November 28, 2014

Carmelite nun experiences trials on pathway to consecrated life

Discalced Carmelite Sister Marianna So, center, kneels in prayer in the chapel of the Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute. (Photo courtesy of Monastery of St. Joseph)

Discalced Carmelite Sister Marianna So, center, kneels in prayer in the chapel of the Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute. (Photo courtesy of Monastery of St. Joseph)

(Editor’s note: Pope Francis has designated The Year for Consecrated Life to celebrate the life and ministry of religious men and women who serve Christ and the Church. The year begins the weekend of Nov. 29-30, and ends on Feb. 2, 2016, the World Day of Consecrated Life.)

By Sean Gallagher

Discalced Carmelite Sister Marianna So lives a hidden life in the Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute.

For more than 20 years, she has prayed daily for the Church and the world as she gives service to her community of contemplative Carmelite nuns that, by design, always numbers around 12 members.

The life that Sister Marianna leads—a life set apart for the worship of God and intercession for his people—is being honored in the Church during a Year of Consecrated Life, called for by Pope Francis, that starts this weekend.

Sister Marianna says that the Year for Consecrated Life will be “a time of renewal for me.”

“Hopefully, with a deepened faith and understanding, I will recommit myself in ever greater gratitude,” she said. “During many years of living as a cloistered nun, I have come to believe that this is my calling, to acknowledge him who is all powerful and ever-loving and to give thanks and praise, and like St. Teresa of Avila, to sing forever the mercies of the Lord.”

Though her life can seem very different from the vast majority of lay Catholics that make up the Church, the path that Sister Marianna walked toward her vocation is one experienced by many people today.

It was a life marked by walking away from the faith of her childhood, having a conversion as a young adult, discerning a religious vocation, caring for her ailing mother and having her faith shaken by witnessing the pain and agony that preceded her mother’s death.

Born in South Korea to fallen-away Catholics, Sister Marianna, 58, had little contact with the faith from the time she was baptized and received her first Communion at age 8 until her young adult years in southern California, where her family had emigrated when she was 18.

Abandoning and returning to the faith

Sister Marianna was baptized as a child only after her father died suddenly when she was 7. That sad event led her mother to return to the Catholic faith that she had earlier abandoned.

But soon thereafter, the family moved and again gave up the practice of the faith.

It wasn’t until Sister Marianna was a young adult living in southern California in the early 1980s that her mother had a more permanent conversion experience. After that, she tried to persuade her daughter to return to the Church.

Fully embracing what she called a “worldly life,” Sister Marianna paid no heed to her mother’s invitations.

“I had denied the existence of God,” Sister Marianna said. “I had never known about God’s love, so I resisted very strongly for a whole year. But she kept praying for me and talking about God’s love.”

After a while, her mother stopped talking to her daughter about the faith, but her witness of living it began to have an effect.

“She became quiet, but was offering me to Jesus and to our Blessed Mother. She offered me to them, saying, ‘She is yours. Do whatever you want to do with her,’ ” Sister Marianna recalled. “That brought about my own conversion experience [in 1982].”

Sister Marianna fully embraced her faith, becoming involved in parish ministries and a charismatic prayer group.

Within a couple of years, Sister Marianna began to discern that God might be calling her to a life as a Carmelite nun. However, advice she received from a spiritual director and a priest led her to put following this possible call on hold.

“I pushed away that thought and desire for two years,” she said. “But it never went away. It kept coming back.”

“Become a holy nun”

She was about to enter a Carmelite monastery in Long Beach, Calif., in 1985, when her mother suffered a debilitating stroke.

“I was confused,” Sister Marianna said. “I thought it was God’s will for me to enter religious life. But then she became ill, and had no one to care for her except me.”

She chose to remain at home to care for her ailing mother. Looking back on that time, Sister Marianna says that experience helped to prepare her for the religious life.

