I’ve always been drawn to the monastic life. When I was single and living alone, my bedroom contained a bed, a dresser, and a single crucifix on bare white walls.
Sister Mary Veronica making her first profession in the hands of Sister Denise Marie, the prioress of the monastery at the time. Photo courtesy of Dominican Nuns of Summit.
I have three CDs in my car of Gregorian chants, I’ve attended silent retreats at various monasteries, and lately one of my favorite activities is walking the labyrinth at a convent just down the road from where I live.
I’m not the only one who is drawn to monasticism.
Into Great Silence, a documentary about the Carthusian monks in France, won a special jury prize at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
A group of ecumenical Christians gathered together in 2004 to form what they called the “New Monasticism” movement, which has spawned books, conferences, and intentional communities. And the CD “Angels and Saints of Ephesus” by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, recently hit the top of the classical music charts.
In our hurried, distracted and disjointed lives, it’s easy to understand why we’re drawn to a life of simplicity, peace, prayer, and community. But what is it really like? Is it what we imagine?
|It was just like I ‘knew.’ I don’t even know if it was a feeling—if there was any feeling it was that I was terrified that something like that could happen. I knew I didn’t have to ask anymore.”|
I recently spoke with a 28-year-old woman who isn’t just listening to Gregorian chants and putting crucifixes on her wall, she’s living the day-in, day-out life of a nun.
Sister Mary Veronica entered a cloistered monastery at the age of 23. She took her first vows at the Dominican Monastery of Our Lady of the Rosary in Summit, New Jersey, in 2013. Sometime in the next couple of years, she will take her solemn vows, committing her life to unceasing prayer, community, celibacy, and making soap that the nuns sell in their gift shop. Her commitment means she will not be drinking Starbucks coffee, she’ll be shunning contact lenses, and she won’t have a spouse and children.
It’s one thing to go on a silent retreat for a weekend, but giving up intimacy and Starbucks?
Sister Mary Veronica acknowledges that giving up a spouse and children wasn’t an easy decision, but she doesn’t really regret the lack of lattes: “I probably missed Starbucks a lot more as a postulant than I do now,” she told me. “I think if I went to Starbucks now and ordered a drink it would just be way too much sugar. They are so filling!”
On the phone, Sister Mary Veronica is friendly, soft-spoken, witty, and thoughtful. She laughs easily, and seems like someone you’d like have one of those lattes with. But that’s not an option: The nuns rarely leave the monastery (except for doctor’s appointments), and they maintain relationships mostly through letter writing (although her parents, who live an hour away, visit about once a month). Despite these restrictions, Sister Mary Veronica doesn’t have many doubts about her decision.
“Purity of heart is to will one thing.”—Soren Kierkegaard
Some people know early in their lives they want to be a doctor, or an artist, or a teacher. Sister Mary Veronica knew at 13 that she would become a nun. In grade school, a teacher offhandedly mentioned to her that maybe she should consider the religious life. This teacher—who didn’t even know her well (Sister Mary Veronica never had a class with her)—changed the course of her life forever.
At first she thought, “No way, I don’t want to do that!” But later, she decided that she should at least pray about it: “Lord, you don’t really want me to become a nun, do you?” she remembers saying.
“It wasn’t so much that I felt like I was being dragged kicking and screaming,” says Sister Mary Veronica. “But I guess I couldn’t see how that would make me happy. Even at 13 you’re looking at the alternatives, like getting married and having kids. So those are all difficult things to think about giving up.”
In that moment when she prayed, she knew. “It’s very hard to explain, I had a hard time explaining it to my best friend before I was entering, and she didn’t get it. It was just like I ‘knew.’ I don’t even know if it was a feeling—if there was any feeling it was that I was terrified that something like that could happen. I knew I didn’t have to ask anymore.”
She didn’t tell her mother for a year. “My parents didn’t try to stop me, but they were skeptical about how becoming a nun would go for me, and whether I would be able to stay or want to stay. After about a year they started to see I was happy here. They are very proud of me.”
Her life ‘before’
Sister Mary Veronica had a fairly normal existence before she entered religious life. She had loving parents who weren’t too strict—except for taking the family to 7:30 a.m. Mass on Sundays and requiring their daughters go to German language school on Saturday mornings.
Both Sister Mary Veronica and her sister went to a Catholic elementary school, and then an all-girl’s Catholic high school. (Their parents thought they would build more confidence not having to compete against the boys.) In high school, she ran cross-country, participated in a Girl Scout troop until the end of high school, and took music lessons. She admits she was pious, even in high school.
|“The expectation of a relationship adds a lot of fuel to the crush, more so than a simple physical or even an emotional connection. So I think the harder you’re looking, the harder you fall for someone. And I knew I wasn’t looking for that.”|
“I really liked religious class, and if I got the chance to go to Mass during the week, that was exciting to me. In high school my parish youth group got to go to World Youth Day in Toronto, and I read this massive biography of Pope John Paul II beforehand.”
She had a boyfriend in 7th grade. Their relationship consisted of talking a lot on the phone and his parents taking them to the movies. But then they broke up. Later, in high school, she went to four proms. “It’s hard to find dates when you’re in an all-girls high school, so there was a lot of ‘I’ll go to your prom with you if you come to mine.’” One of her prom dates was a boy she knew from grade school. The other was someone a friend introduced her to. Otherwise, she went on a few dates, but her focus on becoming a nun prevented any of those relationships from getting too serious.
“I never had a crush on anyone. From talking to my friends—many of them who are now married—I’ve observed that the expectation of a relationship adds a lot of fuel to the crush, more so than a simple physical or even an emotional connection. So I think the harder you’re looking, the harder you fall for someone. And I knew I wasn’t looking for that.” She did meet someone once who she found very attractive and it was clear the feeling was mutual, but nothing ever came of it.
