Sr. Helena Burns, F.S.P., is a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, an international congregation founded to communicate God's Word through the media. She is the movie reviewer for the Catholic New World, Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper. Burns is currently writing and producing a documentary on the life of Blessed James Alberione and is a co-producer on 40, a pro-life documentary. She is a regional vocation director for her congregation and author of He Speaks to You (2012), a book for young women. Burns has been giving media and theology of the body workshops to youth and adults across the United States and Canada since the 1990s. Burns holds a B.A. in theology and philosophy from St. John's University, New York; she also studied screenwriting at UCLA and Act One, Hollywood and holds a Certificate in Pastoral Youth Ministry. She is finishing her M.A. in Media Literacy Education.
I'm a nun. Technically, I'm a religious sister, because "nun" refers to cloistered contemplatives. But no matter. We answer to nun, too, because it's in common parlance and rhymes with a lot of words, like fun.
So, what's it like being married to Jesus? Real. Very real. It is not poetry. It is not metaphor. It is not make-believe. Do you think I would give up my life to play pretend princess? Not on your life. Mother Teresa once said, "If you are called, you will know it, and you won't be able to explain it to anyone." But fools rush in, so here goes.
Nuns often get referred to as "brides of Christ," which is what we are, but after all these years, I also feel like his wife, his old lady, not just his blushing bride. How can this be? Don't look at me. When I was nine, I planned on living in a farmhouse in New Hampshire with my husband, ten boys, and a sheepdog. (I wanted boys because I felt they just weren't being raised properly these days.) By the time I was 15, I set my sights on being an ornithologist (specializing in raptors) and most likely living in the wild (a husband was welcome to join me if he could keep up). But then Jesus had to go and propose to me.
It didn't feel like a proposal at first. It felt like a very serious, urgent invitation to be God's servant, his handmaid, his little worker bee. (You know that worker honey bees are all feminine, right? There are only a few drones [males] in every hive.) I fought with him for two years and then surrendered. Why did I say yes? It was becoming more and more apparent that I had no idea how to make myself happy any more.
Any more? Before I met God, I had hobbies and activities that I enjoyed intensely. Actually, I did everything intensely (type A). When I started searching for the meaning of life (intensely), all my joys began to dim because they seemed meaningless if there was no ultimate purpose to everything. Then I met God and all my loves were returned to me, but in a new way. Ever since I met God I wasn't able to enjoy my favorite things in the same way. Before I knew God, they were everything to me. They were all I had. But now they were no longer ends in themselves, but pleasant occupations along a journey to a bigger destination. God was re-ordering my priorities and my life.
Oh, I was trying desperately to make myself happy in all the usual ways, but God doesn't give up that easily. I knew I was free to respond either "yes" or "no," but at a certain point I realized that my life was becoming like The Agony in the Garden (where Jesus begged the Father "that this cup [of His Passion and Death] might pass me by.") Jesus struggled with doing what he knew was the will of God, too! I was asking God that the "cup" of my vocation to be a nun might pass me by. My prayer kind of was, "Dear God, it is sooooo nice to know you now! I'm so glad you're in my life! But I really want to go back to my own plans for my life. I got plans, see? Remember? The animals, the birds? So, this nun thing? I'm flattered, I really am. Thanks, but no thanks. Amen."
But I also knew the fact that I could feel two wills struggling meant that I wasn't making this up. If it was my own insane "What was I thinking?!" idea, I could just put it to rest and ignore it, go another way, leave it behind, move on. But it wasn't my idea.
Dumping God is also not done that easily (see poem, "The Hound of Heaven"). I remember so clearly the night I decided I was done with the idea of ever becoming a sister. I determined to put it out of my mind and get on with my life. After all, I was free, right? God never forces us to do anything, right? I can still see exactly what I was wearing. I went out to the movies, all set for a euphoric night of total forgetfulness of this crazy notion. I came home miserable. (It wasn't the movie—it was a great film.) My entire being felt out of sync. I knew I would never be who I was truly meant to be, I would never progress, I would never experience profound contentment if I didn't give myself completely to him, which at this point I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt he wanted. I knelt by my bed and said YES. Within about two weeks, I had glided easily into his will for me. His will was now my will, too.
When did it start to feel like a proposal? Many years after I entered the convent, when I discovered John Paul II's "Theology of the Body." Karol Wojtyla gave me permission to be a woman, something that my (radical) feminism had denied me. Yeah, like that. Of course that's a whole 'nother rant.
