Wednesday, February 1, 2012

“Bye, Happy Nuns!”

Sister Emily Beata Marsh pronounces
her first vows, Jan. 28, 2012.
What do you say when the firstborn in your brood of twelve tells you she wants to be a sister? John and Ruth Marsh of Bemus Point, NY, near Buffalo, were not at all surprised when 20-year-old Emily announced just that. She wanted to be a Daughter of St. Paul. Nine years before, she had confided to her mother, “I don’t think the married life is for me.” Apparently she wasn’t deterred by the rough and tumble that comes with a houseful of kids. Emily dated, but felt drawn to something different. Last week she told me simply, “I wanted to give my life to God, and in this place, in this congregation, I found the way to give my life totally.”

There aren’t any sisters living or serving near Bemus Point—population 364—so the kids’ exposure to religious life comes from reading lives of the saints. Emily’s first contact with a real live sister was FSP vocation director Sr. Margaret Michael Gillis, whom she met at a youth conference in 2000. Three years later she was introduced to our community when she visited our mother house in Boston for the weeklong St. Paul Summer Program. When you ask her what it was about this introduction that convinced her to keep walking with us along the road of her discernment, she smiles. “I saw the sisters praying with joy,” she recalls. “They had a relationship with Jesus. At table and at recreation they were very joyful and normal. That visit helped me to know Jesus and myself, what I wanted. I asked myself, Who is Jesus? What type of relationship do I have with Jesus? And after that I wanted more.”

Like life in a large family—“all boys except nine,” as John describes it—the religious life option was in the air Emily breathed. “When we talked about what they might do when they grew up,” Ruth says of her brood, “I listed things: doctor, janitor, religious. All of these were of equal worth.” John adds, “We had a priest who was good about suggesting to young people that they at least think about it. We just wanted them to work hard to reach their potential. It was important that we let her know it was OK.”

While John was raised Catholic, Ruth’s religious upbringing was more checkered. Her mother died when Ruth was on the threshold of adolescence, and the more her father told her she didn’t have to go to Mass, the more she went, “more out of rebellion than anything.” When she met her future husband at college, they both knew that a vibrant faith-life would mark whatever future they would make together.

Youthful looking Ruth smiles at far left, and John proudly stands behind Sr. Emily.
As if housing and feeding a large family weren’t challenge enough, John and Ruth decided to tackle the demands of educating them at home. Ruth wryly confesses, “I guess I have an overconfidence problem.” Despite Ruth’s degree in education, they knew they would still have to work hard to build a close knit family. “We wanted to raise our children, says Ruth. “I had read that children spend 80 % of their time with their peers and 20% with their family, and I wanted that switched.” John points out that Blessed John Paul II reminded parents that they are “the primary educators of their children.” On his part, his small grocery store also factors into that project. Every one of his kids learns to work the register, scoop ice cream (I didn’t ask him which was the more coveted position), and clean up. John said that he was rifling through a pile of old clutter recently when he chanced upon a note that young Emily had penned: “Dear Daddy, I wonder if you could tell me ways to be a better employee.”

Ruth exclaims, “Emily was such an easy baby, she tricked us into thinking we wanted more!” Obviously they haven’t been disappointed by subsequent arrivals; in our conversation I didn’t hear either of them say, “Enough already!” They admit that everyday, anywhere they go, they get comments about the number of their offspring… “not always negative,” says Ruth. John claims it’s “a conversation starter,” and Ruth adds, “Yes, and in deciding to go out or not, I have to ask myself, Am I ready for the conversation today?”

Younger sister Molly cantors at the
Sr. Emily's profession liturgy.
Molly married last year.
Prayer is a vital part of her family’s life and of the contact the kids have with groups of other homeschoolers. You can imagine how hard it is to fit in even the most routine of prayer times in a household like this. John admits that sometimes they’re constrained to limit night prayer to the “power pack of an Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be, especially during the summer.” This is when you know God takes the lead in the dialogue and keeps an ear cocked for the next time any of them checks in. He’s making their family a “school of prayer,” one that plants the seeds of whatever vocations spring up among them.

Being homeschooled prepared Emily to evangelize when at 16, she and a boy her age team-taught—and wowed—a religious education class in her parish. Today she’s able to articulate what she picked up from that experience and relate it to her current mission. Her two favorite aspects of this mission are direct contact with people and working now as co-children’s editor at Pauline Books & Media. “I really like it, because I think of the children reading our books and of this influence on their lives. I have eight sisters and three brothers, so this apostolate is very close to my heart!” Still, she’s not tied to any one ministry within the mission. “The apostolate is to communicate Jesus. I offer Jesus to this person [in what I do]. It doesn’t matter what work I do, because I can be in communication with Jesus.”

