January 12, 2007

Religious Vocations Supplement

Haunting questions lead woman to religious life

Benedictine Sisters Julie Sewell, left, and Mildred Wannemuehler chat at Our Lady of Grace Monastery, their religious community’s home in Beech Grove.

Benedictine Sisters Julie Sewell, left, and Mildred Wannemuehler chat at Our Lady of Grace Monastery, their religious community’s home in Beech Grove.

By John Shaughnessy

BEECH GROVE—The questions challenged and haunted Julie Sewell.

“While I was brushing my teeth one morning, I heard something say to me, ‘What are you really doing with your life? Is this what you really should be doing?’ ” she recalls. “It wasn’t an audible voice. It came from inside of me. It came from out of nowhere.”

Until that moment, she thought she was content. She had a good job in Chicago doing strategic planning for a health-related company. She enjoyed her work, had close friends and never felt there was anything missing in her world.

Yet those questions started her on what she calls “the long, winding journey” of her life, a seven-year journey that has shaken her foundations, stirred her soul and led her to Our Lady of Grace Monastery in Beech Grove where, at the age of 46, she is following her heart as a Benedictine sister.

In a way, it’s the story of one woman’s journey to find her place in the world—to find her way back to the faith she had set aside, to find her way to the calling she resisted for so long.

“I grew up in the Catholic Church, but I hadn’t been active for 10 years when the questions started,” says Sister Julie as she sits inside the monastery. “I hadn’t gone to church regularly. I appreciated my Catholic upbringing, but with the traveling I did at work I kind of drifted away.”

Once the questions surfaced in 1999, she couldn’t ignore them. So she sought the help of a woman in Chicago who helped people discover the most important elements of their lives. As an exercise, the woman took her to the Art Institute of Chicago and asked her to point out the paintings she liked and give her reasons why. The exercise showed that the most important value in her life was spirituality.

She began reading the Bible, and books by Thomas Keating and Thomas Merton. She also visited an aunt in Indianapolis, who took her on a spiritual retreat one weekend.

“I just had a profound experience while I was there that my life needed to go in a different direction,” Sister Julie recalls. “I flew back to Chicago. I still didn’t know what to do with all of this. I tried to work, but the experience wouldn’t let me go. I started to go back to church again. I started to reconnect.”

Still, the move toward a religious vocation didn’t come until she had another life-altering moment.

“I came back to Indianapolis to see my aunt,” she recalls. “At her church, I was getting some cups ready for some function. Someone asked me to put lemon slices in the cups. I had 12 cups left and I couldn’t find another lemon. Finally, I found a small one on the floor. I washed it, scraped it and cut it up into small pieces for all the cups.

“When I woke up the next morning, I was brushing my teeth. I heard this thought rise up again, ‘Your life is like that one lemon that you tried to stretch so far. If you would just give up your job and follow me, there would be abundance in your life.’ ”

She still didn’t give up her job, but she moved to Indianapolis to do it. She viewed the city as a place where she was getting answers to her questions. She began taking theology courses and attending more retreats. Then she enrolled in a spiritual direction internship at Our Lady of Grace Monastery.

“I began to have a lot of exposure to this community,” she says. “The more time I spent here, the more I felt I belonged.”

Finally, on Sept. 7, 2005, she entered the monastery with a desire to become a Benedictine sister.

“I remember the first couple weeks I was here,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Have I done the right thing?’ Then, one day, it hit me that no matter what happens, it’s a blessing to be here. I felt at home. Since then, I’ve tried to immerse myself in the experience it’s given me. They really give you the opportunity to study and see what this life is like so when you do make a commitment, you’ve done it from a heartfelt place.”

She is in her second year as a novice. She is scheduled to take her temporary vows in June of 2008. She would make her final vows three to five years later, she says.

She admits that her former co-workers, some of her friends and even some family members didn’t understand the choice she made. Yet she has found strength and support in the influence and inspiration of the sisters at the monastery.

“You’re participating in the life and the liturgy and the prayer of the community,” she says. “You have a great spectrum of people who live here. The older sisters have so much wisdom and you gain from their wisdom. You see how they model the Benedictine life. They embrace and live the life, and they want that to happen for you.”

Benedictine Sister Mildred Wannemuehler has served that role for Sister Julie as her Scriptures teacher.

“She’s very mature,” says Sister Mildred, who has been in the order for 59 years. “She’s had a lot of experience. I think we have kindred spirits. I go to help in the [Indiana Women’s Prison] on Tuesday nights, and she’s interested in that.”

Sister Julie previously served as a mentor to juvenile offenders. She hopes her life as a Benedictine sister will let her serve others.

“I want to be involved in ministry, in helping people out. I was working with the homeless and poor in the past. I feel I want to continue in that way.”

She pauses and thinks about “the long, winding journey” she has made, a journey that she believes has taken her to her spiritual home.

“The hard part was all that struggle before I came. I didn’t know for sure if I was making the right decision. I didn’t want to make a mistake, but I knew the only way I would figure it out was if I tried it,” she says. “Since I came, I really have the feeling that I’m in the right place. This is an incredible blessing.” †

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