Sister Colleen Gibson is featured on Catholic Women Preach January 28th, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Her reflection is particularly focused on call and the vowed commitment of religious life.
January 28, 2024
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Colleen Gibson SSJ
Often times, in social situations, when people find out that I’m a religious sister, there is a whole series of questions that follow. “Wait, what?!?” “You mean… you’re a nun?” “But, where’s your habit?”
The bluntest inquirers will dive right in. “Why?” They ask— some with curiosity, others with an incredulousness, still others with an honest sense of confusion. This question, “why,” is startling, especially coming from a stranger.
“How long do you have?” I often ask to get a grasp on where they’re coming from.
The question I much prefer comes with a sweet sincerity: “How did you know you were being called?”
My response is the same: How long do you have?
That question, the question of how, is an invitation rather than an interrogation. As much as they want to know my experience, there is a deeper pull in their question— a desire of their own to know and be known by the One who calls.
The short answer to the question of why is this: Because I felt called, by God, to this life. The longer answer— the answer we spend a lifetime formulating and living into— is the how of that call. Today’s readings invite us into the depth of that call, to explore who we’re called to be and how God’s call makes itself manifest in our lives.
In today’s first reading, Moses speaks of the role of the prophet. The people had asked for someone to convey God’s word to them, someone like them who could speak God’s word to their hearts. God agrees and promises to send someone like Moses from among them.
Of course, this prophet prefigures Christ. Yet, by our own baptismal call as priest, prophet, and king, it also certainly includes us. We are all meant to be prophets. Each in her own way, bearing the Spirit and fostering a critical creativity that preaches the good news with clarity and conviction.
But how do you know if you’re being called? Maybe you will feel it in your bones, like a fire deep within. Or, as the psalmist’s refrain warns us, perhaps the temptation to harden your heart might be an indication too. Just think of Moses. He told God he wasn’t prophet material. He didn’t have the gifts or the ability. The thing is… none of us have all the gifts. God provides. We bring all of who we are— what we’ve experienced, our strengths and our weaknesses— and God uses it all. As a sister once said to me, God has an expansive sense of economy in which nothing is wasted.
For years, I thought the idea of being a sister was ludicrous. I didn’t know any sisters and in terms of a life or career path, entering religious life seemed unconventional to say the very least. Yet, even as I pushed back on God’s call, my heart, not quite hardened, began to respond with openness, joy, and thanksgiving.
The more time I spent with sisters, the more I marveled at the freedom they possessed (or better yet, which possessed them.) They were honest and loving. They were completely and utterly themselves and invited others to be the same. They loved God in uncertain circumstances and in difficult people. They weren’t perfect, a fact they readily admitted, but I admired them. Soon, I realized, I didn’t just admire them, God was inviting me to be one of them.
In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul proposes that celibates have a keener focus on God. Indeed, a vowed life of chastity, poverty, and obedience is meant to free us to keep our “eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2), who is the primary focus of all our relationships. The vows free us to serve Christ in others; they are a sign of our commitment and dependence on God. We live them in community, where our humanness is on full display and where, together in that humanness, we strive toward the reign of God.
Ultimately, the freedom we aspire to, and which Paul speaks of, comes when we embrace God’s call to be who we truly are, loving God as only we can and letting all other loves flow forth from that. Ask any married or single person and they will tell you the same. Living our truest vocation draws us into relationship with God, in and through the relationships we give ourselves to.
Witnessing someone embody their true calling is unmistakable. In a society where commitment is confounding, answering God’s call to authenticity is an astounding act. For some it begs the question: Why? Yet for others, even unclean spirits like the one Jesus encounters in today’s Gospel, the message is clear: you know who you are and whose you are.
This deep sense of knowing is an admission that we are not in control of our own lives, God is. The authority of our action comes from God. We claim that authority when we embrace who we are called to be by being prophets of a God whose infinite love continues to call. Our job is to be attentive to God’s voice in us and among us, to name what stirs up hope, what prompts love, and what calls for action, and to keep our hearts supple enough to respond.
In an age of uncertainty, answering such a call is risky. It requires the courage and vulnerability to grow in relationship with God so that you can be and become who you are. When all is said and done, it means standing with Jesus when the whole world asks “why?” and simply and sincerely responding “How could I not?”
About Sister Colleen:
Sister Colleen Gibson is a Sister of Saint Joseph who currently serves as coordinator of pastoral care at St. John-St. Paul Catholic Collaborative in Wellesley, Massachusetts. A member of the founding ministry team at the Sisters of Saint Joseph Neighborhood Center in Camden, New Jersey, Sister Colleen is co-host of the podcast Beyond the Habit and a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, National Catholic Reporter, and Global Sisters Report. In addition to her writing, Sister Colleen shares her gifts as a speaker and retreat director, inviting participants to explore issues of call, spirituality, and culture from an Ignatian perspective. Prior to her work at the SSJ Neighborhood Center, Sister Colleen served as a campus minister at Chestnut Hill College. She holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies and Religious Studies from Fairfield University.