I am sure many of you are curious what this count down I have started is all about. Most know that I am going to be entering Religious Life in FIVE days!! (January 13, 2018) But I am sure many of you are saying, okay, but what does that mean?? Are you going to be like a nun? In short, yes. However, let me explain a bit more. Bear with me because this may not make much sense to begin with, but I am hoping to pull it all together for you in the end!
I began discerning (praying about) this call back in 2012 when I was a senior in college. After having spent many hours over the previous three years with the Monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison, KS, I saw something there and in them that was quite attractive and that brought much joy and peace to their lives. However, not once in the previous three years while at Benedictine College had I thought that I was being called to Religious Life. Sure I had many friends who either were already sisters or that were discerning this, but I never thought it was something God was calling me to.
So senior year rolls around and, as I had many times before, I walked up the hill to the Abbey Church for the Saturday night Holy Hour that the monks hosted. On my way up I was discussing with friends how one tells their parents they are discerning religious life, when it dawned on me that never in my life had I actually asked God how He was calling me to live my life when it came to my Vocation. Sure I had spent many hours in prayer asking the Lord to help me pass my Organic Chemistry class, but not once had I said a true and honest prayer about my Vocation.
So we got into the adoration hour and as I brought this to prayer I had this overwhelming feeling that God was calling me to discern a life within a Religious Vocation, and to be honest I was TERRIFIED! I asked God for a sign to confirm that this was in fact the direction He was asking me to go. Well the priest that was leading the Holy Hour that night stood up to give a short homily and I will never forget the words he said. As he was ending he said, “so as we worship our Lord in adoration tonight, during this holy hour for vocations, let us ask the Lord to open our hearts so that He might direct our way.”
If I wasn’t freaked out before, I certainly was now! Here I was, having had attended these Holy Hours with the monks regularly for the last 3.5 years and never had I known that these Holy Hours were specifically for vocations! I took this as a sure sign that the Lord was asking me to discern a Religious Vocation. The problem was I had no clue how or where to start!
I quickly found myself a spiritual director who told me to start with the sisters I already knew here on campus and then to go from there. He encouraged me to look specifically at their prayer life when I was discerning if this was a good fit for me. And so I began! I spent a few weekends over the next couple of months visiting sisters across the Midwest and experiencing their way of life. The more time I spent in prayer and with these sisters the more sure I became that the Lord was in fact calling me to become a sister within a religious community, but I still had no clue where or when!
I want to pause for just a minute to define some terms just so that we are clear.
Sister vs. Nun
Sister: This is a woman who has entered an active religious community, meaning these sisters work outside of the house in some sort of apostolate or ministry.
Nun: This is a woman who has entered a contemplative religious community, meaning these sisters do not work outside of the house and send the majority of their day in prayer for a specific intention.
So when I say a religious sister, I am specifically speaking about the first one, within an active community.
Okay, back to the journey. There are various religious orders and communities around the world. While all of them ultimately have the same end goal (to grow in holiness and reach Heaven) how they go about getting there is going to be different depending on the type of community they are. I knew from my time spent with the Benedictine Monks in Atchison that my spirituality was very much a Benedictine one. Meaning that the way the Benedictines prayed was also the way that I prayed best. It was easy for me to feel God’s presence when in prayer in this way. The problem was I was having a hard time finding a women’s community that fit the following three criteria:
2. Active Apostolate
3. Wore the Habit
(The Habit is the outfit that sisters/nuns wear. It includes the long tunic [kind of like a dress] and the veil that covers your head.)
I had found many communities that fit two of the three of these items and I was beginning to think that this was the closest I was going to get. So when I found a community in Nashville that checked the active and habited boxes and whose prayer was pretty similar to that of the Benedictines (even though they were actually a Dominican order) I thought that was the place.
So I began meeting with their Vocations Director and working with her to determine the next steps in this process. I knew I needed to pay off my debt to be able to enter so that was priority number one. I found a job and put every spare penny I had toward reducing my debt for the next year. However, then the unexpected happened. While in conversation with their Vocations Director, she told me that she didn’t think I was called to enter their community. She said she wasn’t sure if I was actually called to marriage or if it was just supposed to be with a different community, but she knew that this wasn’t right.
