From Prom Queen to Cloistered Nun
I believe my vocation story began during a snowstorm. I was happily stranded at our small Catholic grade school in the country and was thrilled to get to spend the night with the sisters in the convent. Unfortunately, a distant relative came and “rescued” me. This is my earliest memory of desiring to be a “bride of Christ”.
I was not a pious child or one of the smarter students. I was just a simple little girl. And unfortunately as time passed I conveniently forgot about my attraction to religious life. But before I get too far into this story I should introduce myself. I was born in August 1972 and when baptized given the name Teresa Ann. When I became a novice I received the name Sr. John Mary of the Indwelling Trinity and I am blessed to be a Passionist Nun in Whitesville, Kentucky.
A Life of Worldliness
When I was in 7th grade I transferred to a public school. Soon God and family were last on my list of priorities. I found new friends who like to party and just have “fun”. This too became my life goal, to find fulfillment in pleasure, parties, guys, and sports and to be a “Julia Roberts look-alike”. Thinking I had found my “true love” I entered into a very unhealthy dating relationship. This relationship would consume my life for nearly three years. I had many friends and during my senior year I was voted both Football Homecoming Queen and Prom Queen. I was having all this “fun”; yet, peace and fulfillment seemed to elude me.
Where was God in all this? Well, I was raised in a good Catholic home where we frequented the Sacraments and sometimes prayed the Rosary together several nights a week. Honestly, I was just going through the motions to keep peace until one night when this began to change: Ash Wednesday, 1990. I was a senior in high school and beginning to realize that the dating relationship I was in was not good for either of us. My parents had tried without success to end this relationship, begging even with tears but but he and I would always begin dating again. Anyway, my family and I went to Mass and purely by the grace of God I cried out to Jesus and asked Him to help me. That very evening when my boyfriend came over I broke off our relationship. It was one of the most difficult things I had ever done. Yet it was a most liberating experience at the same time. I was free!!! Yet, little did I know how enslaved I was to my passions.
A Life in Christ
I began to get back into the party scene and all that goes with it. Plus some friends and I bought a ouija board and spent many hours playing this evil game. We did not really realize with whom we were in contact. It truly was the devil trying to steal us further away from Christ. At the same time, a friend of mine who was serving with The National Evangelization Teams (NET) began to write and share with me about God’s tender love and mercy. Also, he shared that God had a plan for my life. At first, I didn’t really listen. But when he returned home and continued to share with me about God and the Catholic Church my heart began to melt. By the time I started attending the University of Southern Indiana I was attending charismatic prayer meetings with him one night and a big party on campus the next. I wanted both worlds. But I soon began to be disillusioned about the whole party scene and began to feel some remorse for my sinful lifestyle.
With this friend I visited the Franciscan University of Steubenville. What an eye-opening experience I had that weekend…a campus of young adults on fire with the love of Jesus Christ and His Church! I began to realize that I could break out of the bondage of my lifestyle. That it was possible to have a good time and honor God. I knew I had to make a choice between a self-centered life and a God-centered life and I sensed that the choice I made at this time would profoundly alter the rest of my life. About a month after this experience I went on a pilgrimage to EWTN and Caritas of Birmingham, AL. During this weekend I had one powerful experience after another of His love and mercy for me. I began to hunger for Him. This weekend solidified what had begun to happen at Steubenville. When I returned home I was ready to turn away from sin and embrace the life of the Church. This was not an easy choice and boy, did I need to make a really good confession! My wardrobe had to change, my music, speech, social life, everything! Soon I began to attend Mass during the week and pray the rosary voluntarily.
Needless to say, my conversion to a Christian lifestyle left my friends very bewildered. Once when I met one of my “good ‘ole friends” a couple years later he looked on me with such disgust, as if he could hardly refrain from spitting in my face! It was difficult at times and I spent many a lonely Friday and Saturday night at home in my room. Yet, at the same time I was grateful for the Lord’s mercy and for drawing me into a personal friendship with Him.
Since I have entered the monastery some of my friends from high school have made efforts to keep in touch, even attending the Mass of my Perpetual Profession of Vows. I pray that one day soon they will come to understand why, during college, I centered my life in Christ, and soon afterward, followed his call to the monastery. Because if they understand this that means they too will have come to KNOW Jesus and His radical-personal love for them!
But I am getting ahead of my story…What about becoming a Religious Sister? I had not thought about that since grade school! If it were not for His mercy and the prayers of my parents I would have lost this precious pearl and perhaps even the gift of eternal salvation. Although I was in a dating relationship I was also open to embracing the vocation of religious life. After being at Mass with the Poor Clare Nuns at EWTN, my childhood desire to be a Religious began to be re-enkindled.
I took two years off from college to serve with NET Ministries. What graced years and what a good preparation for monastic life! The NET staff encouraged us to be open to God’s call in our lives. I felt very drawn to both the vocation of marriage and to religious life. At this time we visited a Carmelite Monastery in North Dakota. I didn’t want to leave. Yet, I thought to myself: “I could never live this life!” I thought it would be too hard for me. After NET I returned home and resumed my studies at USI. Although I received good grades my heart was not at peace. I just wanted to be with Jesus, to study Jesus, to be His companion, to help Him save souls. Yet, I desired to get married as well.
What a quandary! I was hoping “Mr. Perfect Catholic Gentleman” would come along and sweep me off my feet. Yet, after each date I felt more and more dissatisfied.
Another friend of mine from NET was discerning a religious vocation with the Passionist Nuns and receiving excellent spiritual direction. So I asked if I, although I was not going to become a Passionist Nun, could receive direction from one of the Sisters. I was not to be disappointed. This spiritual direction aided my prayer life and Sister urged me to ask the Lord what vocation He had in store for me and to pray until I knew what it was.
A Life in Upheaval
By January of 1995 I had been struggling for months with attending college. I dreaded my classes. I had a constant head cold. I cannot explain the lack of peace I felt. When I was sitting in class I felt I was just wasting time. I had no desire for a career. Yet, what would my parents, relatives and friends think if I did not finish? Would they think I was a failure, that I could not “tough it out”? Yet, I had been trying to tough it out for the past four months and the lack of peace had only increased. Was I going to school because it was God’s will or because it was a societal expectation? What would I do if I did not go to school? I felt as if there was no place for me in this world.
I spent much time before the Blessed Sacrament, seeking to have a spirit of trust and confidence in His guidance. How could I best love Him and bring many others to love Him as well? The following proverb became my constant prayer: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3: 5,6)
Then I did it! I quit school. What peace flooded into my being. Yet, what dread…I now had to tell my parents what I had done. I was living at home and they were generously paying for my education. My decision was hard for them yet they were supportive and accepted that this was what I needed to do.
At this time I found much consolation in the Passion of Christ. He had looked like such a failure in the eyes of all. I even began to wonder if I HAD gone crazy but I put my trust in Luke 5:1-11 “…when they brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Him.” I just wanted to follow Jesus! At this time I found great consolation in the following quote from St. Paul of the Cross – Founder of the Passionist Congregation: “When a soul tries its best to be united to God and on the other hand finds no peace in the tasks and in the place where it is, it is a sign that His Divine Majesty desires something else of it.” Now, if He would just tell me what the “something else” was! I understand now that God was increasing my faith through this period of waiting so that when I did enter the monastery I would not turn back.
A Life of Discernment
During this time my prayer was: “Dear Mother Mary, please find me a holy monastery or a holy husband.” She soon answered my plea. Sister invited me to have a week long live-in in the monastery. Although I had been to the monastery many times for spiritual direction this was the first time I was going to enter the cloister. I absolutely loved it! I became close friends with the Passionist saints. I felt at home with the sisters and they with me. This was like a dream come true and I did not want to return home. I wanted to remain in this holy house to spend myself for His glory and for souls, to comfort Him in His Passion. The fact that this hidden life revolved around the Mass and that the Liturgy of the Hours was the incense of continual worship and sacrifice throughout the day resonated within my being. During this time I received many graces: the greatest was the realization that God was calling me to be His bride! When I returned home I began to share with friends and relatives that I was going to become a Religious Sister. Some were supportive; others thought I was taking this religion thing a bit too far. A dear elderly priest-friend of mine discouraged my entering a community that was cloistered. (But later, after witnessing how I flourished in this monastic environment, he gave his complete support!) For me there was no turning back! I had found that “Perfect Catholic Gentleman”: Jesus Christ.
After the live-in experience, my desire to return to the Passionist Monastery increased and I felt little or no inclination towards the other communities I contacted. Yet, I did not know if I would be able to embrace the silence and solitude of the cloister. I enjoyed meeting new people, traveling, eating out, visiting with family and friends, and so on. How could I give this up? But Sister told me, “Don’t worry about whether or not you can live the life, rather continue asking God if this is the vocation He has for you. If yes, the grace to live the life will not be wanting.”
So I began to prepare to enter the monastery and spent much time with my family and friends. So much so, that time I had allotted for prayer and spiritual reading began to diminish. My desire to enter the monastery began to suffer and my contact with the community diminished somewhat. This was the perfect set-up for that last final temptation! I received a letter from a Catholic friend who revealed the fact that he was attracted to me! He asked me to postpone my entrance into the monastery until we could get together. I became very confused wondering what God’s will was for my life. In tears, I immediately drove down to the monastery to get some advice from Sister. She explained that there is often one last temptation before one enters the monastery. She reminded me that I had discerned the vocation of marriage for several years and it had borne no fruit. She then advised me not to meet with the young man but to enter the monastery as planned. If during this time of further discernment, it seemed God was not calling me to religious life, I would return home and could then contact him. This brought much peace to my heart. Two years later I made my first profession of vows and he sent a half dozen white roses! The moral of the story: Prayer and recollection should not slack off but deepen before one is about to enter the monastery.
It was difficult to leave my family, yet thrilling to walk into the cloister that Sunday afternoon, August 27, 1995. I felt some fear sweep over me. Yet at the same time I knew that the God who had led me to my new home would continue to walk by my side, now in a more intimate way.
A Life of Faith
Once I entered the monastery I encountered new joys AND new purifications. I had found Him whom I loved with all my heart! Yet, I was finding myself as well; I realized I was not the saint I had thought myself to be. I knew that no one was making me stay here; it was truly my choice. In the beginning I found the silence and solitude to be difficult. I had to become teachable, receiving help and correction from others, with my independent American attitude this was tough! Also, I missed my family very much.
I began to realize this community was not a group of angels living on earth! They were redeemed sinners just like me. Plus, this community was missing a generation of vocations. Aside from one transfer from another Passionist community they had received only one vocation throughout the previous sixteen years and she left during my postulancy. Also, there was one other woman who entered the monastery at the same time I did and she left after about a month. Being the only young person in community for the first 7 years was difficult at times. These situations certainly called me to a deeper level of faith and to ask myself: Did I come here for self or for Jesus?
So I sought to cling more to Jesus. He was strengthening me to embrace a hidden life of pure faith.
Throughout the trials and joys I can say that since the day I entered this “School of Jesus Crucified” (a school of LOVE!) the peace I was searching for, the “peace of Christ that surpasses all understanding” has never left my soul. During my 30-day retreat in preparation for my Final Profession of vows my Mom wrote me a letter sharing a little secret with me: she told me that she had always prayed I would be a Religious Sister! Wow, the power of a Mother’s prayer for her children.
After God and our Blessed Mother, I owe a debt of gratitude to my parents for the gift of my religious vocation. They taught us kids fidelity to God and family. They taught us the art of loving one another through deeds of sacrifice, obedience, work, stability and “togetherness”. They didn’t spoil us (at least according to American standards!) nor did they let us do things that would cause us harm morally and spiritually, although we sometimes did those things anyway, but not with their permission. They didn’t “cave in” to be “cool” parents. Thanks Mom and Dad!
Perhaps you who are reading this story are wondering how my family feels about my being a cloistered Religious Sister? Well, I know they miss me but they know I am happy and for the most part this pleases them. My three youngest siblings are boys and they think its pretty cool having a sister who is a nun. For my sister it is more difficult because there are only the two of us girls. My Dad is happy that I am happy and my Mom knows that doing God’s Will will bear abundant fruit in our family. God has blessed our family not only with a religious vocation but with a possible priestly vocation as well. One of my brothers is currently studying to be ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Evansville, IN.
A Life of Gratitude
Hardly a day goes by that I am not overwhelmed with gratitude towards my Beloved for giving me the gift to live this life of prayer and penance for His glory and the salvation of souls. On September 13, 2003 I was blessed to make my Perpetual Profession of our five Passionist vows to my Beloved in the presence of my family and friends. What a glorious day that was! All I can say is that He has taken me at my word…I am His and He is mine…Forever.
I would like to leave you with this experience of St. Augustine:
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”
Sr. John Mary, C.P.