I’ve been wanting to share with you a bit of my experience of the workshop for women and men religious that I went to a couple weeks ago. The workshop was called Poverty in a Land of Plenty and was led by my own IHM Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM. Sister Sandra is an expert on the theology and history of religious life, especially its biblical roots, and is author of the trilogy Religious Life in a New Millennium (vol 1 = Finding the Treasure, vol 2 = Selling All, vol 3 = forthcoming).

A foundational insight in Sister Sandra’s work is that religious life is not reducible to a career or religious sentiment; it’s a lifeform that is rooted in the crucified and risen Christ who is active among us today. We aren’t nuns (or monks) just because we like to help others or wear religious gear or participate in rituals. We are nuns because God has called us to orient our lives around the quest for God “in a total and exclusive way”. Sister Sandra describes this well:

Religious … do not have exclusive access to holiness nor, necessarily, superiority in relation to it. What specifies their life, their “specialization,” is their exclusive life-commitment to religion itself. Like the person who shapes her or his life around art, or sports, or scientific research or family (even while also participating in some or all of the other spheres [of life]) and who may or may not be better than others in the chosen sphere, the Religious is a specialist in the God-quest in the sense of having structured her life life around it in a total and exclusive way. (Finding the Treasure 37)

“The Religious is a specialist in the God-quest.” Wow. I cannot finish typing that without a sense of fear and trembling. It’s no wonder this way of life is a calling from God because this is no small “specialization.”

I’ve often heard my nuns talk about the grace of office, how when a nun is elected to a position, she receives the grace to faithfully meet her responsibilities. Being called to leadership calls out skills and gifts in a new way. I think this “grace of office” thing applies to all of us when we make a life commitment such as becoming a Religious. We are each ordinary people, living the Gospel as best we can. But when we are called, it’s as if we receive a “new” grace from God to rise to the challenge of such a radical, powerful, beautiful way of life.