I was heartbroken!! I was so sure that I had found the place and I had spent the better part of a year working toward the goal of entering with this community and now I had nothing to show for it! I was hurt, sad and mad. I felt like God had let me down.
At about this same time I had made the decision that I needed to find a new job that paid better and that would get me back to KC. I took a position at Cerner and threw everything I had into that job. I worked my tail off to keep myself busy and when people would ask if I was still discerning I had this routine answer of “well I am just really enjoying my life in the present moment and learning about myself right now.”
The truth was I still thought about religious life often, but I was scared to step out and try again because of the way the last experience ended. So the more time that went by, the more I closed my heart off to that possibility of being called to religious life. I joined Catholic Match and started thinking about marriage again. But anytime a man would reach out to me about getting together I turned him down. I wasn’t getting anywhere in discerning my vocation my prayer life was not great and I felt like I was in a self-induced rut!
About a year had passed and it was now May of 2015. I had begun attending St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Gladstone, MO and loved everything about it! The traditional liturgy, the vibrant community, the down-to-Earth yet passionate and orthodox priests! I knew that this was going to be a good fit for me and within the first few months my prayer life started to improve again. I got in touch with their youth minister and that fall began volunteering with the High School youth group.
Little did I know that right around the time that I started attending St. Andrew’s a group of high school girls from the youth group were attending a conference in Chicago called Institute for Religious Life and they would just happen to sit at a table for dinner with a sister who would invite them to come visit her on a “Nun Run” to Nebraska. So December rolls around and Carolyn (the youth minister) had been in contact with Sr. Inviolata (the sister they had met at IRL and Vocations Director for the Missionary Benedictine Sisters) and together they had planned a trip to visit two orders in Nebraska and all they needed was someone who was 25 years old that was free at that time to drive the rental van. If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is where I come into play.
I happily said yes to this invitation and told myself that this trip was not about me, it was about the girls and allowing them to experience religious life and that I was just there as a chaperone and nothing more! We first went to a community in Lincoln, NE that I had visited once before and knew a few of the sisters from my time at BC. They are a beautiful community, but I already knew that it wasn’t where I was supposed to be so I had no problem spending time with the sisters and talking with them. It was easy because I knew God wasn’t calling me there. A day or so later we made our next stop at the Missionary Benedictine Sisters in Norfolk, NE. We arrived just in time to join the sisters for evening prayer and the minute the sisters began praying I had this overwhelming feeling that the Lord was telling me this was where He wanted me to be. I was NOT happy or excited about this revelation. Still rather upset with how things ended the last time I discerned religious life, I wasn’t ready to open my heart up again. The entire time we were there I was struggling with this inner turmoil. On one hand I felt so at home and at peace when with the sisters and in prayer, but on the other hand I was still so closed off that I wouldn’t let the Lord all the way in to allow him to heal my heart and make it ready to receive Him again in this new way
We left that weekend and I couldn’t get the sisters off my mind. I went back to work and I felt distracted and like something was missing in my life. I dove back into work having just been promoted to a team lead and did everything I could to keep my mind from wandering back to the sisters. However, this was easier said than done because the sisters kept trying to reach out to me. Sr. Inviolata would call or text me and I would do my best to come up with every excuse I could to avoid her. “Oh I’m so busy at work.” “I have a family commitment that weekend.” To the point that at times I just wouldn’t answer or respond. (I know, how rude to ignore a sister! I have since apologized for being so stubborn!)
