Called to Serve God
In a culture driven by the relentless desire to spend and consume, spend and consume, Jeana Visel '01 has chosen a pathway of less-or, from a spiritual standpoint, more. In about a year, Visel will make her first profession of monastic vows as a nun. Thereafter, all her worldly goods will belong to her community, the Sisters of St. Benedict at Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, Indiana.
Many Kenyon graduates seek to combine their idealism with their sense of vocation. Visel sees her choice as essential-not a "career decision" in conventional terms, but a call, a search. At the heart of her path is God, a life suffused with spirituality.
The monastery, with its serene setting and orderly rhythms, sustains this sense. The church dome of Immaculate Conception rises over the monastery's 199-acre campus, a gently rolling landscape in southwestern Indiana. Three times a day, tolling bells echo over the hills, calling the sisters to prayer. "I like the frame that morning, noon, and evening prayer puts on time," says Visel. "It marks moments, and really all time, as holy, a continual reminder that what we are about is rooted in something bigger than ourselves."
While Visel has been aware of this longing to discern the nature of the divine since she was in second grade, it didn't make her particularly different as a child. The middle of five children growing up in rural Winnebago, Illinois, she was a typical engaged high-school student. She studied voice, dance, and art and participated in school plays and musicals, all interests that she brought with her to Kenyon and which remain important in her life. Biology was also a special interest, and she thought she might become a doctor.
At Kenyon, Visel explored biology and psychology as possible majors before taking "Introduction to the Study of Religion" during her sophomore year with Royal Rhodes, the Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies. It was here that she first learned to articulate the nature of her yearning and begin to think about what it might mean in terms of a career.
The course introduced concepts of "the sacred," "the holy," and the mysterium tremendum et fascinans. "It is that great mystery that is so powerfully tremendous it could kill you and yet is so fascinating one is drawn back to it again and again," Visel explains. "These concepts became the backbone of everything we studied thereafter, and they capture what I was and what I still am after."
Visel began to research monastic orders. Meanwhile, she spent her junior year in Rome, Italy, studying the phenomenon of pilgrimage and taking the opportunity to meet and pray with a variety of groups, including nuns from several orders.
Back on campus, she heard a talk by Shannon Byrne '99 on the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), and after graduating in 2001 she joined the JVC in Chicago, Illinois, where she taught pre-GED classes and served as a community literacy assistant.
She continued to investigate monastic orders, ultimately joining an Internet discussion board on a Benedictine Web site. That contact eventually led to a personal visit from one of the sisters from Immaculate Conception.
"The women in this order are rooted in tradition, but they are open to a broader view of the world," says Visel. Prayer and the search for God take primacy, but the Benedictine tradition also involves community life, hospitality, and service to others. A nun in the order may pursue any vocation that suits her talent. Some are teachers or social workers, for example.
"There are no quick steps in a woman's call to monastic life," says Sister Jane Becker, who is in charge of helping the postulants and novices at Immaculate Conception make a smooth adjustment, and who guides them in the development of their prayer life as well as in examining their religious motivation. Each postulant, she says, "must come to the decision in an orderly way after considering who she is, who she is called to be, and how she is called to serve."
The period between entering the monastery and a final profession of vows can be anywhere from six to nine years. "A move from thinking in terms of 'I' to thinking in terms of 'we' can be difficult," says Sister Jane, "much as it is in a marriage."
Unlike marriage, however, celibacy is a crucial part of this commitment. "Celibacy," explains Sister Jane, "is a kind of symbol, a pivotal mark, that reminds us of the spiritual-that a person is giving everything to this journey. In that context, the call to search for God is more important than any other choice."
Visel's daily life, at this stage of her training, is devoted to the process of self-discovery, or "discernment," as well as to study of the religious underpinnings of her order. She takes classes both at the monastery and at St. Meinrad Abby, the nearby Benedictine men's community. In between, she does chores in the monastery dining room and has a flex-time job in its communication office, working on the Web site (www.thedome.org). She also takes violin and voice lessons. Last summer, Ferdinand's Tri-County YMCA leased some of the monastery's unused facilities (a gymnasium and art studio), providing recreational opportunities when time permits.
But a significant amount of time each day is devoted to private prayer. "Benedictines are known for the prayer called lectio divina, 'holy reading,' as a way to contemplation, but different sisters follow whatever seems to work for them," Visel says. "I like a practice called centering prayer. Contemplation leads to action, and action leads us back to contemplation."
When Visel completes her novice training, she will work in an as yet undetermined area. She hopes eventually to go to graduate school to pursue an interest in inter-religious dialogue. But the specifics of her future role cause little anxiety.
"God's in charge," she says. "He will lead the way."
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