What I Wish College Students Knew About Religious Life

Growing up, there were certain chores my mother asked of me that I dreaded. For instance, peeling potatoes. First of all, I’m from a big Irish family, so you can imagine the loads of potatoes that needed peeling on a regular basis. Secondly, I grew up before infomercials revolutionized kitchen gadgets so when I was peeling those 15,000 potatoes I would inevitably end up peeling my knuckles as well (pity the poor sibling who ended up with that morsel…). Needless to say, I didn’t like the job. So you can imagine my surprise when my vocation to religious life was confirmed during this very task. I was visiting the Sisters of Life, anticipating that this would be the weekend to rule out a vocation here. On paper, the schedule should have done so. Waking up way too early, times of deliberate silence when I wasn’t sleeping, and…would you believe it – hours in an industrial kitchen peeling an inordinate amount of potatoes. Yet it was there, as I perched (silently!) over a stainless steel counter with cutting board and garbage pail and peeler by my side that a ray of grace and light from above pierced my stony heart and I knew: this was the place for me. I was filled with a deep peace that welled up from within into a smile I couldn’t wipe off my face if I tried. Only God could make this happen.

He loves to surprise us. There are a lot of aspects of religious life I wish college students knew. Take belly-laughs. When I began discerning religious life, I thought those days were over – but I was wrong. People still laugh, and even a lot, on this side of the habit. Or dessert (still love it); all-out basketball (possible); spontaneous fun like sledding down snow-covered hills on kitchen trays (check); good conversation (common). But these sorts of things aren’t really surprises. They’re reliefs.

The real surprises are what have led me to conclude that religious life is the best-kept secret in the Church. These have everything to do with Jesus: how close he is, how real his love is, how much he knows and trusts me, how he provides for me. There isn’t a day I don’t step back, remember what my path in life has been and wonder in amazement, “How did I get here?” I know a lot of women holier, more virtuous, more worthy than I, who, even if they wanted to, haven’t received this vocation. I have, despite never once getting nominated to most likely to become a nun. And I’ve never been happier, or more myself.

Jesus’ love is real. It’s not an intellectual idea, or a far-off wish realized after death, but a love that is here and now and stops me in my tracks. It’s personal, given to my heart. Jesus is a Person, with a Heart still beating in the Eucharist, with a will that chooses me. Even at this moment he is giving himself to me, for me – totally. Jesus knows me – my history, hopes, desires, fears, limitations. Sometimes he catches me off guard with tenderness; sometimes he insists I see something about myself I’d rather not see. His love doesn’t rest on some worldly interpretation of perfection, but it does rest on truth. He takes me seriously.

Here’s another surprise: even knowing my limitations, Jesus trusts me. All the baptized are consecrated – set apart for God. Religious receive a bonus grace to live this more fully – to begin living now the worship we will all continue together in Heaven. Every act of a religious can be an act of worship – whether I’m praying or peeling potatoes, I have been drawn into spousal union with the Lamb of God and associated with His self-offering to the Father on the Cross and in the Eucharist. Some theologians call religious life a ‘living liturgy’. Wow. Jesus trusts me to join his offering to the Father. And I’ve seen it time and again – the Father receives this offering. He gives grace to those we pray for; peace to those who stay with us; healing and courage to those we serve. Jesus trusts religious with those important to him: the helpless, poor, confused, lonely, sick. Consecration implies mission – if he calls, he is going to send. He sends, but he never sends empty handed.

And this brings me to the last surprise: God always provides. My jaw drops daily at his spiritual provision. He gives me exactly what I need, regardless of how difficult the situation or how empty I feel. “My grace is sufficient for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9). Sometimes he shows off with me, sometimes with those we serve. It would be enough to have housing provided and furniture donated just in time for a new mom, but he has the donation arrive with that mom’s favorite food (from some random foreign country), like a signature flourish. He is trustworthy.

Here’s the best part. Everything I’ve written about– it’s all for you. Whether married, single or in the priesthood, the religious life is for you. The purpose of God’s extravagant love in calling people radically to himself is not just for their personal holiness; it’s for the holiness of the Church – for your holiness. What I discover about Jesus’ love and faithfulness as I live without the natural crutches of the world is meant to give you courage: He is close to you, he loves you, knows you, trusts you, wants to provide for you. Be not afraid – you are worth more than many sparrows (Mt. 10:31).

This post is a apart of the “What I Wish College Students Knew” series. We wanted to get popular Catholic authors and speakers to write about topics that were close to the minds and hearts of college students across the country. To read more posts in this series, click on the links below.

Sr. Mary Gabriel, S.V.
Sr. Mary Gabriel, S.V.
Sister Mary Gabriel is a member of the Sisters of Life (https://sistersoflife.org/), a New York based community of consecrated women religious dedicated to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life. The Sisters have missions in New York, Connecticut and Toronto, Canada through which they bring the liberating message of the Gospel of Life, the beauty of human love and the mercy of Christ to those they serve. The Sisters accompany pregnant women in need, some of whom live with the Sisters; walk with those healing after an abortion experience; and host retreats on the spiritual life to all women and men. Sr. Mary Gabriel is originally from Long Island, NY and has been a member of the Sisters of Life since 1999. She currently serves as Novice Director for the community.

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