Just because you’re not in your 20s — or you’re not in perfect health — doesn’t mean you’ve lost your chance to discern consecrated life. I talked with Robyn Lee — former managing editor of Catholic Digest — about her vocation story; with Sr. Sheila Cigich about starting a new order for late vocations; and with Sr. Zita about the Benedictines of Jesus Crucified, an order that accepts candidates who suffer from physical conditions.
ROBYN LEE BECOMES SR. MARY MERCY
“The novice mistress paused and calmly said to me: ‘You can sit on the side of the pool and wonder if the water is cold, but you are never going to know unless you jump in.’”
By worldly standards, Robyn Lee was a success. She had a dream job, owned her own home, was a world traveler, and had many friends. Yet she felt that something was missing, and for a long time she thought that something was marriage. Robyn told Catholic Digest, “I wanted my Cinderella moment. Being fixated on that, I wasn’t able to hear or be open to the other possibilities that God was presenting.”
Early call missed
In childhood, Robyn had felt an attraction to the religious life so much so that she ended a serious relationship in college. After graduation, she visited some orders, and during one of those visits, a mother superior told her, “Not yet.” Robyn took that to mean that she didn’t have a vocation, and she viewed the door to religious life as closed.
Never a Mr. Right for a reason
Having an outgoing personality, Robyn dated a lot, but those relationships never worked out — partly because she found herself always desiring something more. In her early 30s, she started to entertain the idea that perhaps she did have a call to consecrated life after all. “When I allowed God to enter in, it helped me to see that maybe this was the reason things weren’t working out with the men I dated.”
But religious life wasn’t a default option for Robyn because marriage wasn’t on the horizon. “It wasn’t ‘Oh, I am 35, and I am still single, so let me go try out religious life.’ Religious life is a calling, and it was a calling that I had for a long time but had ignored because it wasn’t in my pretty picture I had imagined for myself,” she says.
Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist
For years, Robyn had been active in the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist’s young professionals group, and she had enjoyed being in the sisters’ company. “They had a joy and happiness that I wanted.”
Robyn decided she would attend one of the sisters’ vocation retreats because she felt drawn to the sisters and their devotion to the Eucharist.
The need for certainty
“During that vocations retreat, I was so fixated on knowing the whole picture before I could commit to anything,” she remembers.
When the novice mistress, Sr. Barbara Johnson, FSE, told her she would need to jump in to discover if the water was cold, it was a turning point for Robyn. It freed her to think, “What if God is asking me to trust him to take this leap — this first step — without seeing the rest of the picture because I am not ready to know the whole story yet? Perhaps there are things that I need to learn or go through in this first step.”
For Robyn, it was a gift and grace to relinquish control and enter pre-postulancy and later postulancy. To say, “OK, God I don’t see the whole picture, and I am a little bit afraid, but I see you want me to take this first step, and I am ready and willing because I want to do your will.”
Robyn resigned from her jobs and sold her home so that she could take her third step, entering the canonical novitiate of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. On May 30, 2016, she received the veil, a longer habit, a cincture, and a new name: Sr. Mary Mercy.
“I was always looking for something more because I was called to be Christ’s spouse. Through my religious vocation, I have found a happiness that I could have never achieved on my own.”
BECOMING A NUN HAD BEEN HER LIFE-LONG DREAM
“Ever since I can remember, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a nun,” Sr. Sheila Cigich, 64, from Boise, Idaho, told Catholic Digest. Though she wanted to enter the convent directly after high school, her mother thought Shelia was too young. However, only a year later, her parents allowed her to become engaged at 19.
After three children and 33 years of marriage, Sheila’s union was annulled, and the longing for religious life remained.
“I thought I was crazy. I did absolutely everything I could to disprove the Lord was calling me to the religious life. I asked the Lord, ‘Take it away please.’”
People told her, “Why don’t you just get remarried and have a normal life?”
“Women in their 50s are changing their careers all of the time, but when you say you are going to become a nun, they say, ‘Whoa, you can’t do that!’ Why would you prevent someone from dedicating her life to God?”
A time of discernment
Under the advice of her spiritual director, a Jesuit priest, Sr. Sheila visited many communities and entered two different convents, one in 2009 and the other in 2012, staying a year at each of them. “The Lord called me in, and the Lord called me out. I still felt like I had a vocation, but it wasn’t going to be realized in those communities,” Sr. Sheila says.
