"Everyone knows my first name.
"When I'm walking down the street, people instantly know my relationship to them. And I know they're entrusted to me."
A Catholic nun was talking with me about her gratitude for her calling in life. It's not every day, perhaps, that you see a nun walking down the street. Though if you were with me last week, it might have appeared the most natural thing in the world. The scene around me included Sister Antoniana navigating a cart with a slow cooker, a laptop and a large pot of tortellini soup from convent to convent, from meeting to event, through the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Spending a day with these radiant women gave me a crash course in the great contributions that women bring to the world and the beauty of self-sacrifice. As they'll tell you, this radical life they're living is meant to be a window into the peace and joy of heaven, a reflection of the glory of a creator who would give humanity his son in the name of vanquishing sin.
As we turn toward Christmas in the coming weeks, this is what we celebrate: a divine gift of mercy to humanity.
Outside of the utterly commercial, what are the predominant, iconic images of Christmas? The Nativity. A mother and child, a holy family. As Mary Eberstadt writes in "How the West Really Lost God," what do these images mean, really, to a culture that increasingly isn't getting or staying married or raising children in a traditional environment? What does "God the Father" even mean to someone who grew up without knowing his?
As nuns went about their business in New York, an ecumenical gathering in Rome was wrapping up, discussing the complementarity of men and women. At the seminar, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks talked about "the most beautiful idea in the history of civilization: the idea of the love that brings new life into the world." He went on to emphasize that "our compassion for those who choose to live differently should not inhibit us from being advocates for the single most humanizing institution in history."
The family as we've known it -- man, woman and child -- is not "one lifestyle choice among many. It is the best means we have yet discovered for nurturing future generations and enabling children to grow in a matrix of stability and love."
The family, he said, is where "we learn the delicate choreography of relationship and how to handle the inevitable conflicts within any human group ... It is where we first take the risk of giving and receiving love."
It is where one generation passes on its values to the next, ensuring the continuity of a civilization," he continued. "For any society, the family is the crucible of its future, and for the sake of our children's future, we must be its defenders."
Perhaps it takes a sister, a spiritual mother, who lives differently, to remind us -- even on the streets of New York -- of the family's importance, as she sacrifices her ability to have one in order devote her life to prayer and service.
When asked if she's waiting for some "real" power in the Church -- echoing a conventional view -- one nun I talked to seemed a bit perplexed. It never occurred to her to be or have anything other than what she has or is. "To serve is to reign," she says, citing John Paul II.
Our humble sister, with knowledge of the most powerful love of all, reminds us of the love that binds us and frees us from slavery to earthly and material power. It's not on sale on Black Friday, but written on our hearts and available to all, if we know where to look.