Do you ever feel like you don’t know how to act around nuns and priests? Even the most social, self-confident person can feel uncomfortable when interacting with someone who is ordained or living in a religious community. The presence of a habit or a cassock can suddenly make you hyper-aware of every word coming out of your mouth — What should I say to them? How do I relate to their lifestyle? What if I say something bad?
I know that for most of my life, I barely interacted with priests and sisters simply because I felt awkward around them. At the end of Mass, I’d sneak out the side doors so I could skip shaking hands with the celebrating priest. Whenever I did find myself meeting them, I’d turn into a gawky ball of nerves and let my friends take the wheel in conversation.
Nuns and priests seemed like another species to me. It was like they had transcended basic human existence. What would they think if they knew I listened to Cardi B? Or that I have a major potty mouth? Talking with nuns was particularly awkward for me. These calm, serene women in their plain veils, skirts, and matching blouses seemed to be the complete opposite of me.
I continued avoiding nuns until a friend of mine asked if I wanted to help volunteer with a youth group that was run by the Missionaries of Charity, St. Mother Teresa’s community. Because it wasn’t a one-on-one hang-out with a sister, I wasn’t too intimidated and said yes. When I approached the convent, I felt a wave of nausea and thought, “What if the sisters don’t like me? What if I can’t hide my sinfulness and they just know I’ve memorized all the words to ‘Bodak Yellow’?”
When Sister Agnes opened the door in her blue and white sari, she immediately expressed how glad she was that I came. She got right to business and we discussed games to play during youth group. Having the same goal of creating a fun experience for the kids gave us common ground and I didn’t have to scramble for things to talk about. She was soft-spoken and gentle — which is pretty much what I expected — and she was also relatable, passionate, and even quirky. She grew up knowing a friend of mine and I found myself laughing, joking, and talking with her as I would with any new friend.
When I returned to volunteer again, my awkwardness had completely vanished. Although I was technically helping out, I actually started benefiting from the youth group, myself. One day, Sister Agnes gave a brief talk to the kids about distractions from God. She described Christ as looking upon us day and night, waiting for us to gaze back at Him. She was obviously moved by a quiet passion for God, and her sincerity struck me in a way I wasn’t expecting. I went home that day wondering if I was helping this youth group or vice versa.
As time went on, I found myself frequently out of town and missing opportunities to assist with the youth group. The first time I received a voicemail from Sister Agnes to check in with me, I felt like a little kid scared to talk on the phone with a grown up. When I called her back, though, the warmth in her voice came through right away. She told me all about how youth group was going, how the kids had grown, and how much they missed me.
I expected her to hang up once I said I wasn’t able to come help out, but she continued to chat for 15 minutes. To be honest, I was flabbergasted that she had taken an interest in me beyond volunteering. Since that first call, she’s called me a handful of times, just to check in. At the end of our most recent phone call, her voice turned serious as she said, “You’re really precious, Lilly.” It was one of the only times I’ve ever been speechless.
I realized that after all these years of avoiding nuns, I was denying myself a unique type of friendship and a special kind of love. My fear of being judged or seen as unholy kept me from experiencing the great friendship that religious men and women can offer. When Sister Agnes told me that I was precious, I almost said, “No, you’re the good one — not me!” Her genuine affirmation shattered the fear inside of me that I wasn’t good enough for God’s love. Experiencing how welcoming, non-judgmental, and loving she was made me see that she was actually reflecting Christ’s unconditional love to me.
Yes, religious and ordained people are set apart — they live a public vocation, which means that the way they live communicates God’s love in a special way. And they accept the fact that the calling they follow separates them from other laity in some ways. But they are people, too. They are people first, actually — just like any of us. When we meet them on that ground, we have no need to feel awkward or unworthy around them. After all, they are just as genuinely interested in friendship as we are.
If you’re interested in volunteering with sisters, try Googling religious convents or monasteries in your area. It’s as simple as calling and asking if they need any help. They’ll be glad you called and will certainly have work to share.