Entering Religious Life Doesn’t Mean Leaving The World Behind

Entering Religious Life Doesn’t Mean Leaving The World Behind

Photos courtesy of Kristen Daniels and Sister Donna Del Santo

When you’re facing a major life change, it helps to talk to someone who’s already been through it. All Things Considered is connecting people on either side of a shared experience, and they’re letting us eavesdrop on their conversations in our series Been There.

As Kristen Daniels was finishing up college and thinking about her next steps, she was caught off-guard by one possibility: becoming a Catholic nun.

“Of course being a senior in college, that didn’t go over great,” she says. “It made me nervous that this might be a possibility for me.”

As the thought grew, Kristen decided to look into it and signed up for a yearlong volunteer program with the Sisters of St. Joseph Congregation in Los Angeles.

Now 25, Kristen is working for the National Catholic Reporter, but is still considering taking religious vows.

In the early 1990s, Sister Donna Del Santo was in a similar state of mind. At the age of 38, she had spent her adult life as a nurse caring for the poor. But she began to feel the same kind of tug as Kristen.

“I just had this experience of God saying, ‘I wanted more from you,’” she told Kristen.

After 22 years, Sister Donna has no regrets, but that doesn’t mean it was an easy choice. She offers some advice for Kristen as she considers entering the discernment process, including thoughts on the future state of religious life, dealing with sexual attraction, and a fear of commitment.

Lessons From Sister Donna Del Santo

On relationships and attraction

I was engaged at one point, in my 20s. I always thought I would be married, that’s the model we’re raised in, right? And when I was engaged, some switch went off in me and I realized, “Oh my God, I think my life would be so small.” Not that I didn’t love this man, but I felt like I had more love to give than to my own family. And I found that I couldn’t make that commitment. When you make a choice for one thing you make a choice not for the other.

If I see an attractive person I’ll say “Oh my God, is he ever gorgeous.” And somebody will look at me and I’ll say “Look, I took a vow, I’m not dead.” You want someone that’s really vibrant and alive and loving and can appreciate and be loving. But it’s how you then engage people.

On managing the politics of the church

We’re not there to serve the church. The church is there to serve the people of God. So as a sister, I take the message of the gospel — the loving and reconciling message of Jesus, inclusivity message of Jesus — and then recognize that we live in a world that is so diverse and complex.

I work in a jail part time as a nurse. One time I had a patient — I’m an HIV counselor — and [went to] talk with her about her results, thank God they were negative. But she stood up and she pointed her hand at me in the jail in her unit and said “I know who you are and I know what you believe.”

And I sat down quietly with her and said, “Do you know I believe in you? And I believe that your life is so hard.” You know, because she was having sex for drugs. And it was one of these moments where she started crying.

And I said to her, “I don’t know what it’s like to live your life. And I want to be here for you.” One of the things that our love can do is to enter into those really, really hard places that many people are afraid of.

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