TUESDAYS WITH TERESA: Religious Life - Different and the same, Sister and Brother to all

Earlier in the year I was asked to write something about Religious Life. The week when we celebrate St Mary of the Cross MacKillop and St Dominic seems apt, so here goes.

My friends know that I sometimes preface what I say with, ‘When I was normal…’ This is a reference to my life and times before I became a Sister of St Joseph. Even on a practical level, before you get to the deeper meaning of our lives, there is little ‘normal’ about them. All of us know the experience of being in one of those ‘start up’ conversations. They happen at the hairdresser, on the bus or train, in a waiting room, in a queue for the checkout. We start answering common questions vaguely, and then finally when it gets too difficult to continue, I say something like, ‘I’m a Catholic Sister…’ as if that explains all that is not ‘normal’ about my life. No partner, no kids, no salary, not really on a career path etc. The response of the other person is always interesting. Some people just drop the conversation immediately and start playing with their phone. Others engage more deeply and a chance encounter turns into a graced moment. The same thing can happen at parties. Now that is fun!   

And the same with my family. I like to remind my brothers how lucky they are to have me as a sister. None of their friends have sisters like me! They nod sagely when I say this. They get great delight out of it really. They are both great story tellers and love to string people along with stories about their ‘brother-in-law’! There is of course another side. I am their ‘go to person’ when someone amongst their wider circle of family, friends and colleagues has a problem or experiences some tragedy. People are always grateful when they offer to get ‘the nun’ and the other Sisters to pray. What a privilege we have to be trusted and included in some of the most sacred moments of people’s lives. My circle is indeed wide and deep.

So, while Religious Life is in many ways different, it is also in many ways the same as yours. What do I mean?    

Firstly. Religious Life is a deeply human life, just like yours. We all share the same needs for love and respect, for freedom and justice, for an opportunity to contribute to making a positive difference wherever we are, for safety and community. We all share the same responsibilities as members of the human family and stewards of creation. If Religious Life does not attend to its humanity then it is lost. Religious Life is in the first place, a call to life!

Secondly. Religious Life is a life of faith. In the Catholic tradition, I have no more claim to being ‘religious’ than anyone else. We are all baptised; equally loved by God; equally immersed in the life of God; equally responsible for making the love of God present in the world today; equally responsible for the well-being of our neighbour. No one is better or more privileged.  Baptism is the foundational Sacrament of Religious Life. As a life of faith, Religious Life is a call to witness to the love and the reign of God in the world.

Thirdly. Religious Life is a gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. It is ecclesial – of the Church. Marriage is also a gift to the Church. As are single life and ordination. No one of these ‘gifts of the Holy Spirit’ is better than, or more essential, than the others. Each one is founded on and an expression of baptism. Each one brings something essential and unique to the Church. The Church is less when it does not foster, respect, raise up, listen to and delight in each one of these gifts.

Fourthly. Religious Life is a very particular way of life; a call from God, which brings to maturity in a person the baptismal commitment we all share. Marriage, Single life and Ordination has the same maturing effect for those called to these lifestyles. While the characteristics of Religious Life mark it as different, they are in the first instance, characteristics of Gospel living and therefore lie at the heart of all discipleship. What are some of these characteristics?

Religious Life is a call to community. In response, we make a free choice to join a particular Religious community. My spirit resonated with the Josephite spirit as I saw it lived by women with whom I worked. I knew the Sisters of Mercy, my cousin Margaret is a Dominican and so I claim to be related to them. I admire these women’s ways of living the Gospel. But my spirit found a home with the Sisters of St Joseph, Lochinvar.

Across the vast spectrum of Religious communities in the Church, what is common to all is that at the heart of our life is the Trinity, the God we know as a community of persons. The Trinity is the model for community. Each community shares a common heart that is strengthened by the different gifts of its members, nourished by prayer, and focused on mission and ministry.

Religious Life is a call to faithfulness that is commonly marked by three vows – poverty, chastity and obedience. The vows shape a way of life that is about freedom; freedom to keep relationship with God and commitment to God’s reign at the centre of everything. 

Poverty shapes my mind and heart to know that I am  not independent or self-sufficient. I do not have all that is needed in any circumstance.  Poverty is about being and working collaboratively for the good of the whole. We share what we have or earn so that everyone has what they need. Poverty opens my eyes to recognise everything as gift and my heart to respond with gratitude.    

Chasity is a commitment to love. It proclaims that loving relationships are central to human life and flourishing. I love being a Religious woman because I am free to be a Sister to all; to be interested in and love everyone, male and female, hopefully in a way that promotes their lives.  Equally important is that I am loved. I could not be a Sister to anyone if my family and friends and my Sisters did not love me. Chastity is about living in the love of God. God’s love comes in all shapes and sizes, and an array of invitations and opportunities to be a Sister. One of my brothers calls me his Sister sister!

And finally there is obedience. Obedience is about listening – as an individual and as a community – to the voice of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit, which, as we know, blows where it wills. We discern God’s voice, its meaning, and how we will respond in the context of our lives and these times. It is Gospel obedience. 

Religious Life is indeed different from and the same as your life. When lived well and with integrity, Religious Life is a sign to everyone of what lies at the heart of discipleship and ecclesial life: community lived as a sharing in the divine community; love of God, self and neighbour; listening and responding to the voice of God and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; stewarding and sharing our collective resources.

The gift of Religious Life helps the Church be its best self. The gift of Marriage helps the Church be its best self. The gift of Single life helps the Church be its best self. The gift of Ordination helps the Church be its best self. I am a better Religious because of the gift and inspiration of my friends, family and colleagues who are married, single and ordained. Thank God we are all in this together. And thank you God that I have the opportunity to be a Sister in the mystery of it all. I love my life as a Religious woman and I wouldn’t swap it for anything in the world, not even to be ‘normal’.

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Louise Gannon rsj Image
Louise Gannon rsj

Louise Gannon rsj is the Diocesan Manager of Worship and Prayer.