Thursday, January 28, 2016

Consecrated Conversations: Sister Colleen Clair

In a return to our interview series, we focus on a topic that many people, especially those outside of the Church, don't know much about: the consecrated religious life. Sister Colleen Clair was kind enough to answer our probing-but-educational questions. Today marks the seventh day of the Novena to Saint John Bosco, founder of Sister's order. His feast is Sunday, January 31.

Sister Colleen Clair, SDB (pictured, at right)
Tell us a bit about yourself! 

I’m a Salesian Sister – our official title is “Daughters of Mary Help of Christians.” When I first entered, some friends took bets on how long it would take before I would be “kicked out of the convent.” The longest bet was six weeks! It’s been almost 26 years between formation and profession, and I love religious life. I always say, being a Salesian was the smartest and bravest thing I ever did!

First things first: Could you clarify the difference between a "sister" and a "nun"? Are the terms interchangeable?

Sisters and nuns are both called “Sister,” but there are a few differences! A woman religious who lives a contemplative cloistered life of prayer and meditation is a nun. A Sister, instead, lives an active vocation of prayer and service, often to the needy, sick, poor, and uneducated. A nun usually leaves mainstream society in order to live a life of prayer and contemplation in a monastery, a cloister or a convent. Her work is often a craft, or an art, or farming, or some other work that can be done in silence, since many make vows of silence and only speak for a few hours a day. Sisters, instead, are with people all day, teaching, helping, guiding, and befriending those in need. Nuns live in a cloister and have rules about when they may leave, usually only for medical needs, emergencies, and if their local bishop allows it. Essentially, nuns usually live and work within their monastery, while Sisters go out into the world.

And which word best describes your vocation? 

Because most Catholics are not familiar with these little nuances, and realize religious are called “Sister,” whether they are actually nuns or Sisters, the two terms have, in colloquial English, come to be used interchangeably. Very few Sisters would correct someone! (Though some Sisters, as educators, love to let people know.) As ministers to the young, and lovers of fun and noise, games and all sorts of sports, Salesians make very great Sisters, but don’t really fit the bill for nuns. We are Sisters and love working with youth!

Could you tell us a bit about the order you joined and why you felt called to that particular one?

When I was 5 years old, I told my mother I was going to get married and have 17 (yes, that’s seventeen) children. You see, I’m from a family of 16 children, and since I loved kids, I wanted to have one more than my mother! In fact, before I started discerning religious life, I always thought I would grow up, get married, and have a lot of kids. When I started to feel that little nudge from the Lord to give myself totally to Him, I only ever thought about the Salesians. They were in my school. They were fun and funny, they loved kids, they were holy, and they were real, strong, and intelligent women. It was really a no-brainer!

How old were you when you began discerning the consecrated life, and when did you finally decide that this was the right decision?

The first time I ever thought of religious life, I was in sixth grade. We were in the church, and I don’t even remember what we were doing there (obviously, I wasn’t paying too much attention), but I remember a moment when I looked at the Tabernacle, and I felt God was saying to me, “Maybe you should be a Sister.” Unlike Mary, I didn’t say, “Yes!” right away. I said, “What? I’m way too cool
to be a nun!” And then I didn’t think about it again until I was a freshman in high school and saw so many great Sisters. I finally decided to enter when I was a junior in high school. I had wrestled with my vocation more seriously through high school, and after meeting a 34-year-old woman who admitted she had thought about being a Sister and still wondered if that was what she should have done, I was afraid of being like her. I wanted to give Jesus a real chance to steal my heart!

Did you have any preconceived notions about the consecrated life that scared you? And if so, how were they overcome?

When I was in first grade, my older brother Kieran told me that nuns were bald! I didn’t still believe that by sixth grade, but I did think Sisters maybe couldn’t get a date, and so never married, or that they were social misfits of some kind. Once I met the Salesians, I knew this was not at all true. I knew that they were so normal, so fun, and funny, and full of life, but that Jesus had really become the center of their lives. I saw young, beautiful nuns, who certainly could have gotten a date, but who had chosen the best husband any woman could have!

Was your family supportive of your decision? 

For my whole life, I can remember my parents saying, “It’s a great honor to have a priest or religious in the family.” I never felt pressure at all from them, but I knew that entering would be just fine with them. Of course, when I wanted to enter after high school, they hesitated, feeling I was too young, but I had an intuition that because I love to get involved in stuff and am so easily distracted that if I went on to college, I would forget all about my vocation, and never really discern what the Lord wanted of me.

What did you expect your life as a sister would be like before you joined the Salesians, versus how it is in reality? 

Since so much of what people (not the Sisters, but laypeople) talked about was suffering, offering, and sacrifice, I had this idea that I was headed into a hard time. I remember almost measuring myself and my weak will with the resolve of a lifetime of sacrifice and wondering if I would be able to fulfill this apparently difficult path to which the Lord called me. What I didn’t realize at all is that Jesus was not lying or even exaggerating when He promised His followers that they would be repaid one hundredfold. I have received so much more from religious life than I could ever ask or imagine!

What do you think is the best way to encourage and reach young people who might be considering a vocation in the consecrated life today? How important is social media in this outreach, as opposed to being seen in real life and being concretely visible and available to people?

Certainly, young people are very present in the “virtual world,” and they are online so much, that using social networks is very important, but I think young people also love to connect, so as much as possible, meeting them in person can make all the difference. One thing is to email some Sister far, far away… it’s another thing if she calls and asks if she can stop by one evening after dinner!

Do you have a favourite Saint or any other Catholic figure who serves as your model of faith?

My favorite Saint is Saint John Bosco. He was such a great man, and so able to reach the young. He remains an icon and a model educator, 200 years after his birth!

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted via email and was edited only for grammar and punctuation, not content. Since this interview, Sister Colleen has gone to Egypt to do mission work, which is appropriate, since the seventh day of the Novena is dedicated to missionaries. Godspeed, Sister!

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