The question was sincere and direct from my five year old niece, "Why isn't Aunt Melissa married?" Mid-way through a recent family vacation, my niece had questions and my sister turned to me for the answers. Surprised at the sudden change in topic from her favorite "Frozen" movie character (Olaf), I was a bit speechless. I started to say something about not wanting to be married, but realized mid-sentence that wasn't exactly, totally, honestly true, so I changed tactics. I began rambling about her church and the priest and the sister who works there and...she lost interest.
So I was off the hook in that moment, but the interaction has stayed with me. Should it be easier to describe who I am, what I believe in, and how I want to focus my life in a concise way that a five year old can understand? That may be unrealistic, but I wonder how I will bear witness in word and action to her about the deeper meaning of our faith, why it's important and how I've chosen to live out my call to be a sister.
I'll admit that I don't have a lot of experience with children and even live 1,500 miles away from the three kids who call me aunt. On the other hand, I've encountered many adults who have old stereotypes about sisters embedded in their minds or romanticize our way of life. It's been challenging at times to address those misperceptions or step out from under their expectations of what they want me to be, but at least there is a starting point of experience or memory unlike today's five year olds. I've found that it's possible to reach new understanding with openness, humor and a great deal of listening. In the face of those conversations, I don't feel afraid of what it means to have such smaller number of sisters today. I generally feel proud of who we are together and confident in God's presence with us into the future.
But the interaction with my niece causes me to ponder our future in a new way because she barely knows any sisters, except me. In the wake of her question, I feel an unexpected, new kind of responsibility and loneliness, and a new kind of pressure to create a positive image on a child's blank slate of experience. The reality of our smaller numbers means it's unlikely that great numbers of children will know us first-hand.
Without a significant amount of other input about or with sisters, I wonder how my life will appear "different" to my nieces and nephew in a way that speaks to the true meaning of religious life. How will they come to define what being a sister is really all about, other than not having a spouse or children? It seems as though the call to bear witness to the Gospel with my life has a new dimension - one that demands faithfulness and fruitfulness for the next generation and not just focused on the adults in my ministry and social circles.
Rather than being discouraged, I have a renewed commitment to share all that is most important about the call to religious life and the love of Christ with people of all ages. I hope I'll be more prepared with a relevant answer by the time my 3 year old nephew starts asking questions.