But Can God Really Be Enough?
Is God really enough? Can God really satisfy? I would simply like to turn those questions around. How could God not be enough? How could God not satisfy? He's our creator. He created all things. He is love. He is the source of all life and love. "Your Maker is your husband" (Isaiah 54:5). God is "realer" than we are. We are only real because He is real and He sustains us in existence. "In him all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17). He is a personal God who became human for us and gave his life for us because he loves us and now has a human face forever. Life is short. We come from God and are going back to God. What was your question again?
What Can Married Couples Learn From My Marriage?
What can married couples learn from my marriage? The same thing I can learn from their marriage: what God's spousal love looks like. Our complementary vocations are two sides of the same coin. We should be a mutual admiration society. In fact, nuns' biggest fans are young married couples who get so excited when they see us because they want their kids to meet a nun (and hope their daughters consider a religious vocation someday).
When you see a nun, are you supposed to think: "There she goes. One of God's special, chosen ones. *Sob.* He didn't choose me, but he chose her. *Sob.* She's so unique. She must have been so good and holy for him to choose her. And not me. *Sob.*"??? Of course not! This is what you're supposed to think when you see a nun: "Yup! God is the spouse of every soul, the spouse of my soul. Every time I see a nun, I'm reminded of that truth! It's so great to remember that God is so close to us, so real that he calls some to be exclusively his. God can be enough for us, truly fill our needs and make us happy. He can be trusted with our entire lives. Oh, and she reminds me that this isn't all there is—we're all headed to the wedding feast of heaven!" And then you are obliged to make a monetary donation to that sister who reminded you of so many good things, pray for her, take her out for coffee, etc.
You Can Have What I Have
Not only are nuns walking "eschatalogical signs" (signs of the world to come, of the "new heavens and the new earth," of paradise), you can have what I have. Really?! Yes, you too can have Jesus. Jesus is all that anyone needs. "Out of his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace" (John 1:16). Vatican II busted the myth that holiness and coziness with Jesus is for priests and nuns and other religious fanatics. Vatican II called it "the universal call to holiness." In fact, marriage is the ordinary way of holiness! (To paraphrase John Paul II: "We must make a bigger deal of 'ordinary love.") That’s why most people have marriage as their vocation and why it's a sacrament. Marriage is not a default vocation. Marriage gets you holy.
Everyone is Called to Marriage
Everyone is called to marriage. Wait, what?
1. The primary image of God's love for us in the Bible is marriage.
2. Every male and female body has a "spousal meaning," that is, the fact that we were designed for union shows that we were made to give and receive love according to our vocation in life.
3. God is the spouse of every person.
4. No one is called to be all alone. Not singles. Not hermits. We are called to be with God and others according to our vocation.
5. We're all heading to the wedding feast of heaven; we're all "engaged" to God.
Marriage When One Spouse is Perfect
Being married to the perfect guy is epic. He is forgiving, understanding, exciting, a good listener, omniscient, omnipresent, comforting and challenging at the same time, infinitely tender, wise, a great provider, keeps me entertained, keeps me laughing, keeps me growing, makes me fruitful. It's a real back-and-forth, give-and-take relationship. But whenever we fight, only one of gets upset, and only one of us is always wrong. Jesus gets me. He never cheats and he never leaves. Bad boys are overrated.
No, Really. How Can I Have What You Have?
"I can't really have the same amazing relationship you have with Jesus, can I, sister?" Yes. How? Prayer. Pray, pray, pray. Jesus said, "Pray always and never lose heart" (Luke 18:1). If we're all supposed to "pray always," that must mean that prayer is as easy and natural as breathing, wouldn't you say? Sure, there's lots of wonderful more "formal," and rote prayers we can do (find ones you enjoy!): the rosary, Divine Mercy chaplet, novenas, Liturgy of the Hours, lectio divina, (the Mass is the penultimate prayer because it's Jesus offering himself to the Father for us), etc. But foremost, we must communicate with God constantly and organically throughout the day.
We can never stop thinking and feeling and willing, so just consciously open up all your thinking and feeling and willing to him and he will be a part of every second of your life—even when you have to concentrate on something else and "forget" him for a while. You don't even have to use words. Let your heart converse with him in its own language. He's for you. He's on your side. As long as you're on his side.
Still having trouble praying? Talk to Jesus about it. (Get it?) Anything that makes prayer sound hard is not of God. Everyone can be as close to God as the greatest mystics and contemplatives, because this is what God earnestly desires, too.