When I asked her if that was hard, she demurred. “Giving up having a family and giving up having a spouse isn’t a light thing,” she says. But she points out that it’s not the main thing about being consecrated. “Your intimacy with the Lord and following the Lord is the first thing, and then you give up a marriage and children for the sake of that. It’s not like you give it up, and then you find something else to fill in the void … it happens in the opposite order.”
She earned a scholarship to American University in Washington D.C. where she double-majored in Political Science and German.
“In, college I went to Germany for a semester, and then I went to Vienna and worked at the American Embassy,” she explains. “I was an intern at the State Department.
After that I met with an acquaintance—a priest—who invited me to go to Croatia and Bosnia.” Her European sojourns lasted about eight months.
“I had a roommate in Austria, and she was more of a party girl. So we would go out sometimes with the other interns,” she says. “They all knew I wanted to be a nun and they thought that was cool. It was good because the expectation was not that I would be doing crazy things.”
After college she had a temporary job at Bloomberg Financial as a market research analyst, reading annual reports of German publicly-traded companies.
Even though it was just a temporary job, I wondered if she had any hesitation about working for a financial company when she knew she was going to take a vow of poverty.
“Not really,” she said. “I minored in finance. There was a time I knew there was no way I was going to enter a community right after graduation. So I thought I’d better learn something practical. I think I would have rather picked economics, but finance fit better into my schedule. I thought, ‘Even If you become a nun, it’s good to know these things.’”
Sister Mary Veronica (far right) was part of the largest group of young women in her community to make their first profession at the same time. Photo courtesy of Dominican Nuns of Summit.
Her life ‘after’
Being a nun is hard work. Sister Mary Veronica’s day starts at 5:15 a.m. and is full and very structured, with various times of prayer, work, and recreation, divided into 30–60 minute increments. After rising in the morning, the nuns have morning prayer at 5:55 (the first of the Liturgy of the Hours), then meditation, Mass, quiet time, mid-morning prayer, work/breakfast (when she makes the soap), cleaning, chapel for daytime prayers, lunch, 45 minutes of recreation, a period of silence, office of readings, work (more soap), rosary and evening prayer, supper, and then a time for study.
This is what happens all day, every day. Except on Sundays, when they get to sleep in for 15 minutes.
Until the end of college, Sister Mary Veronica didn’t have a clue about what kind of order she wanted to join. Apparently you can’t just become a “generic” nun—you have to decide what order to join. Active sisters live, minister, and pray within the world, and are engaged in works of mercy and other ministries. Contemplative nuns live in a monastery which is usually cloistered (or enclosed) and their ministry and prayer life is centered within and around the monastery.
“The cloistered life wasn’t high on my list. I was looking for active communities, but none of them were quite a fit. Even though I knew a lot of sisters and they were quite happy, I knew it wasn’t for me, “ says Sister Mary Veronica.
|“There were times when I wanted to change my mind—but it wasn’t that I no longer thought religious life was the life for me, it was more that I wished it would be a little different, “ she says. “The process of formation isn’t necessarily easy. But I have always wanted to stay.”|
“I wanted to go into a community that had a vigorous prayer life, but I also didn’t want to go into a community that had a lot of little rules. I’m one of those people who’s opinionated, and says crazy things at crazy times. I wanted to be able to be myself. And looking at some communities that had more vigorous prayer schedules I wasn’t sure I could be myself in those places. Religious life isn’t meant to totally reinvent your personality.”
When she visited the Dominican monastery, which she eventually joined and which is only an hour from where she grew up, she liked the spirit of the place. “Every body seemed pretty lively, which was a good sign.”
I kept wondering if Sister Mary Veronica had any doubts about her decision. Did she ever get the urge to leave the monastery and get married, have kids, have a career?
“Occasionally, but not seriously,” she says. “I try not to daydream about that for too long. To be honest, we’re so busy we don’t have time to think about it.”
“Really?” I asked her. “There aren’t any times when you yearn to travel, get married, or eat a McDonald’s cheeseburger?”
“I think there were some times when I wanted to change my mind—but it wasn’t that I no longer thought religious life was the life for me, it was more that I wished it would be a little different, “ she says. “The process of formation isn’t necessarily easy. I think for me it wasn’t so much that I doubted that I belonged here, but sometimes you say, ‘Supposing I’m going to continue, something has to change,’ in terms of how you’re going to handle a situation. But I have always wanted to stay.”
I tried to get her to admit even a hint of doubt. Or regret. Or… something. I guess it was hard for me to imagine giving up everything to follow a religious calling, to follow God. But maybe for some people it really is that easy. The disciples left everything to follow Christ—why not a 13-year-old who heard a call as she was praying in her bedroom?
“Are you happy?” I asked her.
“I am content. Everything I really want is here. I can’t really imagine wanting it any other way.
Basically, I really want to follow Christ. And I know that you can do that being married, or working, but I wanted to make that the focus of my life. And I see that I can do that here. And I’m with other people who want to do that, too. But the fact that I made the profession publicly, everybody knows what I am trying to do, and it makes it so much easier to do it.”
Enjoying the picturesque grounds during recreation time, after the noon meal, December 2013. Photo courtesy of Dominican Nuns of Summit.
At the end of our conversation, I realized I envied her. Not because she gets to have a peaceful, quiet life in a bucolic monastery. But because since she was 13 she has known her purpose in life—and she had the courage and grit to follow it with her whole heart, without wavering, without a doubt.