You would think that growing up with your own baseball team, it would be an easy slide into community. As inspiring as community living is to Emily, it’s also the most difficult aspect of religious life for her. Novitiate, the period of formation that culminates in the first profession of vows, “is a time to learn how to be myself and give myself, but this process is not comfortable!” What helped her rise to the challenge was “the belief that this is my place and also the belief that all the sisters are trying their best.” But will that be enough for her going forward? “We read a lot of beautiful things about this life. It is beautiful and can be. Then life happens, and what I read comes to mind. I had a hard time [initially] putting that together. But what helped me was the conviction that I belong in community and that I want to be in community even when it’s difficult.”

Mom and Dad had their own version of the Community Challenge. While Ruth didn’t feel it was “any more difficult than her going to school or getting married, when we took her to St. Louis,* that was the hardest part. I felt the need to communicate in some way: an e-mail or a letter. Then she told us we could call. I was glad, but I knew we shouldn’t be holding her back.”

Emily felt the separation too. “The youngest was four months old when I entered. It was hard to leave, because I wouldn’t see them growing up. But I find myself involved in their lives in ways I wouldn’t have been otherwise. For example, my brother James just got accepted into the seminary, so he shared that journey with me. Discernment has made us close, even though I don’t share his everyday life. It’s been a consolation that the relationship has still developed.”

Co-novice Sylwia Skonieczna
returned to Poland where she will
profess her vows on Feb. 5.
Novice director Sr. Carmen Christi
Pompei rejoices in both of them.
I asked John and Ruth how they might explain such a decision and encourage such a life to parents who may be Christian, but who espouse a very different set of values and would never consider offering their flesh and blood to God in this way. They reflected a few moments and then tripped over each other to answer: “As parents, your goal is to raise a child to be an independent adult. You hope, too, that they’re happy and at peace with the life they choose. It’s hard to explain this kind of decision to someone who holds different values, because ultimately you have to give them back to God. The vow of poverty is a stumbling block for people without faith. They don’t realize that God takes care of you. Look around here. It’s warm, safe, and comfortable. And you have freedom from the worry that comes from excess.”

“Excess” is the operative word here. Worry about making ends meet is something we share with most of our contemporaries. The sister who pays the bills is just as bound by the vow and spirit of poverty as newly professed Sr. Emily Beata. But it’s the trust factor that’s important. Trust keeps us attentive to finances and things at our disposal, but it also keeps us from worrying ourselves sick. It comes from the faith-conviction that sees beyond the value of visible creation and its tangible goods and knows that the best is yet to come.

Maybe that’s what four-year-old Kenny intuited when he looked up at his sister on her profession day and beamed, “You’re a happy nun!” And then, just as he was leaving, he called out the sentiments of his family to the few who chanced being near, “Bye, happy nuns!”

______________
* For postulancy, or the first two years of formation

17 comments:

  1. JMJ

    As a mom in Emily's homeschool group, I recall Emily as a joyful youth and a remarkably intelligent avid reader and writer. I have always admired the family and recall visiting them for playdates and donuts during summertime visits to the Bemus Point area.

    Emily, we are so very proud of you. We rejoice that you have heard and accepted God's invitation to be a religious sister. Your smile is a very convincing witness to anyone discerning the religious life.

    May God's peace and joy fill your days!

    You are in our prayers. Please lift our family up in prayer often in you new life as Christ's bride.

    Love,
    Gail Gojevic (husband, Steve, and children: Katie, Allison, Joseph, Matthew, Mary, and Mark)

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  2. God bless you, dear Sr. Emily Beata! Thank you for your gift of self to Jesus and to His Church!
    My love and prayers accompany you,
    Mrs. Batt

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  3. Dear Sr. Margaret Joseph,

    Many thanks for your posting. The Pauline Family is so blessed with happy nuns, particularly on this special occasion of Sr. Emily's pronouncing her first vows as Daughter of St. Paul. May God bless her in devoting her life to God.

    May God be glorified! May the Lord of the harvest send more men and women into the vineyard.

    In Christ's peace,
    Margie Skeels
    Pauline Cooperator - NYC

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  4. I've known Sr. Emily since she was the oldest of just 5. ;) The Marshes are a beautiful family and we are so very happy for Sr. Emily! :)

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  5. Congratulations Sister Emily Beata! We send our prayers and love to you!

    The Franco's

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  6. Congratulations Sister Emily and also to the wonderful Marsh family! You have touched my life in so many ways. Blessings to each and every one of you!

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  7. Congratulations, Emily!! You are such a beautiful person and a "happy nun"! Love to you. The Rice Family

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  8. Congratulations, Sr. Emily! We are so proud of you! The sister who wrote the blog did an excellent jog of portraying your beautiful family. It made me smile because I could just hear you all speaking those words. The Mead Family

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  9. Sr. Emily! This made me cry...it is all so beautiful! May God continue to bless you as He already has. :)

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  12. Thank you all so much! I keep you, and all our Pauline Faithways readers, very close in prayer. God bless you!
    -sr emily beata

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  16. Sister Emily Beata,
    Thank you for giving your life to Jesus and for saying yes as Mary did. We are very proud of you and are happy to know you and your family. We will continue to pray for you and will you pray for us? We love you... The Bakers

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