A Reminder of How to Live
Easter is more than a holiday. Even before the day arrives many Christians spend 40 days observing the season of lent. The most widely practiced part of lent is the commitment for six weeks to giving up a luxury or hindrance. This is done as a spiritual and mental preparation to celebrate the resurrection of Christ. For Christians it’s a small sacrifice signifying the commitment to giving up one’s self to follow Jesus as He gave up his life for the forgiveness of mankind. Nothing can compare to the sacrifice of Jesus but Christians practice this as a way to honor that sacrifice and symbolize what he did.
As lent winds down and the celebration of the resurrection nears, I want to share a story of a woman who has committed her entire life in ways unimaginable to most people. A woman with great basketball ability and success and wealth ahead of her, I first heard of this story 15 years ago and still think of it from time to time especially during this season when so many people focus on the reason that Christianity exists. Forty days of fasting from a few things is a difficult task for most people but for a cloistered Poor Clare nun it is a lifetime calling.
The Shelly Pennefather Story
Shelly Pennefather was an All-American basketball player at Villanova, receiving the Wade Trophy in 1987, which is the highest honor for women’s players. After graduation she played professionally in Japan and was one of the highest paid players in the world. In 1991, she gave it all up, answering the call on her life to become a cloistered Poor Clare nun. Exchanging a life of sports, competition and worldly success for a simpler one, she has taken a vow of poverty, chastity, obedience and enclosure.
Poor Clare nuns never sleep for more than four hours at a time on a bed made of straw or a thin rug mat, never eat more than one full sized meal a day and can only see friends and family through a screen a couple of times a year. They can not have any possessions, use telephones, television or radio, and their only readings are religious.
I remember being so fascinated by this as a 13 year old who only ever thought about playing basketball. I remember thinking “why in the world would anyone give up something they’re great at to have nothing?” I am still fascinated by it 15 years later and though I’m more mature and understanding, I still felt the conviction in this question by Fr. Raymond Suriani of St. Pius X Church in Rhode Island. In his homily during the 5th Sunday of lent in 2003 he told his congregation the Shelly Pennefather story. “What is your initial, honest, gut-level response? Is it, "That’s fantastic! How wonderful of her to serve God in this way; what a blessing for the Church!" Or is your honest reaction, "What a waste! She could have done so much good for our society; she could have inspired young women as a professional basketball player; she could have been the mother of children. How could she throw her life away in that manner?"
My first thought was still, “That’s crazy!” But isn’t this what God calls us all to do as Christians? “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” Mark 8:35. No, I don’t thinks he means everyone should become cloistered nuns and cut off from the world, but to daily die to ourselves, to our wants for the sake of Christ and leading others to Him. To be obedient to what He calls us to. To obediently follow Him, even though we might want something else.
For some that’s becoming a professional athlete or a pastor, a construction worker, teacher, coach, doctor, etc. And though it may seem cruel or unfair for God to call people to this kind of lifestyle. Or for people to live in extreme poverty, for people to suffer the hardest of life’s circumstances, life is not about what we can posses and obtain. It’s not about our status. It’s not about being fair. It’s not about being happy. It’s not about comfort. Those things are nice, but it doesn’t last and it doesn’t guarantee anything. There is only one thing that lasts.
Father Suriani wrote-
“She died to what is good (a normal life in the world; a career in professional basketball) for the sake of something better (a life of total consecration to Jesus Christ, the King of the universe!)”
It is humbling that even though it is often hard for me to give up things, and to think of myself before others, that there are people who have “given up” so much to dedicate all that they are to pray for people like me. That there are people more concerned about the well-being of others, that they would completely deny themselves as a means to giving as much as they possibly can, for other people. They are committed to living out what Christ did on the day we soon celebrate.
What’s also humbling is that to Shelly Pennefather and those who have given themselves to such lifestyles don’t see the phrase “given up” as something negative. She embodies what Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” When Paul wrote that he was speaking in a physical sense, dying and being in heaven would be better than enduring hardship on earth. But while being on earth, his life was meant to live for Christ. We can look at this verse in a spiritual sense as well. Dying to self, our flesh, our earthly desires and living for Christ first is for our gain as well as gain for those we influence.
This is why Easter is more than a holiday. It reminds us of how we should live. No matter what you believe or how you celebrate Easter, we can all benefit from selfless living whether your sacrifice is big or small.