I grew up in the decade of the ‘60’s in Birmingham, Alabama. It was a chaotic time of social unrest, deep questioning, a quest for relevancy and meaning. It was a time of violence, civil disobedience, and high idealism. Young people like myself felt a new age was dawning in the aftermath of World War II, and we could change the world for the better. So like the Man of La Mancha, we dared to dream impossible dreams. There were hippies, student protests, race riots, draft card burnings, men on the moon, Mass in the vernacular, Beatle-mania, the first heart transplant. Through my teen and young adult years, my best intuitions told me that God was somehow at the center of this anguished yet beautiful world in which I lived. My heart told me to seek God wherever God could be found, even in the most unlikely places.
The elementary and high schools I attended were staffed by the Benedictine Sisters of Cullman, Alabama. The dedication, love, and transparent joy of the Sisters laid the seeds of my future vocation.
Growing up in Birmingham in the ‘60’s meant growing up in a place that had gained notoriety across the world. The world watched as the people of Birmingham dealt with deep-seated racism and “separate but equal” laws and restrictions. I can remember the emotional and spiritual jolt I felt on that bloody Sunday morning in September 1963 when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed and innocent children, my same age, were killed as they prepared for choir. That bombing changed my life.
As we mourned the murders in Birmingham, there were other murders across the nation–John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The war in Vietnam had escalated during these same years. I simply could not understand why there was so much killing going on. As I graduated from high school I knew that if peace would be in the world, I had to assume some responsibility for it. It had to begin with me.
This tumultuous time coincided with the years of the Second Vatican Council. I was fascinated when I first heard about the Ecumenical Council beginning in Rome and about Pope John XXIII’s “aggiornamento.” The Catholic Church I had come to love as a child was changing in dramatic ways in order to breathe new life into dry bones. I had the sense that the Church was entering a new frontier of faith and something was drawing me to become an active part of this 20th century experience of Pentecost.
The search for peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation continued to haunt me in college. I was full of questions for my future. My heart told me that only in Jesus could I see any hope for community and reconciliation in a world where differences seemed to tear people apart. I considered the Peace Corps. I considered marriage. I also considered religious life as a Benedictine Sister. After a year of college, I decided that God was calling me to a lifestyle where “peace was to be my quest and aim” (RB Prologue 17).
I entered the community of Benedictine Sisters at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman in 1969. Although on one level the search had ended, at its deepest level, it had only just begun. Benedictine life was to teach me that no one of us can ever come to the end of our search for God. The Church of the Third Millennium really is not so different from the Church of the ‘60’s or the Church of that first Pentecost. God is always calling each and all of us to be partners with Christ in loving a broken world into redemption. God is always calling us to be people “who prefer nothing whatever to the love of Christ,” as St. Benedict writes in his Rule.
I think religious life is a vocation that reminds the entire Christian community that seeking God alone can be the most tender, the most challenging, and the most fulfilling adventure a human being could ever embark upon. God is indeed enough to satisfy all the restless yearnings of the human heart. What is essential is not so much our yearning for God, but God’s passionate and unrelenting yearning for us. Our call is to allow God continually to take hold of us and never let us go.
By Sister Madeline Contorno, OSB