“Miss Hayes, why did you want to become a consecrated virgin instead of a religious sister?” posed an inquisitive student in my Women’s Dignity class. “Because I wanted to stay with you,” was my immediate and honest response. Without missing a beat, she replied, “We wanted you to stay with us, too.”
These words are testimony to a spiritual motherhood that is bearing fruit in my own heart and in the lives of my students. I have long referred to them as “my kids” — sometimes to the confusion of those who didn’t think I had children — and it has been my greatest joy to discover the reality of spiritual maternity through them. I know that the questions they ask and the spiritual guidance they seek from me are my privilege; I am invited into this sphere of their lives precisely because I am not “mom.” I am their mother in a way that their own mothers are not, and my role is essential to their growth in the life of grace.
Years into my career as a high school religion teacher, though I enjoyed teaching and loved my students, I began to wonder if the frustrations I also experienced in my work were a sign that I ought to be doing something different with my life. I sought spiritual direction with this question in mind, and my director wisely pressed me to delve more deeply into the desires the Lord had placed in my heart. It was here where things really changed for me; I now had someone asking me new questions and holding me accountable for the answers. I could finally articulate where I found the most happiness: studying and teaching the Faith to young people, being available to serve my family and parish community, praying in the quiet solitude of my home. And I longed for one thing I didn’t yet have: to give myself in a way I couldn’t take back. It seemed that the idea of consecrated virginity lived in the world appeared to me through this discernment of my joys. In a moment of perfect clarity, I felt I was being offered everything that I most wanted. With St. Thérèse the Little Flower, my heart responded, “I choose all!”
As I reflect on the long preparation phase that allowed for this response, I see how formative Pope St. John Paul’s theology of the body has been for me. Through his work, I discovered anew the dignity of the vocation of marriage as an image of the total, self-donating love of the Trinity. Holy marriages are signs of this love in the world through their faithful, self-sacrificial and life-giving character. While its beauty moved me, I was still more captivated by the very reality it signified: the passionate love that God has for each one of us and his deep desire to “marry” his people. The Rite for the Consecration of Virgins reads, “Yet your loving wisdom chooses those who make the sacrifice of marriage for the sake of the love for which it is a sign. They renounce the joys of human marriage but cherish all it foreshadows.” These two ways of being called to holiness nourish each other; the love of married couples is the tangible reminder of my spiritual marriage to Christ, while I stand in the world as the sign of that love of God to which the holiness of their marriages tend.
Even in Catholic circles, the vocation of consecrated virginity lived in the world can be difficult to differentiate from the single life. I think its simplicity is one of the most valuable characteristics of my consecration. In the spiritual life, “being” always precedes “doing.” The purpose of every vocation is not to “get something done” but rather to make holy the one called and thereby increase the holiness of the Mystical Body of Christ. There is a very Marian dimension to my vow of virginity, for I will return home from my formal consecration later this year much like Mary did after the Annunciation. I will give my fiat at the hands of my bishop, allowing Christ to take possession of me in an entirely new way, as his bride. The rest of my life is transformed by this union that does not dissolve even in death; I will spend it growing in the knowledge and love of my Divine Spouse, who makes all things new.
As my consecration approaches on the Solemnity of the Assumption later this year, I am overwhelmed with gratitude that the Church truly has a place for each one of us!
Jessica Hayes teaches theology at Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana.