When I ask a young woman whether or not she has considered the possibility of religious life, if she says, "No," it's often followed by, "Because I want to get married and have children." Oddly enough, a lot of Sisters I know said the very same thing when someone had asked them the very same question. Despite all the gender stereotype and social construct arguments, I do believe that our bodies are deeply connected to our souls. The womb of a woman is not just another body part, but is central and sacred, even the womb of a woman physically unable bear children. The space within us tells us that we are bearers of life, that we can carry another human being within ourselves. It makes sense, then, that a young woman's hesitation to religious life would be the relinquishing of such a gift. But is it something we actually relinquish?
This reminds me of the story of Abraham, called to return his son to the Lord by sacrificing him. That's how I felt about dance once upon a time. I thought that once I entered the convent there would be no dancing, that it would be a gift I would have to sacrifice and return to God. Instead, it has been returned to me and its blessing upon my life has increased a hundredfold, just like God promising Abraham "descendants as countless as the stars" because he was willing to let go of that which he held dear (Gen. 22:17). I think it's the same for a woman who cherishes her life-bearing abilities and yet decides to live out the religious vow of chastity. Many of us enter religious life thinking, "I would love to have children, but this is where I am called, and so I am willing to make this sacrifice." In the end, though, I am starting to see that much like Abraham, we too receive descendants as countless as the stars.
I didn't think too often about having children until I was a novice and my sister was pregnant with her first child. The mystery and excitement of it all paralleled a deep sadness that began to run through me. Being the older sister by only a few years, my younger sister and I had always been very close. I had often experienced life's challenges first which gave me the ability to help guide her through similar challenges later. That was not the case this time. I couldn't understand what she was going through and, I realized, I never would. "We'll never be able to swap giving-birth stories," I thought, "Or watch our kids play and grow up together." I would smile whenever we spoke on the phone, but at night I would turn to my pillow and cry.
|Roller-coasters with my favorite nephew|
|Twinning with my favorite niece|
That maternal love is extending now, further and further, as I spend more time with the youth in our country. During a retreat this month I had the opportunity to speak one-on-one with a handful of high school students. I was surprised by the level of despair and pain with which they came to me. They were carrying tragedy and questions that I never had to deal with so young. As I listened to them I longed to carry it all for them. I found myself asking God how I could help lighten their loads, or how I could help them discover the abundance of God's love for them. I would sometimes look out at all of them during quiet moments of prayer, just to take in every little hair on their precious heads. I imagine that's how a parent feels - wishing they could take away their child's pain, whether it's a scraped knee or a deep heartache; or watching their child, toddler or teen, during some simple activity and feeling overwhelmed with gratitude for the gift of their lives.
Maybe I thought I was giving up a huge part of my life when I realized I wouldn't be having children; maybe I felt like I was sacrificing my own child the way Abraham must have felt as he held the knife over Isaac; but God's invitation is always followed by lavish, life-altering love. That's what I found instead of sacrifice and emptiness. I am discovering each day a love that is as true as any I could have hoped for. I guess my answer to the question "Don't you want to have children?" will now be something more along the lines of, "Of course! That's why I have hundreds."