True story: I was voted Most Likely to Become A Nun in both 8th grade AND my senior year of high school. Hilarious, I know. Only I didn’t think so at the time. No, no, no. I was terrified that my punk classmates were right and that I was destined for the nunnery.
Don’t get me wrong: I knew that being called to religious life was a good and beautiful thing, but I also knew that to my classmates, being a nun was only for losery super-Catholic girls who couldn’t get boyfriends. So, my pre-teen/teenaged/early 20s mind latched onto the losery-can’t-get-a-boyfriend thing (because I didn’t have my first real boyfriend till I was 25) and I developed a deep-seated fear and anxiety about being forced into the convent.
The thing is, I knew (intellectually) that God’s will for me would be whatever would be best for me in some mysterious way. I knew that he couldn’t actually force me to become a nun against my will. But I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to say no to him if he really wanted me to be his bride.
Another part of me “knew” that I was ugly and undesirable and the boy in high school who told me that he voted me for “most likely never to get married, because I can’t imagine anyone wanting to marry you” (yep, he really said that) was probably right. I “knew” that no man would ever really want me or pursue me or treat me the way I hoped to be treated. I “knew” that I was a freak, and no one marries freaks. [NB: I obviously don't believe these things anymore, thanks to a lot of healing through prayer and therapy.]
It didn’t help that I had zero faithful Catholic friends in high school, so when I looked around and saw that I was the only person (besides my sister--thanks, E!) who went to daily Mass when it was offered or who cared about theology class or who defended the Church in class debates, I started to wonder if maybe all of this meant that I just had to become a nun.
Top it all off with the fact that I got two degrees in theology, worked at a church, and then as a high school theology teacher, and to the outside world, you basically are a nun already. Why not join a convent and make it official?
Here’s the thing: I never, not even once in my life, felt like the Lord was calling me to religious life. You’d think that would be enough for me to trust that I was called to something else, but no. Satan and my own anxiety had me convinced that God didn’t really want me to be happy, and the fact that I had some of the objective qualities that would make for a good religious sister meant that I had to be one.
The anxiety was so intense that I would avoid vowed religious women whenever I saw them--whether it was the sweet Dominicans in my graduate school courses or the Holy Cross sisters who lived and worked at Notre Dame or the flock of sisters I saw walking by in St. Peter’s Square. I would get what amounted to a panic attack anytime religious life was mentioned--especially when friends of mine entered the convent.
The anxiety was so intense that when my youngest sister got engaged at the age of 21, I pursued a guy who turned out to be abusive and stayed in a relationship with him for three months too long just so I could hurry along this whole getting-married process before someone else suggested I think about religious life for the 50th time.
Honestly, I didn’t stop freaking out about the whole being-forced-into-the-convent thing until I was 30. That was only three years ago. I spent almost two decades of my life plagued by this fear about religious life. The devil is crafty, I’m tellin’ ya. Only Satan could take something as beautiful as consecrated religious life and turn it into a devout Catholic woman’s greatest fear.
So, what changed? How did I get past this fear and learn to see religious life for what it is: a vocation, not a prison sentence? How did I figure out that I was called to marriage? A few things:
Spiritual direction: No spiritual director I’ve ever had thought I had a vocation to religious life. Spiritual directors have been wrong before, of course, but it’s a good idea to listen to them if they’re wise and holy and trustworthy.
Therapy. My therapist(s) helped me realize that my fear had very little to do with religious life and very much to do with the fear of rejection, which is something I’ve struggled with for nearly my entire life.
Grace. I prayed for freedom from this fear until it went away, thanks to God’s gifts mentioned above.
A new understanding of discernment. I came to realize that all discernment has an objective and subjective dimension, and that God’s will isn’t some sort of riddle I have to figure out. The fact that you have objective qualities that might make you a good priest or religious sister, does not necessarily mean that you are called to priesthood or religious life. God speaks to us most often in the concrete circumstances of our lives--and that includes our deepest subjective desires. The happiest priests and religious I know had a sincere desire for their vocation, even if they were afraid and resistant to the Lord at times. The happiest married couples I know were afraid of certain aspects of marriage and family life before they got married. That kind of fear is completely normal, and the only way it can be overcome is if your desire for the vocation is greater than your fear.
I met my now-husband, Kristian. It’s true that as long as you’re single, a celibate vocation is always a possibility. Some people may desire to get married and may never meet the right person (I was definitely aware of this and open to the possibility when I was still single). Some people may resist a vocation to priesthood or religious life into their 30s or 40s until they finally stop running and say “yes.” But if your desire is married life, you have no impediments to getting married, and then you meet someone who also desires married life and has no impediments to getting married, and then you both fall in love and want to marry each other, then you’re called to marriage. It’s not as complicated as we make it.
For those of you who are still waiting for your future spouse to come along: I know how hard it can be, and I am praying for you (I really am). For those of you who are sick and tired of people assuming that because you pray and go to Mass, you must become a priest or nun: I feel your annoyance and pain. For those of you who are still unsure about your vocation: trust that the Lord will show you what he desires of you in his own time. And send me an email if you need further encouragement. I’m always happy to provide it!