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Called to Freedom: Dominican Nuns Image the Church on Oprah Winfrey

By Sonja Corbitt
February 10th, 2010
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The sisters were everything beautiful and truthful that the Church has to offer: they were Christ to Oprah and to a world in need of its meaning in Him.

BETHPAGE, TN (Catholic Online) - It was a luminous report, burgeoning with respect, ripe with joy. It was a shot of glory between baking salmon fillets, disciplining a wayward 3 year old, and folding a load of colors.

Having previously abandoned Oprah for her politics and new-ageism after years of following, I was a little anxious at the treatment our Dominican convent in Ann Arbor, MI might receive at the hands of reporter Lisa Ling and Harpo producers.

But when, straight out of the chute, the convent was described as “thriving,” the young women “flocking” to it as they never had before, and the laughing, bright, fresh faced sisters proceeded to preach a full Catholic sermon simply by sharing their home and way of life, my apprehension turned to laugh-out-loud delight.

A Golden Opportunity Seized Through the Virtue of Hospitality

A golden opportunity rejected by other convents in the nation, the Ann Arbor Dominicans’ hospitality challenged conventional worldly wisdom in a forum that can only be characterized as miraculous and that represented Catholic women in the most refreshing way I have ever seen on TV. Because the convent is home to 100 sisters whose average age is 26, the feature communicated the vitality of a relationship with a living Christ in the most captivating way.

What constitutes restriction and freedom, happiness and joy, contentment and emptiness? How can I find fulfillment when the fabulous job, the designer duds, the handsome, fascinating boyfriend, and all the comforts and ideologies of modern life are not enough? Where can I “give who I am”? Where does consumerism and “being skinny” cease to matter for women?

These were the questions raised by the sisters’ testimonies of being called by God to religious life. “Did you hear an audible voice?” Oprah asked.

“God wanted me here and made it very clear,” 22 year old sister Francis Mary answered.

Those unexposed to Catholicism or religious life who might have expected inanity or “girliness” from a community of young women, were handed what amounted to a Catholic treatise wrapped in pithy packaging by one of the professed sisters: “Everyone is on a journey in life. But we are on a more intimate journey.”

Another went on to add that in the religious life [people] are “free to pursue God fully,” while admitting that such a life is not “for every woman,” only those in whom “noise gnaws at the human soul” and pleads for silence there.

Those who imagined religious life requires rulers hidden in the recesses of religious habits or faces clouded by somber melancholy were shocked at the brightness, the transparency and the unrehearsed sincerity of the nuns’ answers and a look at their daily routine and experiences.

What About Sex?

When asked about sex, and leaving it behind along with physical motherhood, one sister pointed out how the pervasive sexualization of our society “undermines the dignity of the human person,” while another took up the same thread by expressing that religious men and women “use the same desires [that “regular” people experience] for a greater calling.”

One postulant expressed her recent willingness to abandon sex and physical motherhood for the greater intimacy of spiritual motherhood, in part, because she did not “want to be an object.” Speaking of most nuns and their “spiritual marriage” to Jesus, Sr. Francis Mary admitted, to raucous laughter, that He is a “hard husband, because if something goes wrong in the relationship, I know it’s me.”

By far though, one of the best accounts was given by one of the sisters whose very loving, pre-convent relationship ended in separation, only to ultimately be rediscovered again later in God; she had entered the convent, and he the priesthood! What a breathtaking image of the Christian life, and it was on the world stage.

Spiritual Motherhood and Freedom

The sisters were everything beautiful and truthful that the Church has to offer: they were Christ to Oprah and to a world in need of its meaning in Him. I felt as though, finally!, someone was speaking with my voice and my faith, and not by rejecting men, sex, society, or even necessarily material things, but by their acceptance of something inexplicably more holy and beautiful. It was real feminism at its best, and true spiritual motherhood, for who knows how many vocations will be born from the womb of this broadcast?

Lisa Ling’s investigative report for Oprah inspired me to deeper love: to a greater, more total, more radical obedience, a brotherly love on which I place no limits, shocking generosity and simplicity, and an attractive, positive modesty and its accompanying spiritual allure.

In a world where religious brothers and sisters probably hold the seams of a morally teetering earth together with their invisible, fervent, ceaseless prayers for us all, the broadcast revealed the Church in all her glory through our religious brothers and sisters. Surely those sisters inspired Lisa Ling to investigate true freedom, for the last words about them before the end of the show were hers, “Their lives are much more liberating.”

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Sonja Corbitt is a Catholic Scripture teacher, study author and speaker. She is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. Visit her at www.pursuingthesummit.com and www.pursuingthesummit.blogspot.com.

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