Last week, I wrote about the Sisters of Mary. As I wrote, I was continually thinking about Ann McNulty. So let me tell you about her.
You’d love Ann. When I met her back in 1981, she was 54 years old, never-married, and in fulltime Christian service. I met her one night in a downtown Huntington teen outreach center operated by Huntington University students. I was there to do an article. She was an adult sponsor that night.
Ann, slender with short-cropped graying hair, was running around in bluejeans having a great time. All around her, rock music blared deafeningly and unkempt teenagers loitered, smoked, and generally acted cool, hip, with-it, or whatever term they used back then. Ann looked out of place there, but yet, she seemed to be enjoying it more than anyone else.
I began talking to her.
“Isn’t this great!” Ann told me with genuine enthusiasm. “All these kids here!”
We talked a while.
“What church do you attend?” I eventually asked.
“Victory Noll,” she replied.
What? Isn’t Victory Noll–no, can’t be!
But it was true. Victory Noll was the local convent. So Ann was a–nun!?! Sister Ann. But–a nun wearing bluejeans!
Twice in the next few months, a couple singles from my church (both of them former missionaries) joined me in visiting Sister Ann at the convent. During those times, she demolished every stereotype we held about nuns. She was totally delightful. Humorous, lively, expressive, open-minded, and deeply committed to the Lord. We ate a meal at the convent and, like everyone else, washed our own dishes. We had some beautiful Christian fellowship as, steering clear of our differences in theology and worship, we shared our common desire to please God in all things and honor Him as Lord.
Sister Ann told us her story. She worked in secular jobs until age 27, all the time sensing God’s call on her life to become a nun. She couldn’t understand it.
“I love guys, kids, and homemaking,” she told a priest. “With those desires, how could God want me to become a nun!”
“It just means you’re normal,” he told her. “If you didn’t have those desires, we probably wouldn’t want you to become a nun.”
She continued struggling with the idea. Then her boyfriend proposed.
He was the type of man she had always wanted to marry, and she would have been very happy spending her life with him. But she couldn’t escape God’s call–which she increasingly felt was God’s call–and now she was forced to make a decision.
“No,” she told her boyfriend, “l have to take care of something else.”
Not long after that, Ann entered Victory Noll, the home base for her order. Since then, she had served two-year assignments in at least seven states, usually ministering to children (interestingly, one stint was in Tulare, Calif., where I graduated from high school). When she was back in Huntington, she helped care for some of the very elderly nuns living at Victory Noll; she expressed the joy she received caring for these women, who had devoted their own lifetime to ministering to others. Sister Ann had undoubtedly influenced countless people with her deep spiritual commitment and bubbly enthusiasm for life.
At the time, as a Christian single, I envied Sister Ann. She didn’t have to contend with people pressuring her to find a husband, get married, settle down, raise a family, etc. Twenty-seven years before, she had made a public vow to remain single so she could serve God unreservedly.
She didn’t wonder, every time she met a handsome guy, “Is this the one for me?” That had already been decided. He wasn’t. And she didn’t hear well-meaning people say, “I’ve got a friend I’d like you to meet,” or “There’s this new guy in my church. I think you’d really like him.” They knew her heart was already committed elsewhere.
In a way, I wish the Protestant community had a counterpart for nuns and monks. It would take a lot of pressure off Christian singles who are as committed to ministry as Sister Ann. For Catholics, a life of singleness and service is legitimate, valued, and honored. But evangelical Christians view singleness as a second-rate lifestyle, something to be abandoned as soon as “the right person,” or someone fairly close to it, comes along. In the evangelical mindset, marriage always overrules singleness.
I think of some single missionaries who have given their entire adult lives to serving Christ overseas. That is a high calling. And yet, I’m sure they have endured the shortsighted coaxings of other people to exchange it for marriage, to settle down and raise a family. To be altogether normal, average. When I see a single give up a very productive ministry in a parachurch organization or mission in order to get married, I don’t always view it as a good thing for God’s Kingdom.
I did it. I gave up ten years of ministry-filled singleness to get married. But that was the path God wanted me to take–I have no doubt about that. But it’s not everybody’s path. We Christians just think it is. And so, we have a lot of singles out there who are waiting for the right guy or gal to come along, so that they can “start” their life. And that always makes me sad.