A year went by and December 2016 is upon us and the girls are eager to go on the “Nun Run” again and you know who is going to once again be the driver/chaperone. We went back to the same places we had gone the previous year, but this time when we got to the Benedictine Sisters they were ready for me…
Sr. Inviolata turns to me upon our arrival and says, Jenna you have been here before so I am going to take the others on a tour and I am going to have you talk with Sr. Gabrielle Marie. (Mind you there were at least 3-4 others that had already visited before as well, but I was the only one being singled out here!) Come to find out Sr. Gabrielle Marie is the sister in charge of formation and she works closely with the vocations team to talk with women who are discerning their vocation. So we sit down and began to talk, we got through all of the normal pleasantries and then she cut right to the chase and flat out asked me, “Jenna, what are you doing with your life?” I had no other option but to answer truthfully, “I’m avoiding it!” The weekend trip took a decisive turn that day and while we were only with the sisters for a little over 24 hours, in that time my heart was radically transformed!! I spent a lot of time in prayer in front of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and during that time I came to realize that it God wasn’t trying to hurt me all those years prior when I was turned down by the other sisters, rather He was guiding me down the path that would ultimately lead me to this time, this place, with these sisters, and under these very specific circumstances!
When I look back at how I met the sisters there is no way around it, it was totally God’s providence! Of all of the sisters that could have sat at the table with the girls at IRL and of all of the other women from the parish that could have led the Nun Run. God placed Sr. Inviolata at that table and directed me to lead the trip. And while I was quite stubborn along the way, eventually He won. That is what is so great about our Heavenly Father, He never gives up or quits on us! He is always there, gently guiding us and leading the way, even when we are mad at Him and even when we throw as many obstacles as we can in His way. His love and mercy still persist!
So, while I was pretty confident after that trip that I would be entering with the sisters I had yet to spend more than 48 hours with them and while I was transformed that weekend, I was still chaperoning 10 high school girls and really needed time with the sisters without distractions to be sure. February of 2017 I spent a week with the sisters and had a list of questions that I needed/wanted answered before I made any decisions. And God in His infinite love provided every answer for me before I even had to ask the question. For instance, I was curious if there were times of adoration. I knew that Jesus was always present in the Tabernacle, but what about true adoration with Jesus exposed in the Monstrance? And before I could ask the question we are walking to dinner when Sr. Inviolata grabs a clipboard from the message board and begins to write her name down. She then goes on to explain the various times that the sisters have adoration and how they can sign up for a time to spend with Jesus!
At the end if that week I was 100% sure this was where I was supposed to be, but before I applied I wanted my parents to visit with me. So a few months later my parents and I made the trip up and they too got to meet the sisters and see everything I had been telling them. I got my application that weekend and the drive home was full of questions, stories, some tears but more than anything excitement. My parents understood why I needed to fulfill this longing and desire I had in my heart. They didn’t quite understand the practicals behind what all this meant for me and for the family, but to be honest there was a lot I still didn’t know. But what I did know was that I had never felt more at peace and more at home than I had when in prayer with the sisters.
There are only two other places that I have ever felt that sense of peace (other than my own home of course). One is at St. Benedict’s Abbey Church in Atchison and the other is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
I still had the large obstacle of debt in my way but I worked diligently on my application and again started putting every spare cent toward paying off my debt. In July I mailed in my application and on August 6th I was officially accepted as an affiliate to the community, meaning I was accepted and would be joining as soon as all of my affairs were in order. I was also given an entrance date of January 13, 2018.
So here we are now 5 days away from entrance and there are so many people that have helped get me to where I am at today. First and foremost, God. I know that is probably cliche, but I truly would not be here without His continued love and mercy (and extreme patience)! My parents and my family. You all have been rocks for me through this all and I cannot thank you enough for the love, prayers and support you have provided me! My friends who have walked this journey with my over the last 5 years. My coworkers who have been nothing but supportive during my transition of leaving Cerner. And finally my parish family at St. Andrew’s for all of your love, support and prayers, especially Fr. Rogers, Fr. Bartlett and Fr. Schneider for your spiritual guidance, Carolyn Anch for allowing me to work with the youth and inviting me on a Nun Run that would change my life, and finally Pat Yeats for your unwavering confidence and support!
This is truly just the beginning of a new chapter in my life and I am hoping to be able to share that life with you all on a semi-regular basis (so long as I have permission from my superiors of course)!
Please continue to pray for me! For continued peace and trust in the Lord’s way. For the sisters and for our pursuit to grow ever closer to Jesus Christ our Beloved.