When she left one of the orders, the mother superior said, “What can we do with women like you?”
“These orders didn’t know what to do with older women — experienced women coming in from life in the world — because they were trying to treat them like they’re young. They didn’t realize what we know, can do, or who we are. They’re still treating us like we are 20- or 30-year-olds that don’t know what spirituality is and what prayer entails.”
Starting a new community for older vocations
While visiting and discerning communities, some of the religious Sr. Sheila met suggested that she start a new community for late vocations. Sr. Sheila was initially opposed to doing that, and she determinedly claimed that she could fit in somewhere.
After leaving the second order, she searched the internet for new communities, beseeching God for direction: “‘Lord, what is this? I am still looking. I have done it twice. It’s not going to work.’ In my soul, I heard, ‘You know what I have asked you.’ I said, ‘OK, I will do this, but I don’t know anything about starting a religious community, and I have to get a job because my savings are gone, so you will have to guide me.’”
On Jan. 1, 2014, Sr. Sheila, who also works as a home economics teacher in a public school, officially began a community she named Sisters of Divine Grace. Things fell into place, and on Dec. 8, 2015, Bishop Peter Christensen endorsed the community (currently made up of two sisters) as a private association under the authority of the Diocese of Boise.
“I breathed a sigh of relief because now we can calmly live the life, figure out the governance, and adopt a rule. You can’t do that overnight. You have to live it, and you have to work and pray about it and let the Lord guide.”
The Sisters of Divine Grace — whose charism is apostolic wisdom following the example of St. Louis de Montfort — accepts eligible women over the age of 40. The order is open to receiving candidates.
BENEDICTINES OF JESUS CRUCIFIED UNITE THEIR SUFFERINGS WITH THE PASCHAL MYSTERY
The Benedictines of Jesus Crucified, a monastic community in Branford, Connecticut, have a unique charism: They accept women who have physical limitations that might preclude them from joining other communities.
The order began in the 1930s in Paris when Fr. Maurice Gaucheron and Mother Marie des Douleurs saw a need for women with insufficient health to be able to fulfill their religious vocations.
Sr. Zita, vocations director of the Benedictines of Jesus Crucified, told Catholic Digest, “At the time there were quite a few people who had TB and had been treated and recovered from it, but they weren’t 100 percent healthy. Some of these women came to the father founder saying, ‘There must be a way. We want this way of life, but nobody is willing to take us.’ This was because the Benedictine way of life is very vigorous, and so these women wouldn’t be able to tolerate that sort of regime. Our founder and foundress realized that maybe they had to do something to make monastic life accessible for women with frail physical health.”
Fr. Gaucheron saw illness and physical frailty as a means of following Jesus into the Paschal Mystery — uniting their physical conditions with Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.
“It’s a very striking thing for someone from the outside to come to our monastery for the first time and see nine or 10 wheelchairs. We don’t even notice the handicaps; we try to live with each other as persons and not be defined [by] our disabilities,” Sr. Zita explains.
A persistent calling
Growing up, Sr. Zita had dreams of being a fashion designer, a teacher, a wife, and the mother of 10 children. She also had a desire to be a nun. “I felt a persistence to check out a religious vocation.”
If it hadn’t been for the Benedictines of Jesus Crucified, Sr. Zita would have been prevented from following her calling because she has a seizure disorder.
“Even for us, this was an exception,” Sr. Zita says. “I had to get the prioress general’s permission because the order is cautious about conditions that are neurological.” In 1961, at age 20, she entered the order.
Although the Benedictines of Jesus Crucified accepts women with frail health, it’s not a prerequisite. It should also be noted that the sisters are unable to consider women who have mental disorders or conditions such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis.
Another aspect of the order that separates it from others is its French requirement. All sisters need to know or be willing to learn French because novices study at the motherhouse in France.
In addition to their motherhouse and their Monastery of the Glorious Cross in Connecticut, the Benedictines of Jesus Crucified (BenedictinesJC.org) have another house in Japan. The order has always been small — at its height, there were 300 sisters, and currently there are approximately 70 sisters around the world.