In many ways, the 1950’s was a world very different from today. Vatican II had not yet happened, and the church was very different as well.
Because friends of my mother were connected with the Dominican Retreat House in Elkins Park, PA, a young friend of the family and I were sent there for an overnight retreat for 7th and 8th grade girls.
The sisters there were friendly and welcoming, much more relaxed than the sisters I had in school. The program was inspiring. The priest director opened with St. Augustine’s, “Thou has made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” I took that seriously, but not too seriously. However, because I had such a positive experience, I returned for retreats during grade school and later high school as often as I was able.
When I was in high school, I began to think about my future. Would I go to college? I felt drawn to the ministry of retreats, but not enough to want to become a sister. But, the beginning of Francis Thompson’s poem, The Hound of Heaven began haunting my thoughts:
“I fled him down the nights and down the days:
I fled him down the arches of the years;
I fled him down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind, and in the mist of tears
I hid from him, and under running laughter.”
This poem was grandiose for a high school girl, but it resonated with me. I felt drawn to the ministry of retreats and to community life, but I still did not want to become a sister. I put much effort into trying to get rid of that idea.
When Catholic Action Groups were popular, (this is really going back) their motto was See, Judge and Act. These three words had an impact on me while I wrestled with my life’s vocation:
- SEE: be open to reality: my life, my world, my skills, my interests, my hopes and dreams.
- JUDGE: What shall I do with my one, wild, precious life? (Mary Oliver)
- ACT: Once you are given an answer, go for it! – go for whatever is life giving and fulfilling for yourself, for others, and for the planet.
After years of indecision and ambivalence, bargaining with God, and trying to convince myself that I could do a lot of good without entering the convent, I surrendered to the need to jump off the fence I was sitting on, and quit wheel spinning.
I finally realized that what I had understood as the Hound of Heaven’s relentless pursuit was actually a persistent invitation to explore becoming a sister. This invitation brought changes in myself and in my life.
A constant has been the vows:
- poverty – the call to sharing and simplicity of life;
- celibacy – the call to live in love for all creation;
- obedience – the call to cultivate a listening and discerning life.
These vows give counter witness to some of the distorted values of our time: possessions, prestige, and power.
The moral of my story is to be honest with yourself and do not be afraid to take a leap of faith.
Mary Ellen Bennett, O.P.
November 9, 2021 — 60 years later!