Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Becoming Sister

Becoming a sister is not a quick process by any stretch of the imagination.  From Candidacy to Novitiate to Temporary Profession to, at last, Final Profession is a process that can take anywhere from 6 to 9 years. I myself have officially been in the process for over 2 years now. (Unofficially, I've been connected to the Sister of St. Joseph for four years.)

When I became a novice in September, I took the next step in this process, entering into two years of intensive prayer, study, and reflection.  For that reason, blog posts have been less frequent and I have had to make conscious choices about how I communicate.  Becoming a novice also marked another big change: I became "Sister".

That is to say that in taking this step I entered into the congregation that I had been in touch with for close to four years.  I am now our youngest member. I am Sister Colleen.

There are a lot of transitions to be made when entering into the novitiate. I imagined and prepared myself for some in the months leading up to my initiation.  Leaving my job, getting rid of possessions, moving into a new community, getting used to a new routine- I knew all of these things would impact me.  Other transitions and struggles I never could of imagined and have done my best to navigate them with grace (sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and in the case of some other times, the outcome waits to be seen.)

One transition, though, that I don't think I ever thought to consider seriously was the jump into becoming "Sister".  My friends like to joke that they can now call me Sister Colleen much to my chagrin, my brother likes to call me "Sister Sister", and I've come to affectionately (and somewhat flippantly) sign some notes to my parents "Love, Sister Daughter".

The truth is, though, that I never could imagine myself being called Sister.  I had never met a Sister Colleen and when I turned the name over and over in my head it didn't seem to roll off the tongue. I blame the inexplicable jumbling of syllables between the two words when pronounced in conjunction. To my ears, the name didn't quite fit.  Even once I "had" the title, it wasn't how I introduced myself. Those I had known before September wouldn't use it to introduce me to people and so, while it made random appearances, there was no regularity of usage for it to stick with.

As I began doing some work in classrooms at our elementary and high schools here in Philadelphia this semester, the name took on more regular usage, but in many cases those I was teaching with bounced back and forth between the formal and informal within the course of a day.  As I worked with fourth graders, teaching them our SSJ history, I found I would refer to myself in the third person, as if this "Sister Colleen" was a separate entity, someone just as easily discussed aside from myself, created through an out-of-body commentary.

These past few weeks, I have begun shadowing sisters who serve in various ministries up and down the East Coast. As I spend time with these wonderful women, the question inevitably comes up: What do you want to be called?

More often than not, that question comes after the awkward moment where I must be introduced to someone. Hesitation is the key characteristic of these situations. Either there is an ascending, somewhat questioning tone (as in This is my friend, Colleen.?.) or a moment of pause and/or mumbling (as in This is... Sister Colleen...umm, she'll be spending the day with me.).  Either way it's an awkward, less than comfortable moment.

When I first encountered that question of what I wanted to be called- my response was just as strained and uncomfortable as that initial introduction. You can call me Sister Colleen or Colleen, yeah, really whatever you think works best.   In reality, I felt bad pointing out that Sister had a rightful place in front of my name. I thought it was common knowledge, after all each sister had gone through this transition just as I had, but over time memory and details become clouded. I would rather have not had to have been the one to point this out. And, even more, my own ill-at-ease with the name/title didn't lend itself to a confident assertion of what exactly I should be called.

"Sister" carries with it a lot of power and a lot of responsibility.  It comes with its own connotation and, inevitably, it comes with a raised eye brow (or two) when a person sees that the one bearing the name is a whole lot younger than whoever they were expecting to see.  I get that. I don't blame anyone for it. It's a fact I completely understand and a responsibility that I am becoming more and more comfortable with as I take on the title and all that comes with it.

It means I need to behave but it also means I need to be myself.

Part of that self is now Sister Colleen.

Today, as I stood in front of a group of eighth grade students in North Carolina, leading a retreat with a fellow sister, something about that part finally clicked.  Without need of qualification, I was Sister Colleen... just as my co-leader, with 29 years in this life, was also Sister.  The teacher who introduced us to the class didn't stumble or stammer when she named us, her voice remained steady and my ears remained undisturbed. And perhaps for the first time, I firmly believed that I was Sister.  That's what my name tag read, it's what the students before me accepted as truth, and, without internal objection or rejection, it's what/who I was and am.

And that, I can honestly say, on this long journey, is a step in the right direction.


  1. Beautifully said, Sister Colleen. I think it's part of not only who you are but who you are becoming, and that very becoming is something you can share with the world around you - to be and to become. It is a joy to know that there are strong and faithful women living dedicated lives as part of the Body, who are for us Sisters. What a great blessing to me to have sisters like you.

  2. At school I am often, "Miss Sister Sarah." One of my students has shortened it to simply, "Sister." I wish I could share with you the tone that often comes with that, "Sister..." I have somewhat of the same problem with wearing my CSJ cross. I don't know exactly what it is.

  3. Lovely. Thank you, Colleen. I'm getting the title in a few short weeks! Your honest reflections help my own. Much love, Sister!!!