“Are you a nun?” someone will often ask me at the grocery store. “Yes!” I’ll reply. The conversation usually continues with a reminiscing of this person’s days in Catholic school when he or she was taught by nuns, or a remark of surprise that nuns still exist (especially young ones!). I am often surprised myself by the excitement that I see in the eyes of people I meet. What is it about this encounter with a nun that causes these reactions?
Let’s take a look at faith for a minute. By now you have probably realized that the “Year of Faith” called for by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, is well underway. Faith consists of a real encounter—a real falling-in-love—with God, as well as a knowledge about this One we love and His Church. Is it a problem then, that “No one has ever seen God” (Jn 1:18)? If we finish this verse, however, we read that “the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.”
I also help to make God known. As a nun, I incarnate God’s love (I make it visible in the flesh), like Jesus did by taking on a human body. Within me there is a union with God, similar to the union of God and Man in the body of Jesus, and this is made visible in various ways. When people see me in the grocery store, I doubt that they think to themselves, “Wow! That woman incarnates God’s love!” but I do, however, believe that they intuitively know this, whether or not they could articulate it. As an example of this, people often stop me to ask for my prayers for particular intentions. They must understand, to some degree, the special closeness to God that I enjoy, in order to entrust me with these important desires of their hearts.
My habit is a sign of God's grace working in a particular way in me, transforming me into love—into Himself. When people see me, they know that I am a woman consecrated solely to God, and hopefully this reality causes them to ask themselves, “How can I be more devoted to God?” Each time I meet someone, it's an “incarnation moment.” It's not only the clothes I wear, but also my joy, smile, patience in the check-out line, etc. that allow me to make God's love manifest. Everything about me has to be transformed. This is a work in progress—just ask my Sisters! This is also a work in progress in each Christian's life. Blessed John Paul II said that monastics are the “reference point for all baptized Christians” (Orientale Lumen), but he didn’t say that we do all the work for all baptized Christians!
The Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord is an opportunity for each of us to evaluate how well we are incarnating God’s love. If we find that we are not the perfect image of God (that would be all of us!), then we must ask ourselves, “In what ways do I need to allow God to transform me into His image?” The answer usually falls into one of these three categories: fasting (making room for God), prayer (inviting Him in) and almsgiving (offering the blessings I receive—and myself—in love). This is why the Church wisely appoints this time in the liturgical year as a penitential period. In the Roman Catholic Church this time is called Advent, beginning on the Sunday closest to the feast of St. Andrew (November 30), and in the Eastern Catholic Churches it is called the Philip’s Fast or the Nativity Fast, beginning on November 15 (40 days before the Nativity). At times in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, fasting was prescribed during Advent, and it continues to be prescribed in the Eastern Catholic Churches with fasting from meat and dairy products—nearly as strictly as during Lent. In whatever way we observe this liturgical season, the important thing is to ensure that it is a time of preparation. We need to make room for God in order for Him to abide in us and transform us into Himself. In this way, we can each incarnate God’s love for all those we encounter.
If faith consists, in part, of a real encounter with God, then by making Him known through our own beings, we are bringing into the world the opportunity for faith. Jesus was born into the world in a stable—the most common and ordinary of places. We can bring Him into the world in the most ordinary of places too, such as a grocery store.
(Sr. Cecilia is a woman religious with the Christ the Bridegroom Community in Burton OH.)