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Nun and woman in a suit

Meditation on Broadway

The wind in Manhattan, forced to run the obstacle course of skyscrapers, races up the long avenues and whisks the crowds along with it. It’s impossible to pause and be still, I soon learned when I left home last summer and moved to the big city. The subway rumbles below, the marquees flash above, and people crowd the acid-rain-stained streets, dodging cabs and kabob stands, dogs and each other. “Lights, camera, action” is the constant litany, unspoken but deafening. Just another day on Broadway.

. . . A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a small voice. . . (1 Kings 19:11-12)

Before the spring of 2007, I never would have pictured myself moving to the middle of New York City. In fact, few of us college seniors knew what life after graduation held. Liz Sondag was an exception.

“God speaks through his Word,” Liz reminded me last year as I was trying to sort out that daunting prospect called The Future. Our friendship had begun during freshman service day, week one at Catholic University, as we pruned rosebushes in front of the local Missionaries of Charity home. This memory captures her spirit well; with matter-of-fact charity, Liz sees good to be done and makes no show or fuss about stepping forward. She’s not ostentatious or sentimental in what she says, but definitely passionate and bold in what she does. In short, over the next four years Liz heard God speak through his Word, and she fell in love: Sell all that you have and come, follow Me.

Hot pink stockings, peeking out above black stiletto boots, arrest my thoughts and stride chicly past me down the Broadway pavement. A cookie-monster coat — blue, fuzzy and considerably windswept — shoulders through the throng and jostles Ms. Boots. Colorful place, New York City! If Liz were here with me today, I’m sure she’d be laughing, too.

Actually, the first time I walked this way was with Liz, right after I moved to Manhattan. We traipsed all over — from Times Square to the East Village, the Central Park Zoo to the Staten Island Ferry. We admired the diamonds in Tiffany’s; we sampled the perfume in Saks Fifth Avenue; we saw a Broadway show; and we had wine and fruit tarts at the top of Rockefeller Center. Call it a final splurge, if you will, or say that Liz knows how to enjoy life and embrace all it brings. The next month she traveled to Alton, Ill., and became a Franciscan sister.

She gave away her clothes, her jewelry, her music, her computer, her books — just about everything — and took the simple gray habit of her order. “It’s not that I don’t like or want these things,” she tried to explain as we admired an especially stunning window display. To put it simply, she wanted something more. “To make Christ’s merciful love visible” is the mission of her order, and in the Franciscan spirit of service to the sick, elderly and youth — and above all in prayer before the Lord — that is what she aims to do.

Maybe Catholic University has just been blessed of late, but Liz is not alone. There’s also Mary McGlynn — an expert in the arts of “laugh therapy” and origami frog-making, a former volleyball star and member of the cross country team, a Campus Ministry leader and talented artist. We would meet in the Pryzbyla Center for weekly “math lunches” when she was a senior and I was a junior (strength in numbers, as the only two women in Dr. Glenn’s geometry class), but we never got to many proofs and problems. Instead, we’d talk about everything from the merits of peanut butter to our shared love for Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mary knows what matters.

Rainbow lights race overhead, circling the King Kong-sized chocolate bar atop the Hershey’s store. A chubby hand waves and points at the display as a woman and stroller try to maneuver through the Times Square hurly-burly. No question, Mary would enjoy all this.

“God wants me to be a mom!” she told me excitedly the summer she graduated from CUA. “But” — in a softer voice — “he doesn’t just want me to have a few kids, or even a dozen. He wants me to bring him into the world for everyone.” And so Mary followed her namesake and prayed the words of old: I am the handmaid of the Lord. After completing her year of postulancy in Ann Arbor, Mich., in August 2007, she took the white habit of St. Dominic and a new name, Sister Mariana. “Our apostolate, as spiritual mothers, is the preaching and teaching of Truth,” reads the Dominican sisters’ Web site — and, yes, nuns in the 21st century have Web sites. But some things will always be the same, and when Mary shares the truth of the Gospel with her students as a Catholic school teacher, she is following the first Mary, the virgin of Nazareth: Let it be done unto me according to your word.

At CUA, Mary never hesitated to give of herself — to friends, to classmates, to teammates, to the person who was all alone. Now she is giving God the gift of every moment.

