Many find it hard to fathom why a woman would ever think of trading in a good job and the prospect of marriage and family for a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. Tara Clemens of Anchorage, Alaska is doing just that.
It’s all the more surprising because Clemens was raised Evangelical Protestant. Plus, she’s a highly-educated attorney who already offers extraordinary service as a lay person in the Catholic Church.
So why leave all the world has to offer for a nun’s habit and the silence of a cloistered monastery?
Because it might be what God wants, explained the 31-year-old Clemens.
She regularly prays, “Lord, what is it that you want of me? Tell me what it is, and I will do it.”
That prayer is part of a journey to discern God’s call for her life. Taking time to discern one’s vocation is something she believes everyone should do.
“God calls everyone,” she said in an interview with the Catholic Anchor — to marriage, the single state or maybe even the religious life.
Called to be Catholic
Clemens’ path to the monastery began even before she was Catholic. She was working full-time and attending law school – but she wasn’t much involved in a faith community. The summer before her final year in school, she took stock of her life and realized she wasn’t where God wanted her to be.
So she began praying, “Lord, show me your church. Show me where you want me.”
For the first time, Clemens looked closely at Protestant doctrine, which “raised more questions than answers,” she said.
Then, a coworker invited her to Mass.
“Not being able to think of an excuse to say, ‘No’, I said, ‘Yes,’” Clemens recalled with a laugh. Soon after, she began investigating Catholicism, “so I could evangelize my friend” out of it, Clemens admitted.
“I came to the conclusion that God was answering my prayer and (the Catholic Church) was, in fact, the church — his church — where he wanted me,” she explained.
After graduating, Clemens moved to Alaska, studied for the Bar Exam and began the official steps to become Catholic.
The Jaw Dropper
In praying to find a job, she “stumbled across” a vocation prayer which she began to say.
Then, one day in the kitchen, Clemens’ Protestant mother articulated a possibility that had never crossed Clemens’ mind.
“She said, ‘Just promise me you’re not going to become a nun,’ recalled Clemens, whose “jaw hit the floor” at the idea.
Still, Clemens couldn’t make the promise.
“I said, ‘I can’t do that. I don’t know what God might call me to in the future.’”
But the idea of the religious life was anathema to Clemens.
“Inside, I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, we are not going there!’ But I felt like I needed to take it to God in prayer,” she explained. So she did – in addition to reading about religious vocations and attending discernment retreats.
Now, two years later, she is applying to enter the Corpus Christi Monastery — a Dominican congregation of contemplative nuns in California.
The nuns promote devotion to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and pray for the salvation of souls. To support themselves, they bake altar bread for Mass.
The nuns of Corpus Christi Monastery come from varied backgrounds. Many are college-educated and before the monastery, enjoyed professional careers.
As they were, Tara Clemens is headed up the ladder of success. She has an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and a doctorate in law. She is co-founder of the female-run Anchorage law firm of Helzer-Clemens, LLC.
At her parish, Clemens serves as lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and chair of the pastoral council.
“When I entered the church, I jumped in with both feet,” Clemens said.
She also helped found the parish’s now flourishing young adult group and initiated “Christ in the City” Eucharistic adoration — evenings of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament that she hoped would help young adults discern God’s will for their lives.
Going to the cloister would mean leaving all those projects, but Clemens is excited about the new work God may be asking of her as a nun.
“We are called to live this life with eternity in mind,” she explained.
“By giving everything up, so to speak, and withdrawing to a cloister to contemplate God … sitting at the feet of Jesus and to pray for the world, the salvation of souls – that in and of itself is a witness that God is sufficient,” Clemens added.
While Clemens is happy about a possible religious calling, she acknowledged that it won’t come without sacrifice — including of marriage and children.
“I love children, and so the idea of not having children really pulled at me, and I really wrestled with that — with not being a wife and a mother,” Clemens said.
But according to the church, she explained, “as women, we are all called to be mothers” — physically or spiritually. That gives Clemens peace — if she is called to prayer in a cloister, she will be nurturing souls spiritually.
In the cloistered monastery, Clemens said, that means carrying “within your heart the cares of Christ” — including the much-loved souls for whose salvation a cloistered nun spends her life praying.
Spiritual motherhood is a hard idea for some to grasp, she observed, particularly parents who see religious life through the lens of their own vocation of marriage.
“Their thinking is… ‘I am so happy being married and having children, I just want that for my own son or daughter.’ …but God might be calling them to something a little different than what they’d imagined,” Clemens explained.
Living in the cloister also means separation from parents and siblings. During her month-long visit to the cloister in February, Clemens said many of the sisters acknowledged that while families can visit, being away can be hard.
But Clemens banks on the fact that “God gives you the grace you need when you need it.” And she keeps eternity in perspective. “God willing, we’ll all be in Heaven forever,” she added.
In the meantime, Clemens’ faces another divide from her family. Her Protestant family opposes her investigation into religious life. While she understands their position and respects them, she said, “I must be faithful to go where Jesus is calling me to go. Jesus spoke more than once on the cost of following him.”
Still, “there is always hope” for accord, she added. “All things work for good for those who trust him. I firmly believe that.”
Another cost that Clemens faces is educational debt that must be paid before she can enter the monastery. She has been working to meet those obligations — and also now, she is connected to the Labouré Society, a non-profit organization that raises funds to help would-be religious resolve school debt.
There’s no guarantee, but she continues praying.
“If this is what God wants for my life,” she explained, “then he will make way.”
'We only have today'
One’s vocational discernment can be a long road, but it starts today, Clemens believes.
“One of my favorite quotes is by Blessed Mother Teresa… ‘Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.’”
“Sometimes, you kind of have to step back out of your life and really take stock of where you are and what it is you’re doing and not doing,” Clemens explained. “Spend time with God in prayer” and go to the sacraments, she urged. “Ask God, ‘What is it that you want me to do?’ and be open to the answer.”
“God knows us so much better than we know ourselves,” Clemens added. “He knows what is going to truly fulfill and make us happy.”
“Cooperating with the working of God in your life,” she said, results in “being transformed to be the person that he created you to be.” And the aim of that is “to know him, love him, serve him and be with him for all eternity.”
Printed with permission from CatholicAnchor.org, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.