March 6, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) - It was with mixed emotions that I leaned in to hug my younger sister for the first time in three and a half years. We had not embraced each other since September of 2009, when she entered a cloistered Poor Clare monastery, a religious order that observes an intense regime of poverty, prayer and penance, and strictly limits contact with the outside world.
The occasion of our embrace was her first profession of vows, a ceremony that marked her first step towards a permanent commitment to this life. It was, on the one hand, hard not to think about what this would mean for her and for our family. From this point on, we would get only two letters and two brief visits a year. On the other hand, it was impossible not to be taken up in the joy of that moment.
The serene happiness radiating from this young Poor Clare was of that unique kind possessed by those who live a life of contemplative stillness and self-effacing silence. For my sister, raised in a family of doers and go-getters, of passionate, loud, headstrong, Irish Catholics, it is what you might call a slight change of atmosphere.
I come from a family of pro-life activists and my younger sister is no exception. Although she now goes by her religious name, Sr. Mary Damiana of the King of Glory, she was christened “Joan.”
My parents had in mind two zealous activists as her namesakes: St. Joan of Arc, who was imprisoned and martyred after following God’s call to lead the French army during the Hundred Year’s War, and Joan Andrews Bell, a pro-life pioneer who spent many months in prison for blocking the doors of abortion clinics. (My youngest brother, Joe, was named after St. Joseph and Joe Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League.)
Five years ago, Sr. Damiana was in front of New York City’s abortion clinics, pleading with scared young women not to end their children’s lives, to consider other options. She was on the streets of Baltimore, confronting the American public with the truth about abortion. She was sitting in a jail cell, illegally arrested and detained overnight for participating in a peaceful pro-life demonstration that she helped to organize. With a name like that, it seems she was fated to see the inside of a jail at some point before she died.
Now she has left all of that behind, including a very lucrative financial settlement stemming from the arrest. She has chosen a life that confounds the culture of death, which depends on the clamor and ceaseless distraction of the modern world to drown out the quiet voice of conscience.
But it is also, I have come to realize, a life that challenges those of us who remain on the street corners from which she has retired, trying to make ourselves heard over all that noise.
It is an enormous burden that the pro-life activist has taken upon his or her shoulders. In the midst of a world ravaged by the effects of the sexual revolution and a culture that has abandoned all moorings of truth, tradition and faith, we work for an end to abortion, protection for the terminally ill and elderly, the defense of traditional family structures.
If these things ever come to be, we will have to acknowledge that a miracle has taken place. And miracles only come through God’s grace, which is poured out only in answer to prayer.
“More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson.
How very true it is, and how incredibly easy to forget. How incredibly easy, for those of us immersed in the daily grind of the active apostolate, to fall into that deadly error: the savior complex.
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“If only I could find just the right words,” I have found myself thinking many times as an activist, a sidewalk counselor, a writer. “Surely I can help this person see how erroneous their thinking is, surely I can convince this woman not to abort her baby.”
But I am not this person’s savior, I have to continually remind myself. That job has been taken. And if God should choose to use my words, I have no doubt that the credit is due first to Him who completed that task two thousand years ago, and second to some humble, holy, unheard of Christian I have never met whose prayers are calling down heavenly graces at this moment.
There are no savior complexes in the Monastery, none of the pitfalls and illusions to which the activist is so prone. Their only recourse in the face of the world’s misery is to throw themselves on their knees before God Almighty. And because they have staked their lives not on the success of any earthly mission or project, but only on His love, they utter that Christian caveat to every petition, “Thy will be done,” with a sincerity that most of us can only envy.
It is in this that the lives of those who have chosen Sr. Damiana’s path stand as a witness to those of us called to the battlefield. We all have a Divinely ordained part to play, and for most of us that will mean remaining in the world. But all of our work, however noble, will come to nothing unless we are truly possessed of the conviction that nothing comes to anything but through the grace of God.