Then there is Rachel Yates. Rachel would fit in well with the Broadway bustle because, at least at CUA, she never walked, but ran. Cross country, track and marathons; around campus, past the monuments, through Brookland. When I picture Rachel, she’s always wearing a T-shirt advertising the annual dance-a-thon or the National Prayer Vigil for Life, the latest running competition or a Campus Ministry retreat. Light the Fire, On the Edge, Gratia Plena, Find Your Inspiration.

At CUA, Rachel exuded enthusiasm with every step, and when she graduated and became an intensive-care-unit nurse, her pace only quickened. But God had bigger plans: A “grace-bomb,” as she describes it, hit, and she asked to enter the Sisters of Life. God willing, she’ll take first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in two years, along with the special fourth vow to protect the sacredness of human life. Based in New York City, the sisters provide pro-life resources to the community and welcome pregnant guests into the respite of their convents. But, from time to time, they can also be seen zipping through Central Park on Rollerblades or Bryant Park on ice skates, white veils billowing behind. Fiery, feisty Rachel fits right in. “It’s a total gift,” she says. “It’s a total gift to be here.”

I miss these women, and that’s not something I can theologize away. We can write letters to one another, but there’s no more e-mailing or going out or even chatting on the phone whenever we like. Although their convents aren’t cloistered, they have embraced a life of simplicity and self-gift — living free from cell phones and e-mail accounts, ordering their lives to the needs of the community, saying not my will, but thine, be done. A sacrifice, no doubt, and a sacrifice that friends and family share. Nonetheless, I’m learning that maintaining friendships through letters can be just as dear. Even more, Rachel, Mary and Liz have reminded me, our faith really does unite us, and I pray for — and with — these women whenever I’m before the Lord. I know they’re praying for me and for all their friends, family and classmates.

From left to right: Sister Mariana (formerly Mary McGlynn) of the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, and her brother, James, a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. (Their parents and two other siblings also attended CUA.); Liz Sondag (in front) an two members of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Martyr St. George, at their provincial house in Alton, Ill. Sondag will receive her religious name and novice's veil on the feast of the Assumption, Aug. 15, 2008; The author (at right) poses with Rachel Yates (center) and Joanna Berry, B.A. 2008. Berry is yet another young alumna to embrace religious life. After graduating in May, she joined the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, a missionary order of sisters.

“God speaks through his Word,” Liz told me last spring, and to each of his children he speaks personally and uniquely. Sitting in Caldwell Chapel shortly before graduation and trying to plan the next steps of my life, I found a Bible left in the pew, pages creased at Psalm 27 where it says Lord show me your way. I was hoping God would give me an answer — writing on the wall or a blinding light, perhaps. Yet this was just my plea thrown back at me. But the psalmist goes on: Wait for the Lord, take courage; be stouthearted, wait for the Lord!

Each of these women has embraced a lifetime plan, a radical commitment of her life and self to Christ. Some of the rest of us, however, ramble through Times Square with barely the day mapped out. And it only takes a glance to see that the people around me, laden with iPods and cell phones, boxes and bags, carry heavy burdens indeed. As T.S. Eliot once put it, theirs — ours — are the “strained, time-ridden faces/distracted from distraction by distraction.” But underneath it all, distracted from what — or distracted from whom? Liz, Mary and Rachel all help me find the answer.

They’re too young, too immature, too rash, protests the Times Square culture at the thought of three vibrant, educated women embracing a life so different from its own. But these women have been educated to seek the truth and to seek Christ, and they’ve found that the two quests ultimately converge. Full of life, they are unafraid of saying yes to the challenge Christ has offered them. Theirs is a lifetime plan, and at first glance it seems radical, even impossible. But, at its heart, it is the vocation of all Christians. It is the call to seek God’s face at all times, to make every moment a prayer of love, to take courage and wait for the Lord.

God did not speak through the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but through the small voice, the soft breeze. And sometimes the breeze whispers through friends and co-workers, the trivial and the mundane, the detours and the potholes that God puts in our lives. Sometimes — probably more often than I admit — that is where he gives his call to love; that is where he shows his face. Even in the blustery wind. Even on Broadway.

Amanda Shaw is an assistant editor for First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life, and has written articles for the journal and its Web site.

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