The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it. (Mt 13:45-46)
Last month, ESPN held up the fine pearl for all to see. The Worldwide Leader in Sports ran a feature story on a 1980s basketball phenom named Shelly Pennefather who left her professional career, and everything else, to become a cloistered nun. Incredibly, millions of readers received an introduction to the reality of consecrated life.
Pennefather’s path to the cloister is certainly an extraordinary one, worthy of the attention. In the video accompanying the story, legendary UConn coach Geno Auriemma refers to her as the “Larry Bird of women’s basketball.” She didn’t lose a single game in high school (96-0) and was an All-American for Villanova, where she is still the all-time leading scorer in program history (for both men and women). After graduating she played professionally for several years in Japan, giving her the opportunity to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The ESPN story goes to great lengths to try to comprehend what Pennefather chose to do next, entering the Poor Clares in Alexandria, Virginia, where she took the name Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. Her family, friends, teammates, and coaches are all interviewed, offering their reflections about her response to the Lord’s call. The more the ESPN story tries to describe her life in the cloister, though, the less sense it seems to make. With the video especially, what makes a deep impression is the pain that her family members and friends have endured, missing her presence in their lives. In the story you find a lament about all the good she could have done in the world. Among the comments left by readers of the article on Twitter, you find plenty of dismissive jabs about this being “a cult,” and her choice being “a tragedy.”
In the eyes of the world, the pearl of great price looks a lot like a pile of garbage.
The problem, of course, is that these people talk like Pennefather herself is the fine pearl. They mistake merchant for merchandise. And even though ESPN seems to give a quite thorough account of her journey, there is still one paragraph missing. St. Gregory the Great has already written it:
[H]e who attains a… knowledge of the heavenly life as far as this is possible, is supremely happy to relinquish all he loved before. In comparison with that sweetness nothing is of value, and the soul abandons all it had gained, scatters all it had amassed. Aflame with love for the things of heaven, it cares for nothing upon earth and considers as deformed all that once seemed so beautiful, for in the soul shines only the splendor of that priceless pearl. Of this love Solomon says: ‘Love is strong as death’ (Sg 8:6), because, as death strips the body of life, so love of life eternal kills the love of temporal things. (Homilies on the Gospels, §11)
When someone like Pennefather encounters Love itself—divine love, a love as strong as death—it inspires what seems like a total waste of a life. But really it becomes “a superabundance of life,” as Pope St. John Paul puts it. Cloistered nuns give the whole world a “joyful proclamation and prophetic anticipation of the possibility offered to every person and to the whole of humanity to live solely for God in Christ Jesus” (Vita Consecrata, no. 59).
This ESPN profile provides an extraordinary witness—a kind of introductory tutorial on how to begin to look at life like a real merchant, how to identify the good stuff when you see it. This education takes time. Sometimes, a very long time. But hopefully for many, through the witness of Sr. Rose Marie, it has begun. May the witness of her vocation move many others, by their very act of wrestling with the seeming irrationality of her choice, to find what is latent within us all: the desire for God.