“I lived like a cloistered nun during those four years,” she said. “I stopped all of my activities and ministries in my parish. The only ministry I kept was an extraordinary minister of holy Communion in order to give my mother Communion every day.”

Finally, her mother, knowing of her desire to become a nun, had Sister Marianna arrange for her to live in a Catholic nursing home.

Sister Marianna then entered the monastery in Long Beach in 1989.

A year later, her mother had to have surgery. She had already suffered from the effects of her stroke for many years, and now was enduring even more pain. Sister Marianna was allowed to be at the hospital with her.

“When I went into the recovery room, my mother was there, coming out of her anesthesia,” Sister Marianna said. “She was crying and calling out my name. I held her hand and told her that everything was fine and that the surgery was successful.

“Then she told me, ‘I laid down all of my suffering and pain for you, to become a holy nun.’ Those were her last words to me.”

Sister Marianna returned to her monastery while her mother went back to her nursing home. Shortly thereafter, her mother suffered another stroke, entered into a coma and did not regain consciousness.

“I began to feel angry at God”

In the last four months of her mother’s life, Sister Marianna saw her experience even more pain.

The nutrition that her mother received through a feeding tube increased her suffering and could not be digested by her body.

Previously, in Sister Marianna’s life of faith, a crucifix had always spoken to her of God’s love.

That vision of love utterly disappeared in the face of her mother’s suffering.

“I began to see the cruelty of the crucifixion,” Sister Marianna said. “It didn’t comfort me anymore. It became more of a desolation.”

She even thought that God was cruel in allowing her mother to endure such trials.

“I began to feel angry at God,” Sister Marianna said. “I contemplated taking revenge. I was very tempted. I was thinking about how to do that. I thought that the perfect revenge would be to walk away from religious life, walk away from the Church, walk away from God.

“That would be my revenge, to turn my back on God.”

She was about to act on those dark thoughts when she remembered her mother’s final words to her.

“I couldn’t do that to her,” Sister Marianna said. “I couldn’t walk away from my mother. That kept me in religious life. I always think about that every time I have a difficulty.”

“A witness to … putting God first”

While Sister Marianna was still a novice, the Carmelite community in Long Beach decided to close their monastery and disperse to other communities in the United States.

She eventually was accepted into the Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute, and became the first of several nuns from cultures around the world to join the community.

Although there are only 14 members, they hail from Great Britain, South Korea, Trinidad, the United States and Vietnam.

“None of us chose each other,” Sister Marianna said. “It was Christ who brought all of us together. And in Christ, we remain and live our lives joyfully. That’s a witness. There is diversity, yes. But there’s also unity.”

Carmelite Mother Anne Brackmann is the prioress of the Monastery of St. Joseph. She sees the unity of her diverse community grounded in their common Carmelite culture.

“We all embrace it,” she said. “Then, in the midst of living that, there are significant cultural elements that we try to learn from each other, primarily by the nuns from the other cultures telling their stories.”

Living as a contemplative nun that is hidden both to the broader Church and the rest of the world, Sister Marianna is still convinced that she and her fellow Carmelites provide a prophetic witness to secular society.

“The sacrifices we make living this daily life as Carmelite nuns are a witness to the Church and the world of the primacy of God’s existence and putting God first,” she said

At the same time, Mother Anne shares with the Carmelite nuns that she leads an “admiration” for the lives of faith that lay Catholics around the world seek to live each day.

“We receive many requests for prayers,” Mother Anne said. “They come primarily through the Internet. We see the tragic situations that people are in, and the support that they ask of our prayers. That just really motivates us very much.”

Sister Marianna knows that God might be calling some people living in the middle of the world to consecrate themselves to him as she has done.

“They have to really listen to their hearts,” she said. “God speaks to our human hearts. It’s very important to listen in silence to that soft, gentle nudging or calling of God to consecration.”

(For more information about the Carmelite Monastery of St. Joseph in Terre Haute, log on to

Local site Links: