When I got off the plane to meet some nuns from the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, a Dominican religious community, for a weekend-long discernment retreat in February, I felt confident that – for reasons not yet clear to me at the time – it was exactly where God wanted me to be at that moment. Over the course of the weekend and in the weeks since then, it has become clearer to me that Jesus is wooing me – stopping at nothing to win my love.
Nuns are not just weirdos who can’t find husbands. These are smart, engaged women, and they play a vital role in the life of the church. True to the charism of the Dominicans, the Sisters of Mary are teachers and preachers. The Sisters make it their goal to discover and spread Veritas, truth, the motto of not just Harvard, but also the Dominican order. To do this, they lead lives in which both contemplation and activity in the world play important roles. Their lives are scheduled around daily Mass in the morning and praying the Divine Office, a set of five readings and prayers that all consecrated Roman Catholic religious pray every day on a cyclical schedule. Many Sisters also pursue various advanced degrees and spend great amounts of time honing their skills as teachers. The vast majority of the Sisters are elementary and high school teachers, but they also go out of their way to find and create opportunities to teach and preach to other audiences, for example by giving lectures at college campuses, doing interviews with news outlets, and writing. When they aren’t thinking or praying, one can often find them playing volleyball in their full habits or sledding on the hills near the Mother House (home of the Mother Superior) in Ann Arbor. I heard one of the Sisters describe their community as “holy nerdom.” These women are not fainting flowers without interests outside the Chapel. They are spunky, sporty, nerdy, incredibly real and astonishingly generous human beings.
What was so astonishing to me was that this is a place where I fit in, both spiritually and intellectually. It struck me that I did not know before then that there exist anywhere in the world any people whose spirituality looks so much like mine (at least at its best) as theirs does, let alone an entire community of people. This conspicuous fact made it that much harder to ignore the possibility that maybe — just maybe — Jesus really does love me as much as he obviously loves these women. All the women whose discernment stories I heard were marked by a marked process of courtship: Jesus wooed them and won them. While it is clear that they have a lot to teach me, not only about being in a relationship with Jesus but also about nearly every academic discipline under the sun, the difference was one of degree – of spiritual maturity, etc. – rather than essential difference. In short: I cannot pretend that the love Jesus bathes them with every day could not possibly be meant for me too.
Spending time with the Sisters of Mary has helped me to see more clearly that Jesus wants to be in an intimate relationship with me. He doesn’t want to dumb me down or objectify me. He wants to work with me, to help me use all of my personhood – my brain, my thick, strong arms (arms that can lift a 7-year-old like a feather), my tendency to notice inefficiencies in systems (i.e., my impatience), my self-lambasting perfectionism, my sarcastic sassiness, and my occasional gentleness – to usher more love into the world. Jesus wants to transform and redeem every quirk and flaw I carry around on my five-foot-four-inch frame to construct and expand his kingdom on this planet. Maybe it sounds obvious, but I feel pretty confident that Jesus is not intimidated by smart women; he wants to use all we have to offer to its fullest capacity to magnify the glory of the Father. Jesus is the ideal husband; not only the perfect protector and provider, he is also the perfect feminist, loving me completely and respecting my autonomy and personhood absolutely.
The Sisters of Mary have over 115 members and a fresh crop of young, bright, Jesus-loving novices joins their ranks every year. Just a glance at the glowing faces of the members (you can’t see much else with them dressed in full habits) makes it clear that religious life is still alive and well as a vocational calling even in twenty-first century America. Jesus is still courting us, longing for us, thirsting for our full love and devotion, expressed in this particular way.
When I met the Sisters near baggage claim at the beginning of the retreat, I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I learned, however, is that religious life as a Sister does not entail eschewing the world or marriage. On the contrary, their very lives are an eschatological sign normatively typified by marriage. We are told that in heaven we are neither given nor taken in marriage to one another, for – even at its best – marriage between two spouses is merely a sign pointing at the perfect eternal union with Christ that we can anticipate. On the last day of the retreat, one Sister quipped, “We are just ahead of ourselves” by skipping the sign and going straight to the real thing, the more concrete, perfect marriage with Christ. This does not mean, however, that Jesus would ideally like to call all Christians into this sort of relationship with him, at least not yet. More on this later.
