I’ve heard the phrase many times from those who homeschool that the primary goal is not to get your kids into Harvard but Heaven. The point being that faith formation and solid anchoring in the life of Christ is of far greater importance than calculus or chemistry.
Mary Anne Marks has surely made Heaven her final goal, plus she got into Harvard to boot! This inspiring woman, who graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University this past spring (and delivered her commencement address in Latin, no less) is now looking toward her future as a Catholic nun, discerning her vocation among the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, MI.
These wonderful Sisters enchanted millions of people when they appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show back in February. Seeing their lively, joyful, youthful faces seemed to shatter the notion that Catholic nuns are all old, boring, dour and cranky. These Sisters were radiant with life, lit from within by a fierce love of Christ and His Church, and just to see them on the TV screen was to want that tangible joy and freedom they had.
This relatively young order that began with just four nuns in 1997 has now grown to nearly 100 in only thirteen years, and the average age of the Sisters is 26. Mary Anne Marks hopes to join their community soon, beginning her year of aspirancy and postulancy this fall.
She was recently interviewed by Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review Online, and it was impossible not to be energized with hope after I read their revealing exchange. She is young yet extremely mature, intelligent and grounded. She is rooted in the faith and life of the Church. She’s devout, happy, eager to teach and serve, ready to be challenged. She has an unabashed affection for the Lord and a craving for His Presence in the Eucharist. In a very real way, she is the future of the Church, and that is very exciting.
As for that tired old secular rant that the Church is a misogynistic empire that oppresses women – forget it. She’ll have none of it:
“From its earliest years, the Church’s doctrine of the equality of all humans as beloved children of God and its reverence for Mary as the spouse and mother of God elevated women to a status previously unheard of. In our own times, the Church’s unequivocal opposition to practices such as abortion and contraception, which harm women physically and psychologically, and threaten to render them victims of their own and others’ unchecked desires, makes the Church a lone voice above the chaos, promoting women’s dignity and happiness.”
When Lopez asked her about changing her plans to go to graduate school and giving up her freedom because she felt God wanted her to enter the convent, she replied,
“Part of the answer is that when Love asks you to be His spouse, you don’t quibble about the when and where. The other part is that anything worthwhile in life requires an ongoing, freely willed surrender of one’s freedom.”
It hardly needs saying what a refreshing contrast this is to the obsession with self that dominates our culture. Mary Anne clearly understands the significance of the countercultural nature of the call to religious life:
“Religious are called to witness by their life and garb to supernatural realities: God’s existence, His immeasurable love for each person, and the fact that our duty and happiness lie in returning His love. That witness becomes increasingly important as a culture’s materialism and corresponding distaste for the supernatural increase.”
Speaking of happiness, she has some wise-beyond-her-years thoughts on that, as well.
“Happiness is the sense of peace and joy that stems from knowledge of and union with the One Who created us and Who loves us infinitely. We will attain it fully in heaven, but we can achieve it to a significant extent beforehand by battling our desire to remain independent of God, ignoring the voices that label religion boring and unnecessary, and better acquainting ourselves with Truth through study and prayer.”
She offers some road-tested advice for young girls today who may be considering the religious life but don’t know where to go or who to talk to about their questions.
“Spend a bit of time each day talking to Jesus, before the Blessed Sacrament if you can, or in a quiet place free of distractions. Start with 15 minutes and work up to half an hour. You can’t know what He desires for you if the two of you aren’t good friends. Ask Him and His mother for guidance. And check out some community websites, maybe starting with those listed on the website of the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious. If a group piques your interest, send the vocations director an email and see what happens! Vocations directors are not recruiters; they are seasoned religious with long experience helping young women to discern God’s will for their lives.”
I admit that what surprised me most about the interview was learning that Harvard has given rise to many religious vocations in recent years. Mary Anne explained,
“A couple of years ago, a young man who finished Harvard in three years entered the seminary in St. Louis. A little further back, a young woman who attended Harvard and lived in the same women’s residence that I did joined the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal. One of my friends, whom I met while she was pursuing a degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, joined the Religious Sisters of Mercy two years ago. This July 25, two young men from Harvard joined the Eastern Province of the Dominicans.”
Who would’ve thunk it? And even more surprising was the response she received from some faculty members when they learned of her decision to enter the convent.
“A kind but thoroughly unsentimental professor who had been very encouraging of my intention to apply to graduate school, ended our discussion of my change of plans by opening her arms and declaring quietly, ‘I am going to give you a hug, because this is a big decision, and I admire you for it.’ When I remarked to yet another professor on the many positive responses from faculty, he replied that he wasn’t surprised that academics could appreciate the appeal of a life of contemplation and of single-minded pursuit of a spiritual goal.”
(Maybe there’s hope for Harvard after all!) The entire interview is terrific and well worth the read. I think my favorite part, though, was this:
Kathryn Lopez: “You are a Harvard graduate. Aren’t you surrendering all the possibilities that entails by entering a convent?”
Mary Anne Marks: “Yes, if one doesn’t see becoming a well-educated, intellectually alive nun as one of the possibilities.”
God bless you, Mary Anne!