When God Calls a Woman to the Consecrated Life
Mother Assumpta Long on Divine Courtship
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ANN ARBOR, Michigan, FEB. 13, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Each woman who is destined to be the bride of Christ as a religious sister has her own love story to tell.
So says Mother Assumpta Long, superior and one of the four founders of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.
After many years in the religious life and witnessing a more than tenfold growth of the Sisters of Mary over the last seven years, Mother Assumpta has seen God's ongoing "courtship" with her fellow sisters, novices and those discerning their vocations.
She shared with ZENIT her thoughts on the challenges those women face in answering his call.
Q: How do vocation prospects today differ from, say, a generation ago?
Mother Assumpta: In past generations most young women entered the convent straight from high school or perhaps after a few years of college. Presently it seems that more discern God's invitation to become a consecrated religious after obtaining a degree and spending a few years in the work force.
God operates mysteriously in his own time with each soul; there is no "typical" timeline.
To one young woman he gives the grace of knowing she is destined to be his bride while in school, permitting her to give the gift of her youth and innocence at a young age; whereas to another, he gently pulls on the strings of her heart after she has sought to make her way in a career, realizing that no matter what riches, professional success or fulfillment the world may offer, she will never be truly fulfilled until she gives herself completely to him.
In our community we have young women from both ends of this spectrum and all along the middle.
It is an amazing realization for a woman that the personal qualities, gifts, talents and experiences God has bestowed upon her are actually gifts for her to utilize in her new family, the religious community. Every young woman who enters religious life is a priceless gift and she touches and affects the community uniquely and irrevocably.
It is amazing how uniquely he calls a woman to be entirely his; while there are several general characteristics which seem to point to a religious vocation -- such as love of the Church, liturgy and sacraments, devotion to Mary, love of Eucharistic adoration, etc. -- the love stories between God and the souls he chooses for his own are as unique as each individual religious.
One thing is constant: God's immense gift of love fills the heart and floods it with all the graces necessary to echo the fiat of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Annunciation: "Be it done unto me according to thy word."
The Church as a wise mother gives young women who are considering religious consecration a precious gift: the time of novitiate. Youth are generous, enthusiastic and fervent, but sometimes the initial enthusiasm can wane and it becomes apparent that the road to holiness lies along another path.
In the novitiate, a young woman can test her vocation by living the life day in and day out. She has time to pray and to listen to God's voice. Aside from discernment, this time is also invaluable in filling any gaps in an individual's religious formation, for example, the catechism, Scripture, theology, etc.
At the end of the novitiate, the young woman is free to make vows or return to the secular life. There should be no stigma if a young woman decides to leave the community, if she deems that God has created her for another vocation than religious life. She should be commended for having given it her best effort.
Q: Amid rising secularism in North America, what is it that most attracts women to a religious vocation today?
Mother Assumpta: Young people are unwavering in their desire for truth, real love and authenticity. Amidst all of the glitter, toys and noise the world holds as "must-haves," youth intuitively know that they are merely trifles, and want the real thing -- God.
Women often remark that they seek to join communities that have a communal prayer life, including daily Mass, common recitation of the Divine Office and the rosary.
In our community's experience, our particular emphasis on devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist and to Mary, the Mother of God, often attracts young women who want to make a daily Eucharistic holy hour as we do. We also make the St. Louis de Montfort Marian Consecration, which especially attracted several sisters.
Other elements young women have told me that they look for are fidelity to the Holy Father and the magisterium of the Church, the witness of a religious habit and balanced community life of prayer, study, work and play -- a family in which true fraternal charity is manifest, with all of its joys and challenges.
People often remark that they are extremely attracted by the genuine joy of the sisters. There is a peace and joy that radiates from the core of a woman's being when she is striving to achieve holiness along the path that God has destined for her.
True joy is present even in the midst of difficulty, pain or suffering; it is a grace and gift of God to the soul who is genuinely trying to follow his will for her life, in all of the daily tribulations as well as the high points.
Q: What special challenges do young women face if they want to pursue a religious vocation? Are their families generally still supportive, as in past generations?
Mother Assumpta: Some women are debilitated into indecision by the desire to have a tangible sign that they have a religious vocation, preferably one that is big, neon and flashing the message: "I want YOU to be a religious sister!"
God's invitation is often subtle and merits quiet prayer and contemplation. Remember that the prophet Elijah discerned the Lord's voice in the gentleness of the wind. God speaks to us in ordinary events, persons and situations.
Years of indecision may invariably end up forcing a woman never to act and thus turn her back on her potential vocation. God is patient, but the temptation of waiting "one more year" can turn into endless years, and suddenly, it's too late.
Another difficulty many young women face is debt from college education loans. As a larger number of women are discerning their vocation to religious life after they have attained college or graduate degrees, they have not had sufficient time to completely repay their educational debt. Religious communities may have difficulty in accepting a young woman with student loans.
The Lord is wondrous in his ways, and so we must trust him to help women find means to eliminate their school debt in order to embrace their vocation, whether it is assistance from their families, parish, charitable organizations or generous benefactors.
Family reactions to a woman's vocation are varied and range from viewing a woman's vocation as a blessing all the way to downright opposition. There are sacrifices that both a woman and her family make in embracing a religious vocation.
God is never outdone in generosity, however, and even the most resistant parents often experience an abundance of graces that flow from their daughter's vocation. Once they see their daughter transformed into the woman God intended her to be from all eternity, radiating the joy and love of Christ, they more easily accept the separation.
Many sisters find that they have a deeper, more genuine relationship with their families than they had prior to entering the convent.
Q: What is the best advice you could give to a young woman thinking of a vocation?
Mother Assumpta: Pray, listen and act. If a young woman truly wants to know and do God's will for her life, and if she opens her heart to his answer and listens, he will guide her.
Spending quiet prayer time with the Lord in adoration is one good way. I would suggest that a young woman ask Our Lady to guide her -- she is the perfect exemplar of receptivity to God's will. Having recourse to competent spiritual direction is always helpful.
Once a young woman has a fairly good idea that the Lord may be calling her, she must act on that inspiration. She should begin communicating with religious communities, for the Holy Spirit will guide her through these contacts.
Lastly, a vocation must be tried and lived over a period of time. As I mentioned earlier, a woman who enters religious life and is truly open to the Lord's graces will know if it is her vocation or not.
Q: What is the best advice you could give to families to encourage vocations among their children?
Mother Assumpta: The best gift parents can give their children is to live their married vocation with great love, joy and fidelity; in this domestic school of charity children learn to choose the good and the true, and to embrace their vocations willingly.
Instilling a deep love and reverence for the Church, her sacraments, priests and religious in children gives them a solid foundation of faith, love and fidelity for life. It also helps them to be open and to respond generously to God's will for their lives, whatever it may be. Prayer on behalf of children and their vocations, and teaching them to pray for their own vocations is an investment well made.
Having exposure to priests and religious is also helpful in encouraging vocations. Parents should be supportive and underscore the fact that God creates each person for a purpose, here on earth and in heaven, and gives the soul all the helps and graces necessary to make it to heaven in the particular vocation he has planned.
The great mystery and adventure is discovering what God's will is and doing it with joy.