“I want to be a nun, but I lack physical or mental health. What does that mean for my life?”
If you’ve been browsing our directory of cloistered monasteries, you’ve probably noticed a pretty strong trend in the qualifications to join a monastery. Though cloisters may have different requirements for age, education, or spirituality, there’s one thing they all demand: good physical and mental health.
Some young women may pass over that requirement without a thought. Others may read it and feel like they just got punched in the gut.
What do you do when you feel called to the cloister, but you lack sufficient physical or mental health? Does it mean you’ve failed in some way, that you’re unable to carry out what God is asking of you? Does it mean God has tricked you? Does it mean the nuns are cruel for preventing you from embarking on a life you desire so deeply?
Let’s talk about it.
First of all, if this is you, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in fantastic company. There are many saints who wanted to join religious life but were unable to because of poor physical or mental health. For these saints, the unfulfilled desire for religious life was part of the journey that led them to the heights of holiness. We’ll talk about two of these saints later: St. Gemma Galgani and St. Benedict Joseph Labre.
Second, remember that God never leads us to dead ends. It’s impossible that he would have put you on a vocational path that would end in frustration. This doesn’t mean that your desire for cloistered life isn’t real. It’s very real. You may even feel as if God has been cultivating this desire in you. If so, he has a specific plan for this desire. He wants to use this desire to show you something—something beautiful—about yourself and his loving plan for you. It just might not be as obvious as you wanted it to be.
Third, don’t blame the nuns. The qualifications of sufficient physical and mental health are not arbitrary or cold or “mean.” Cloistered life is demanding, both physically and psychologically. It’s meant to be a challenge. Someone who has significant struggles with either her body or her mind would be overwhelmed by this challenge. If this is you, the most loving thing the nuns can do is to let you know in advance that their way of life is not for you.
At this point, you may be wondering, What exactly is “sufficient physical and mental health”? Do I have to be a marathon runner? What if I have allergies? What if winter gets me down in the dumps?
Every community is different, and these are questions you shouldn’t be afraid to bring up frankly in the application process. (Though no one is requiring you to be a marathon runner!) In general, “sufficient health” means good enough health to be able to live out the Rule of a specific community. Some communities, such as the Visitandines, actually have a tradition of accepting those whose physical make-up is not strong enough to enter a more rigorous form of cloistered life.
Regarding psychological health, it’s extremely important to be transparent with the vocation directress. If you are on any medication for your mental health—for example anxiety or depression—this is something you should share early on in your communications. Most communities also require you to take a psychological examination as part of the application process. You may feel vulnerable or embarrassed sharing this information with someone you barely know, so there can be a temptation to withhold it, thinking “I’ll wait until they really get to know me, and then…” But the nuns will respect you much more if you present this information in a mature, humble, and honest way.
The truth is, you’re not going to be the first woman the vocation directress has talked to who deals with mental health issues. In fact, there can be a natural attraction to the cloister amongst those who have endured difficult health problems. They have learned to turn to Jesus in their sufferings, to offer physical or emotional pain as a loving sacrifice. They often have a special sensitivity to the sufferings of others, and they desire to give their lives so that the world may know healing. These are profound, beautiful qualities. If they are not able to be fulfilled in cloistered life, they will certainly be fulfilled in some other way.
That’s what happened to St. Gemma Galgani, who was born in Italy in 1878. From the time she was a child, she dreamed of entering a convent. Her family was poor, and she endured many sufferings. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Gemma was eight years old; three of her other siblings also died before Gemma, and her father died when she was 18. She had many health problems. An infection in her foot caused her to leave school as a teenager, and a few years later she contracted spinal meningitis. Though the doctors had no hope for her and she was given the Last Rites, Gemma was miraculously healed through the intercession of a Passionist saint, St. Gabriel Possenti.
Naturally, Gemma began to feel a strong attraction to the Passionist charism. She was drawn to their way of life which focused on the Passion of Christ and the graces poured out to the world through his sufferings. Since she was a child, Gemma had been offering up her many sufferings for the salvation of sinners. She had begun to receive mystical graces centering around the Passion, including the wounds of the stigmata on her hands and feet. She had already made a private vow of chastity. And St. Gabriel Possenti had saved her life… of course she must be called to the Passionists! At a retreat preached by the Passionist fathers, Jesus himself seemed to be revealing that she had a Passionist vocation. He told her, “You shall be a daughter of my Passion, and a favorite daughter.”
But when Gemma wrote asking to visit the closest Passionist monastery, which was 200 miles away, she was refused because of her poor health. For a long time, she was devastated, unable to understand why Jesus had given her such a longing for Passionist life if he didn’t mean to fulfill it. Still, she trusted that God had a plan for her. She wore the special sign of the Passionists secretly, under her clothing, since she couldn’t wear the religious habit she desired. She worked to help a Passionist monastery become established in her hometown of Lucca, still hoping she might join it.
God had other plans for Gemma. At age 25, she contracted a terribly painful illness, thought by some doctors to be tuberculosis. As her life drew to its end, she said: “I no longer ask to enter a convent… Jesus has the habit of a Passionist Nun waiting for me at the gates of Heaven. Let me die so that the Passionist convent may be established.” Five years after St. Gemma’s death, a monastery of Passionist nuns was established in Lucca. Today she is venerated as one of the Passionists’ most beloved saints.
Another saint who took an unconventional path was St. Benedict Joseph Labre, born in France in the mid-18th century. His desire for religious life led him to attempt to enter at least five monasteries, some more than once. Despite his numerous rejections, twice he was actually accepted into monastic life. Both times, his mental health quickly broke down, and he was obliged to leave in great confusion and humiliation. Realizing that the life of a monk wasn’t one in which he could thrive, Benedict followed the Holy Spirit’s inspiration to a way of life even more radical than the one he left. He became a pilgrim, wandering from place to place until he arrived in Rome, where he lived with the homeless in the ruins of the Colosseum. He practiced the contemplative life amongst beggars, living out the spirit of a monk in a way that suited his eccentricities. When he died, people flooded the streets of Rome crying, “The Saint is dead!”
Poor physical health could not prevent St. Gemma Galgani from becoming a saint. Poor mental health could not prevent St. Benedict Joseph Labre from becoming a saint. Poor physical or mental health cannot prevent you from becoming a saint, though it might prevent you from entering a cloister.
Our Lord has a plan for you. This plan takes into account every aspect of who you are, including your weaknesses. He died to give you the chance to follow this plan, to become who he created you to be, his radiant bride “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, …holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27). In God’s eyes, this plan is perfect, dazzling. He doesn’t give out consolation prizes. You are his beloved, and your vocation is an irreplaceable treasure.