is to marriage, or to the life of consecrated virginity or religious life, I want to help them find their God-given vocations.”
The night is dedicated to Eucharistic Adoration: it is here “that the young women begin to calm themselves enough to hear and accept God’s tug on their hearts”. In the morning there is Mass – “always a treat” – and prayer. “They are given Domino’s pizza before they leave which they love!”
The word both Sister Joseph Andrew and Courtney keep using is “joy”.
“I fell in love with the Sisters, with their personalities and the pure joy they have,” says Courtney.
Sister Joseph Andrew adds: “To help young girls find their place in the world is to find authentic joy in a troubled world. It’s a joy that doesn’t feel shy about exuding itself. I want that interior freedom, that joy, that interior completion. That is what makes our hearts full.”