This is what I promised:
To dedicate my life to Holy God through the vows
(Because vows imply radical commitment, and to become a member of a religious community is akin to entering a marriage--dissimilar in the way one relates to other members of the community, but similar in one's level of commitment to those members.)
of Stability in this community of canons,
(A vow to stick with this novitiate in this community, no matter what. I will not blithely abandon this community. These vows are to last at least twelve months, and I will see them through, no matter what insights or doubts or failures may come.)
Conversion through the monastic way of life,
(A vow to allow my life as a Christian to be formed by the wisdom and requirements of this Benedictine community's life.)
and Obedience according to the Rule of our Holy Father Benedict.
(A vow I have long dreaded, ever since I began to take seriously the possibility of religious life. Obedience could always mean that I would not be taken seriously, that my voice would ultimately be ignored, that I would be bullied by my superiors. To obey, however, is to listen--ob audire--and I was able to make this vow because the capacity to listen in a self-emptying way is so clearly manifested in the superior of this community.)
By taking simple vows, I have been given the title of Sister. I am choosing to embrace that title in a broad way, and I invite anyone who encounters me to address me as Sister (abbreviated "Sr.") Kate if they feel comfortable doing so.
I used to joke with my Roman Catholic friends that they'd be calling me Sister Kate someday. I spent many years investigating seriously the possibility that I might be called to a religious vocation as a sister in the Roman Catholic Church. I assumed when I got engaged that that door would be closed to me forever. But lo! in the Episcopal Church, I have found that not to be true. One can be called "Sister" or "Brother" as a Benedictine Canon and be married with children as well--or not married, not a parent!
I find that embracing the title of "Sister" is a way of making a statement about my role as wife and mother as much as it is about being part of this Benedictine Canon community. Claiming this title is the same as saying that my roles of spouse and parent are indeed deeply holy, just as the role of the celibate religious person is. It isn't celibacy that forms the foundation of our holiness, according to this manner of Benedictine life. That is true of Episcopal clergy as well, of course--one can be single or in a committed relationship or married, and none of those things determines whether you are considered called to ordained ministry.
I asked the Prior of the community if I could make my simple vows on Candlemas because dates matter to me, and Candlemas in particular stands out as a date of significance. In 2006 (or perhaps it was 2007?) I participated in a Candlemas procession coordinated by my classmate, Cody Unterseher (of blessed memory). Cody had been Roman Catholic growing up, and he became an Episcopalian later on, partly (or perhaps mainly) because of his identity as a gay man. He found in the Episcopal Church a place to call a very dear and hospitable home, which I didn't relate much to at the time. I remember all the candles being carried by many warm hands down the long hallway into the chapel, where they were placed together around the Paschal Candle and blessed with water and holy words. I considered how much light the candles would give over the coming year as they burned down, down, down, the same way the baptized bear light in the world as they move toward the final extinguishing of their baptismal wick. I remember the smell wafting from the swinging thuribles of incense. I remember listening to the profound stories of Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph, and of a small child born to be light. I remember wondering why I had never celebrated Candlemas before.
That procession was with me yesterday. In this place, where fresh air flows freely, my baptismal flame burns brighter than ever. I find open doors and fresh air where I used to find locked doors carefully guarding musty, airless rooms.
I get it now. I get why Cody felt at home. Because now I, like he, am able to be wholly who I am called to be--no hiding or sneaking or wondering if I'll get caught for saying things too radical to people with power to diminish my light. I get it because I am now a religious novice in addition to being a wife and parent. I am invited to speak with my expertise and to utilize my gifts where before I was looked on with suspicion and, sometimes, pity. I am no longer being asked to choose one part of my call at the expense of another.
I am a novice of the Benedictine Canons, vowed to live out the Rule of Benedict in a way that honors my whole calling--as a woman, as a parent, and as a member of the baptized. I welcome this time of testing. I no longer fear that vow of obedience because I trust that I will never be asked to deny the many facets of my God-given vocation. I trust that I will be asked to chip away at the crust of my superficialities so that who I am called by God to be may glow brightly for all to see.