The consecrated life really is a love story.
We live in a curious age when God will call someone to the consecrated life via YouTube. That’s what happened to 21-year-old college student Lauren Franko, who went to play her favorite song and, instead of the lyrics to “Only Hope,” heard the words “Will you marry me?”
Soon she became Sister Lauren, and a few years after that she was Sister Maria Teresa of the Sacred Heart. Last year she made her final vows, committing the rest of her life solely to Jesus as a cloistered Dominican nun.
The first seven years of Sister Maria Teresa’s religious life, leading up to her final vows, are documented by photographer Toni Greaves in Radical Love, out recently from Chronicle Books. Greaves, who was granted rare access to the monastery in Summit, NJ (where the five youngest novices had all found their calling via the Internet), says she found more than a mere quiet place there. She found a place that was filled with joy because it was filled with women very much in love.
This radiant joy is what is most striking about Greaves’s book, especially with the youthful energy of its main subject, Sister Maria Teresa. There are all the solemn images of prayer and worship one would expect in a book about the contemplative vocation, and Greaves captures these beautifully. But playfulness also pervades the images of community life, both work and recreation. Greaves says she encountered there a happiness and fulfillment not commonly encountered in the world, and it comes through in her work, along with a sense of lightness and freedom made possible only by total commitment.
The nuns pray, certainly—that is what they are there to do. They also garden, they play guitar and sing, they wash dishes, they catch a glimpse of fireworks being set off from the nearby town, they pack soap (the sale of which helps to support their monastic life). Sister Maria Teresa looks for baby fish in the pond she has built. She trains the community’s golden retriever, Sabina. She laughs with a pair of visiting friars. She lies prostrate, face down on the floor, for her solemn profession of vows. She sits and loves Jesus.
If anyone wants proof that this is a life worth living, show them this book.
(Unfortunately, I couldn’t get permission to use any images from the book in this article. You can find plenty, however, in a New York Times piece on the Summit Dominicans and in an interview with Greaves at the NYT’s Lens blog.)
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