taking the words of Jesus seriously

Being a Sister is a form of radical discipleship of Jesus Christ, I figure. It is how I can live in a committed intentional community long-term with like-minded prayerful, Gospel-centered women; women who also want to serve people on the margins of society, end injustice, advocate for peace, live simply and sustainably, close to the earth and close to the poor. That’s what I think, hope for. That’s why I want to be a Sister. But then there’s the day-to-day: the errands, chores, tasks, and technology—not to mention the culture and commotion of intergenerational women with mixed backgrounds and beliefs living together and sharing everything. So much of the reality here feels like galaxies apart from good ideals and intentions. Questions keep buzzing in the back of my mind: What am I doing in this life? Why am I trying to become a Franciscan Sister in this modern world?

A simple answer comes quickly, like a response whispered back to my doubts: I’m here to live a life of community, prayer, and service. I want my life centered around those three things. With community, prayer, and service at the center of my life, I might grow into a better version of myself, a better Christian and disciple of Jesus. These are the quick answers, in this inner conversation I go through every week or so.

I daydream about how it could work. Maybe I could gather a group of my friends and we could get a place together, then let people who are homeless live with us too. We could offer meals around our table and host prayer and workshops about social justice for the public. I guess what I want is a life like how Catholic Workers I know live. Would the Catholic Worker lifestyle fit me better? Would it feel more natural to live in a Catholic Worker house than hanging out in these old buildings, between these institutional walls?

Some friends have been sending messages, asking me if I’ve read The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, by Shane Claiborne. Once I do, I weep as I take in Shane’s story and learn about the “new monastics.” I’m enamored by the description of how Shane and his friends live in an intentional community in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia and serve their neighbors. I want to live simply with other Christians. I want to serve the marginalized too. That’s what Jesus modeled for us. I want to be close to the poor, close to Jesus. How is being a novice helping me to become a more radical Christian?

How could the structures, expectations and traditions of the Franciscan Sisters offer me freedom to serve the poor and radically follow Jesus like Shane and his friends are doing? I feel stuck and confused as I try to think it through, try to imagine how being a Sister will free me.

Sitting in the silent adoration chapel, I muse about my confusion and bob my head in prayer. Then, one afternoon, something happens inside me: I can only describe it as a widening in my heart. It feels like an opening, a gap that allows some light to soften the doubts tangled inside. This is where I am. I’m here with these good women. I’m lucky to be with them. They’re amazing! In the rays of light falling into me, a cavern is created for the Spirit to whisper. As quickly as I wondered why I haven’t yet left, I know why I’m here.

It’s the mothers. The spiritual mothers. The roots, the depth, the way that this form of religious life means I’m now in a beautiful web of connection, tradition.  The spiritual mothers are the women I’m interacting with daily. They are the gray-haired and stooping ones, who embrace me with their hugs, prayer, and notes of encouragement and love.

Then my mind flips through timelines and zooms to the spiritual mothers of the Middle Ages. It is St. Clare of Assisi and her Poor Ladies, in San Damiano. The mystics, and bold voices who spoke to power and advocated for reforms. Go back to Rome, St. Catherine of Siena told the pope who was lingering at Avignon! St. Teresa of Avila, outgoing (like me), and deep and intense, who was sought after for her spiritual wisdom, for her Interior Castle.

Being part of the Franciscan Sisters means I’m amazingly part of this lineage too.

These holy women are my mothers, my church, they are the reason I stay. Somehow, they help me know that I belong to this mystery, this communion. Somehow all of them are mine. I stare at the altar, the Blessed Sacrament gleaming behind the glass of the monstrance and I know: I’m their daughter, a little restless and weak, but I’m here for them, ready to learn.

Several years ago, I wrote Shane Claiborne and thanked him for writing The Irresistible Revolution. He wrote back, on the back side of a piece of scrap paper a hand-written response:

January Something 2009
Sister Julia 🙂 —
Your letter warmed my heart. Thank you.
Sorry for the delay, it seems I stay behind on letters, but love writing—after all,
it’s an important Christian past time.
I admire your hope and discontentment—and certainly the Church needs both—it
is a beautiful thing to hear in your words the fiery passion of Francis and Clare—and the
humility to submit and seek the wisdom of elders. I’m also on an unfolding journey of
spiritual direction and discernment as I seek our Lover Jesus. Our communities and “new
monasticism” has its charm and fresh charism it also has its challenges and
vulnerabilities—and I think stability and supporting celibate singles, formation…are all
things we still are figuring out. So pray for us—I certainly will keep you in my prayers as
you continue the work of Francis and Clare “repairing the ruins of the Church.” 🙂 You are
a gift to the FSPA. Send my love to all the saints and sinners there. May we continue to
become the Church we dream of.
Your brother—Shane Claiborne

Tucked inside the envelope I find a prayer card—with the classic peace prayer of St. Francis printed on one side and an image of Francis on the other—a tiny little plastic baggie filled with about a teaspoon of sand, and a rectangle of white paper with words printed on it: “This dirt is from outside San Damiano in Assisi, where little brother Francis heard God whisper: ‘Repair my Church which is in ruins.’” And he started working. May the repairs continue in us.

I want to scream with joy, to run around and tell all the neighbors about my mail. But I sit still, reading the letter over and over, soaking in its message of encouragement along with the affirmation of what I’ve been praying about: I’m here, I’m a Franciscan Sister, not because the community or the Church is perfect, but because, somehow, it is home. In this home, I get to serve. I give of myself and try to help the suffering parts of Christ’s body be healed, repaired. I hope I do; I hope I can.

Excerpt from For Love of the Broken Body: A Spiritual Memoir, by Julia Walsh. Rhinebeck, NY: Monkfish Publishing, March 2024. Used by permission of the publisher.

About The Author


Sister Julia Walsh is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and part of her congregation’s formation team, serving women who are discerning their vocation. Along with another Franciscan Sister, she co-founded The Fireplace, an intentional community and house of hospitality on Chicago’s southside that offers spiritual support to seekers, artists, and activists. She’s often writing about messiness of following Jesus and being Catholic and doesn’t hesitate to ask important questions. This joyful, wild Jesus-lover can be found visiting jails, leading retreats, companioning spiritual seekers, advocating for peace, teaching about social justice, praying in the chapel or camping in the woods. She has an MA in Pastoral Studies from Catholic Theological Union and is a spiritual director and secondary teacher. As a creative writer, educator, and retreat presenter she is passionate about exploring the intersection of creativity, spirituality, activism, and community life. A regularly published spiritual writer, Sister Julia’s work can be found in publications such as America, Living Faith Catholic Devotional, and Living City. She hosts the Messy Jesus Business blog and podcast and is the author of FOR LOVE OF THE BROKEN BODY (Monkfish, March 2024).

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