Thank a Nun: Sister Catherine ~ She Broadened My Image of God | Sojourners

Thank a Nun: Sister Catherine ~ She Broadened My Image of God

Image by Pincasso / Shutterstock
Image by Pincasso / Shutterstock

++ Join us in showing our appreciation for Catholic women religious (aka nuns or "sisters") on Thank-a-Nun Day, May 9. Click HERE to send a thank-you note online. ++

Author's Note: Meeting Sister Catherine during my years as a seminary student in North Carolina played a pivotal role deepening and expanding my spiritual formation, in my personal healing and in discerning key callings of my future vocation.

Sister Catherine is a Catholic nun in the Society of the Faith Companions of Jesus, an order in the spirit of Saint Ignatius, t in France in the mid-19th century under the auspices of Marie Madeleine Victoire de Bengy de Bonnault d'Houet (1781—1858). 

I began Spiritual Direction sessions with Sister Catherine after the unforeseen death of my father and in the midst of a spiritual crisis.

What follows is taken from my book Reluctant Pilgrim: (A Moody Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community) Copyright c 2010 Fresh Air Books. Used with permission. Upper Room Books


I started seeing Sister Catherine once a week and within two months I felt as though I were going through a spiritual transformation, like I was being radically broken open and the thick outer shell I had maintained for so long was cracking and pieces were falling off one by one, slowly and painfully. And I learned the difference between a therapist and a spiritual director. She helped me think through my relationship with God and how different areas of my life affected or were seemingly affected by my sense of spiritual self.

“I know this season of the liturgical year is called “Ordinary Time” because the weeks of Sunday are numbered but I like to think of it meaning plain and uneventful time more so than ordinal,” I told Sister Catherine during one session.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because it kind of feels like a gift to me, to be trying to experience God in really simple ways during the church season of ordinary time when nothing exciting is happening like Easter or Christmas.  I’m not going to church on Sundays very regularly but I feel like God is graciously revealing God’s self to me through other people and becoming really alive for me in very incarnate mundane ways, not just in my own head and heart, or in my own silent prayers or weak devotional life.”

“What are some of those incarnate ways? How is God becoming flesh to you?” she prodded.

“In my friendships, how my girlfriend Sophie listens to me and creates a space for me to share how badly I’m doing whenever I need it. How my friend Nora, who lives in another state lets me call her in the middle of the night because I can’t sleep. And when I take my daily walks I feel a little put back together at the end of it. It’s almost like I’m figuring out that experiencing God’s love and presence isn’t just about my being obedient and performing well for God. It’s simply God’s love. It’s not about tests and being strong enough and doing whatever it takes to not be rejected by God. It’s about love. I know that sounds kooky but it’s what I’m feeling these days and it’s kind of a relief.”

“It doesn’t sound kooky. It sounds like you are letting yourself come to God in a very real and present state of being. That can be a very helpful and sincere way to pray- communicating with God with the real emotions we are feeling and not with pat responses that we think God wants to hear from us. I believe God wants us to learn to voice our hearts honestly before him. Just like the Psalmists.”

“Say more” I said.

“Well, learning to pray and communicate from the present seat of your emotions is part of learning to be awake and aware of life around you and within you. You are a very intelligent woman Enuma, but sometimes we can get addicted to our minds as a coping mechanism. Sometimes we can overanalyze God’s presence in our lives, always looking for signs to interpret. Sometimes the most faithful prayers are the questions we bring to God.”

“I never thought about that.” I replied.

“I want to encourage you to lean into God’s peace wherever you find it. God is consistent and generous and abundant in guiding us and in affirming his will with us.”

“But what if I relax so much that I miss the signs?” I worried aloud.

“You will not miss the signs. You might choose to ignore them but you will not miss them. God is too generous with them.”

I took exceptional comfort in hearing this from a nun.

Over the next year of sessions with Sister Catherine I struggled not to get lost in my head and in my own perspectives of how God works or what God desired of me. I learned to temper my propensity for solitude and quiet with intentional phone calls and visits and walks outside. When I was tempted to lose myself to the thoughts of a demanding unapproachable God I would make sure to get back into some active way of living in the world. It helped that over the past few months I was learning to let other voices into my head, like Sister Catherine’s telling me not to try too hard to squeeze myself into something that didn’t seem to be my size. And I learned to recognize that the voice of God can often be recognized by the fruit it creates- peace and gentleness and joy and everything else in Galatians 5. Sister Catherine taught me about how we often relate to God the way we relate in our human relationships. I had a field day with that insight.

We did eventually talk about the nun thing and my irrational fear of being called to the convent. I asked her to share her story with me, when and how she knew she was called to such a life and what it was like for her. She told me that she knew when she was sixteen and that she just couldn’t imagine doing anything else with her life. She shared how disappointed and saddened her parents had been because it meant the end of certain dreams they had for her, like marriage and children. But she couldn’t be talked out of it. When she was 18 years old she left her family home and joined the convent.

‘Was it ever hard for you? Did you ever regret your choice?” I asked.

I could almost see her thinking back to her youth, the pictures flashing inside her mind like a silent movie. “I don’t think I ever regretted it but it was hard sometimes. I had to learn how to live with other women, some of whom I really didn’t like that much, and how to give up a lot of control in my life. That was probably the most difficult thing, not being able to go wherever I wanted when I wanted. You have to remember that when I first became a nun things were different. We didn’t have as much freedom as we do now. But I never felt like there was anything else I wanted to do more than serve God that way. It was a joy even when it was hard.”

“Did you ever fall in love?”

She smiled, “Of course I did. I became a nun not a robot. At one point in my early twenties I started having feelings for someone and I had to tell my Superior about it. It was really painful because I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I just had to get over it.”

“And you never felt like leaving the sisterhood?”

“Not really. I never had romantic feelings for anyone that seemed to run deeper than what I felt for God. I just couldn’t imagine anything bringing more lasting satisfaction. That’s just how it was for me.”

“Hmm,” was all I could say.

Enuma Okoro, of Durham, North Carolina, is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

Candle image: Pincasso/

++ Join us in showing our appreciation for Catholic women religious (aka nuns or "sisters") on Thank-a-Nun Day, May 9. Click HERE to send a thank-you note online. ++




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