In this month’s edition of the Fairfield County Catholic (Jan 2022), there is a beautiful article about a young woman named Brianna Farens who grew up in Shelton, and is a graduate of St. Joseph High School (2010) and Providence College (2014). She had always thought about pursuing a career in medicine, like her father, who inspired her with the compassion he showed to his patients. But in college, she began to pray more and felt a deep desire to grow closer to Christ. A mission trip to Peru after graduation, where she worked with people living in shantytowns, changed the direction of her life. Witnessing the Christian joy of the people, despite their dire poverty, she says she found that “the same joy was poured into the depths of my heart and filled it to overflowing. I personally encountered God’s overwhelming mercy and love for me, and it was everywhere. It was everything. I was all in.” She soon embraced the call to consecrated life, living with a community in Denver, giving talks, assisting at a Catholic OBGYN and family practice, and working with youth. All the while, Brianna felt herself being drawn into a deeper life of contemplation. One night, as she prayed before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration, “I heard Jesus calling me so clearly in the utmost depths of my heart to the cloister. And in hearing this, it was like my innermost being was illumined, and it felt like I was on fire with peace, consumed by Love.” She left the community in Denver to become a Poor Clare in their monastery in Roswell, NM, where she received the name Sr. Maria Antonia. As a Poor Clare she will spend the rest of her life hidden behind the walls of the cloister, praying and offering sacrifices for us and everyone in the world.
The story of Sr. Maria Antonia made me think of an essay by the French philosopher Chantal Delsol, whose niece lives in a cloistered monastery as a nun. Delsol, who supports her niece’s vocation, writes in the book Forgotten Love about how contemplative life is completely incomprehensible to the modern mindset. This is because, she argues, religion is valued in our age for its utility rather than for its truth. In other words, religion is not considered true, but it can be seen as useful insofar as it gives people good values from which they and the wider society benefit. From this perspective, religion is reduced to a lifestyle choice, with being a “good person” the highest aspiration of humanity. Thus, the modern world may enjoy the benefits of a Christian-ish ethic free from the baggage of Christian dogma.
If it’s true that this is the best outcome we can hope for, then the life that Brianna was living in Denver – providing healthcare to the poor, giving guidance to young people – might be understandable and praiseworthy even in the eyes of a non-religious person. On the other hand, living a hidden life of poverty, chastity, and obedience behind the walls of a monastery until death makes no sense. In fact, it might seem fanatical, cruelly excessive, and a total waste of the gifts and talents of a young woman like Brianna. But, then again, what if the Gospel is true? What if Jesus of Nazareth is God, and the resurrection happened? What if the Church is what it claims to be, and holiness rather than goodness is the highest aspiration of humanity? Then religion is not just a lifestyle choice, but the way of entering into the fullness of life both here on earth and in the life to come. Genuine faith radically changes our perspective on Brianna’s decision, leaving us awestruck.
That doesn’t mean her vocation isn’t a hard-felt sacrifice for her and her family. As she was grappling with Brianna’s decision, her mother once said to her: “God gave you so many talents and you’re so good with people, why would God want you holed up there?” But then we discover this mother’s remarkable faith, when she says: “We believe Jesus led her to this life, and who are we to question God’s plan? He knows what’s best for her better than we do. We’re just so blessed that He gave her to us…. We are very proud of her.”