Originally at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11559321/Why-Im-giving-up-my-academic-career-to-become-a-nun.html
by Theodora Hawksley
Who’d be a nun? Behind the statistics announced this week, which show that the number of women entering religious life is at a 25-year high, are the stories of 45 real women making the choice to become a nun or sister. I made that decision last year, and this January I entered an order called the Congregation of Jesus.
In many ways, my story is not a dramatic one. I was brought up Catholic, and grew up going to Mass on Sundays, attending Catholic schools and taking a lively interest in my faith. At university, this faith matured in the company of others who were serious about loving God. Many of them were thinking about life as priests, monks or nuns, and several are now ordained. But most have ended up embarking on married life. I’ve begun to think that deciding to get married and deciding to become a nun aren’t as different as they first appear.
Entering religious life as a nun, sister, brother or priest is ultimately a decision of love. Like any love, on one level it’s a bit mysterious, and hard to explain to someone who doesn’t share it. If you asked a married couple: “So what made you decide to get married?”, they might be able to list one another’s qualities, shared interests, and so on, but all that would not be enough to explain the simple fact that stands at the heart of their relationship: that they love one another. On another level, though, it’s quite straightforward. If you spend all your time with someone and rearrange your life around them, if you start to share friends and interests, then you might – eventually – think about marrying them.
Theodora Hawksley, 29, who has joined the Congregation of Jesus
Entering religious life was, for me, an acknowledgement that I had met this kind of life-shaping love. I was making time for prayer, for daily Mass, going on retreat each year, and increasingly thinking about how I could bring my career and my faith closer together. I’d thought about religious life on and off since I was about 12 years old and, as my doctoral study came to an end in 2011, I decided it was time to think about it seriously. I had three years of a postdoctoral fellowship ahead of me, and I decided to take it as time for discernment. At the end of those three years, I would either apply for a permanent contract as a lecturer somewhere, or I would take the leap into religious life.
Over a period of months and years, and with plenty of self-scrutiny and second-guessing, I realised that religious life was what I desired when I was most free and most passionately myself. I first went to see the vocations director for the Congregation of Jesus back in November 2011. The Congregation of Jesus was founded by an Englishwoman, Mary Ward, in 1609.
Historically, they focused on women’s education but today, CJ sisters work globally in a huge range of ministries, from education, to healthcare, to broadcasting and the arts. Like the Jesuits, whose rule of life they share, they do not have a regular common prayer life, so there is no chanting of psalms or fixed daily routine. Also like the Jesuits, they don’t necessarily wear any distinctive clothing or habit, and our houses are more like ordinary houses than a typical convent – there isn’t a gothic arch or cloister garden in sight.
I had met some CJ sisters, and I liked and respected them in equal measure: they were bright, funny, courageous and imaginative, women of good humour as well as deep prayer. Above all, they were real women of integrity, who lived out the words of their foundress, who told her sisters to “be as you appear, and appear such as you are”. Several visits to their houses in York and London confirmed that this was an order where I could be myself, and where I could wholeheartedly give myself to the love of God and the service of others without becoming a less-than-human, plaster-cast saint.
Sitting in their library in November 2011, I remember the vocations director saying: “Look, Theo, you’re an intelligent, young Catholic woman, teaching theology in a university, and thoroughly involved in your local parish. If you join us, chances are you might end up teaching again. Aren’t you choosing a more inconvenient version of the same life?” She was half-joking, but half-serious, too: what was it that I was searching for in religious life? The answer I gave then still stands now: I am searching for a deeper freedom in the service of God.
The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience might sound like the end of any normal life, but they represent to me the beginning of a fuller, richer, more extraordinary life: the freedom to move where I am called and most needed, the freedom from possessions, wealth and status, and a freedom to love more widely and generously than I can imagine. I am still at the beginning of the journey, and the challenge and discovery will continue over the years to come. I am looking forward to the adventure more than I can say.