Jesus is as much a part of the lives of these Sisters as a husband is in the life of any wife. One of the main ways they approach Jesus is through daily contact with the Eucharist in Mass and in Adoration. In this way, they have a physical means by which to approach their husband, touch him, draw close to him. Paired with frequent prayer, study of scripture, and devotion to the daily liturgy of the church in the Divine Office, this allows for physical, emotional, and spiritual communion between these Sisters and their bridegroom, Jesus. One look at the face of the Bernini’s famous baroque sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa is enough to show that communion with Jesus in prayer can be at least as intimate as sex. If the face of this nun in the throes of ecstatic prayer — her head thrown back in pleasure — makes you feel uncomfortable, perhaps this is not because you actually believe intimacy with God is wrong but because of the way sex has been misused and abused throughout much of human history, utilized for our own selfish ends and worshipped as an end unto itself rather than seen as a sign pointing toward the intimacy and satisfaction of perfect union with God in sacrifice and love.
The other primary way in which these women engage daily with Jesus is through their ministry as teachers. We learn that in the end times, after separating the sheep from the goats, “the King [Jesus] will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’” (Mt 25:34-40). Jesus deeply loves each man, woman, and child. He rejoices with us in our victories, and he hurts with us in our suffering. When these women minister to the kids they teach, pouring all their love and energy into the classroom, they are loving Jesus as he dwells within these children. These kids are the bit of Jesus given to these women to love with all their hearts and minds and souls by being the best teachers they can be.
Several women in the community expressed the sentiment to me that their hearts are made to love more than just one man and the children born within one marriage. As they see it, their hearts were made to see and love Christ in a broader segment of his Church. In this way, religious life is, in fact, a more perfect vocation than married life.
While it can be odd to consider the possibility of gradations of perfection – married life is perfect but consecrated life is more perfect – this is, in fact, the standard view of the Catholic church on the issue of vocations. And now this makes sense to me. And yet the net effect of grasping that religious life is a more perfect vocation than married life is actually an overall elevation of the spiritual and theological value of marriage.
Just as these Sisters are the brides of Christ, so too is every married woman (whether she sees it or not), for just as Jesus dwells in school children, so too does he dwell in the husband of a married woman. In this way, she too is married to Christ. Paul’s instruction, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (Ep 5:22), is more than just a metaphor meant to illustrate a degree of submission. Rather, he is describing a spiritual reality, contingent on Christ’s indwelling in the husband. And who is the person to whom the wife submits? A man who loved his bride the church so much that he died for her sake. In the real world, sometimes husbands do a good job imaging Christ’s love and self-sacrifice; other times, they do a terrible job. While the former is certainly preferable, the latter case presents an opportunity to minister to Christ in the distressing disguise of a bad husband. This is a disguise that bears marked similarities to the lepers and beggars, the addicts and cranky school children, the AIDS victims and death row inmates that religious Sisters of various stripes have ministered to with self-sacrifice and extravagant love over the ages.
If I am called to marriage, then I am called to love Jesus and minister to Jesus by pouring out my love to one man, my husband. When I make him laugh, when I bring him joy, when I love him even at his worst, I am doing these things to Jesus. As a woman in love with Jesus, open to religious life, married life, or something else entirely, it is becoming clearer to me day by day that Jesus loves me, he is pursuing me, and he wants me for himself. The only open question is just how – or rather, through whom, in particular – I will show Jesus that I love him back.
Jane Thomas ’15 is a former Ichthus editor and a Fulbright scholar studying the gut microbes of wild howler monkeys (A. pigra) in Mexico.