Wednesday, June 17, 2009

How'd the Lowcountry Sisters Get Their Habit?

Originally Published in the Bluffton Packet

Imagine twenty teenagers on retreat at Running W Ranch on Route 46 which features, among other fun-makers, pool tables. Sunday morning the teens were finishing breakfast when the morning’s speakers arrived. They bustled in from the torrential downpour outside, gracefully arranging their black veils and brushing the rain off their white habits. Our youth are used to seeing the Sisters at church, so their dress was no surprise. What did shock the teens was to see the sisters pick up the cue sticks and skillfully begin shooting pool like pros. Sister Mary Dominic turned to one astounded teen and kindly said, “Well, we weren’t born sisters.”

They were not. But how did Sister Mary Dominic evolve from pool shark to Consecrated sister? The Lowcountry is blessed to have about a dozen sisters from various orders in our schools and churches, so chances are you’ve seen them had a few questions: What’s with the outfit? How did this happen? Let’s start with the basics. First, I say “sister” instead of “nun” because a nun is a sister who is cloistered (think walls, “Sound of Music” style). They do exist, but you won’t be seeing them in Bluffton or Hilton Head.

How does one decide to be a sister? Last search, it wasn’t coming up on The call to be a sister is actually much deeper than a career. It’s what the Catholic Church calls a “vocation.” God calls us all to be holy through living love by practicing poverty, chastity, and obedience. You might think, “What? Being a Christian means I have to be poor, never have sex and obey? I don’t remember that from vacation Bible school!” For most of us, living poverty, chastity, and obedience means to live simply, practice self-control when it comes to our sexuality and be obedient to God. This is simply phrasing the Ten Commandments in three positive acts instead of ten “thou shall not’s.” The gifts and talents we have enable us to live these three acts in one of three ways: married, single or religious. (Yes, even married people are called to chastity. How? Chastity is not about not having sex, it’s about
following God’s plan for our sexuality. But that’s for another column…). Since everyone is familiar with the single life and most with marriage, let’s skip to religious life.

In the earliest days of the Church there is evidence that many remained unmarried. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that “an unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord… an unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs; Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit…. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32, 34, 37). Throughout history, different religious communities have been established to respond to the needs of the church and to provide an environment for those who seek to live in “undivided devotion.” For example, St. Dominic established the Dominicans in 1170 for those who felt called to serve the church as teachers. Centuries later, the Dominicans are still teaching, four of them right here in the Lowcountry.

Many close friends have entered religious life and I’ve learned from watching them discern God’s call. They had been in healthy dating relationships (a few had even been engaged), but felt called to follow God in a deeper way. Pope John Paul II explained that grace “never casts nature aside or cancels it out, but rather perfects and enobles it.” My friends saw that based on their nature, talents, and desires God was calling them to live poverty, chastity, and obedience in a more radical way. They chose to remove themselves from the cares of the world that St. Paul mentioned to the Corinthians. They chose not to have a family, to discard their possessions (much of my CD collection consists of convent entry cast-offs), and to be obedient to God through the directions of their community so they can focus solely on the Lord’s affairs. In doing this, they remind us who are still concerned with the world’s affairs that eventually it will
pass away. Their choosing to embrace poverty, chastity, and obedience in this world is a foretaste of heaven where we will not own anything, not “marry nor be given away in marriage” (Matthew 22:30) and will be in perfect obedience to God. The outfits, or habits, a witness to the world that the sisters are focused on heaven, remind us to do the same.

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