March 9, 2020 — In honor of Catholic Sisters Week (March 8–14, 2020), Billy Critchley-Menor, SJ, shares a conversation he had with his friend, Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Rhonda Miska, OP, about religious life.
One of the factors that led me to join religious life was the witness of Catholic sisters. Who are some of the religious that drew you to this life?
I didn’t grow up attending Catholic schools or knowing sisters. I honestly don’t think I met my first Catholic sister until I was an undergrad and some sisters came as spiritual directors for a Busy Student Retreat. But I can remember being a kid and thinking, “Maybe I’ll be a nun when I grow up,” from a pretty young age. I remember telling the guy who asked me to prom, “Well, we can go to prom together. But I think you should know I will probably become a Catholic sister someday!”
I eventually got to know sisters by serving in parish ministry as a young adult, while studying at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry (where I met my first Sinsinawa Dominican Sister, Lystra Long, OP) and then through a friend who worked for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR).
You’ve probably heard many religious say: “The reason you come is not the same as the reason you stay.” What are some of the reasons that have made you stay in religious life?
This is so true! I came to discernment with something of a romanticized vision of religious life. I was drawn in by the ideas of religious life and not by real, complex relationships with flesh-and-blood sisters.
So, yes, I have had to come to terms over the past few years with the gap between the ideal and the lived reality of religious life. All of us as sisters don’t live the fullness of the vision every day but are imperfect, struggling humans on the journey to holiness, like everyone else. We live in perpetual Advent — already but not yet.
Why have I stayed? I believe I am more fully human and more fully myself now than I was five years ago. If Jesus desires abundant life for us (John 10:10), I am more alive now than before I became a sister.
And I do truly believe the Dominican charism lives within me. I am a preacher. I am called to loving inclusively. As challenging and lonely as consecrated celibacy can be, I don’t feel called to marriage. I love the freedom and witness of being driven by a collectively-discerned vision instead of the pragmatic bottom line.
Finally, what keeps me in religious life are the relationships: with Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters, sisters in other congregations (especially through Giving Voice, an initiative of young women religious), other members of the global Dominican family and with other religious. There are a lot of unknowns but more than enough grace to keep me on the journey.
How has your relationship to Jesus been affected by your vows?
Honestly, my relationship with Jesus is less affected by my vows than I would have expected. It’s hard to put into words anything about prayer and intimate relationship with Jesus, but let me try. God’s love and mercy and closeness are so infinite and so great and so beyond me that my having made this commitment doesn’t change that. I am a recovering perfectionist and lifelong overachiever, so I think there is definitely a sinful, prideful impulse within me that wants to earn God’s love and be worthy by being a “good sister.” In prayer, Jesus is saying, “No, it’s not about that at all, sweetheart.” God desires abundant life for all of us. God doesn’t love me as a sister more than God loves anyone else. Jesus’ love and mercy and deep holding and seeing of me are so complete that all I can do is receive and rest in that. The vows create internal space and freedom, but again, that’s God’s initiative, not mine.
Many young women continue to enter religious life, but a lot of orders are shrinking and the average age is increasing. What can you say about that experience?
Aging and shrinking membership is a reality that anyone discerning religious life today will have to face. I am really blessed that in my Sinsinawa Dominican congregation I have a “squad” of other newer, younger members; we are intentional about loving and supporting and accompanying one another.
It is a gift to develop relationships with beautiful women who have lived this way of life for 50, 60, 70+ years — and also a very real grief to watch them age and decline in health. It is really important for me to balance spending time with sisters who are as old or older than my parents with spending time with friends closer to my own age — both religious and not — and in ministry with peers and students who are younger than me. I am a 30-something woman and I need to live that reality fully.
What would you tell young people today interested in discerning religious life?
First of all, congratulations for acknowledging that still, small voice which you sense calling you to such a countercultural way of life — it takes courage and vulnerability to name that! Tell someone you trust: a sister, a spiritual director, a mentor, a priest, and look to get connected to someone who can accompany you on the journey of discernment. Deepen your prayer life. I personally find the Ignatian Examen helpful in discernment. If you consistently pray through your day and reflect on where you feel most alive, you will probably start noticing patterns and gain insights that will help you to understand where God is calling you. God is closer to you than you are to yourself, and your truest self is who God desires you to be.
William Critchley-Menor, SJ, is studying philosophy and American studies at Saint Louis University. He is a member of the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus and is an editorial intern at America Media.