Sr. Joan Ridley, OSB
Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. JOHN 15:4–5
Q. How did you discover your vocation?
A. My discovery of a vocation to religious life grew out of an experience of God I had while gazing at a beautiful sunset when I was in high school. I knew the inner experience was of an intimate God, and I sought to find that experience again. I thought religious life would lead me more deeply into God’s life and enable me to serve the poor. I joined a Dominican missionary community serving rural and neglected areas of the South and Southwest. The sisters I worked with mentored me and helped me mature into a more compassionate, generous person.
After years in active ministry in social services and as a lawyer serving the poor in rural Louisiana and years in leadership of my Dominican congregation, I experienced a second call within religious life. This call led to a semicloistered contemplative form of monastic life. It was unexpected and at first unwelcome, and yet it grew out of an inner experience of God. It became clear to me that my values and orientation had evolved toward the monastic expression of religious life. This life witnesses to the reality that prayer and community are themselves ministries that are especially needed in a world where community and the search for God are diminished. Outreach and ministries of various types flow from a structure that gives primacy to choices for prayer and community.
After visiting several Benedictine communities and careful discernment, I transferred my vows to the Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in 1999 in a process permitted by Church law and practice. I am grateful that God has called me in a variety of ways and gives me the grace to respond as best I can. My story emphasizes that vocation is ongoing, as is God’s love and call.
Q. What role does prayer play in your life today?
A. Prayer is at the center of who I am as a person and is the main ministry of the monastic congregation to which I belong. Since I am related to God intimately through being loved and I respond in love, prayer is the way I connect with God. Prayer is not always easy, but over and over I come before God seeking to be honest, being repentant for my failings, pondering Scripture, and eager for the relationship to continue and deepen as God desires.
In community we pray the Liturgy of the Hours in common four times a day. The rhythm has soaked into my bones, with the psalms being the foremost part of that prayer. Daily celebration of the Eucharist and the eucharistic adoration that flows from it are central to the Benedictine community.
After I moved to Missouri and transferred my vows, I began absorbing my sisters’ appreciation of and renewed love for eucharistic adoration. I sensed that the revival of this among the laity and in Catholic parishes was a gift of the post-Vatican II Church. Formerly, it had been a mainstay in religious orders dedicated to the practice. As a result of that learning and growth, I wrote a book for Liguori Publications in 2010 titled In the Presence: The Spirituality of Eucharistic Adoration. It was well-received and gave me the opportunity to give talks in parishes and spirituality centers, where I encountered the growing grace of God in people’s lives as they practiced adoration.
I now participate in our ministry of making and distributing altar breads. Until the COVID-19 pandemic, we were the largest religious community producer of altar breads in the United States—and we developed the first Vatican-approved low-gluten host. We continue to produce and mail low-gluten hosts all over the country.
Today we distribute regular altar breads that are baked by others. As I pack boxes for the people in the parishes, campuses, religious communities, and hospitals who order breads from us, I find myself praying for them. Sometimes I write a note on the packing slip saying I have done so. Prayer for others is a blessing and privilege.
Q. What personal sacrifices do you join to the sacrifice of Christ?
A. I joined a religious community right after the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, a time when there were more professed religious in the United States than ever before. It is a suffering to realize that, for many reasons in recent decades, far fewer people have embraced or persevered in this call. Cultural changes, the size of families, an explosion of opportunities to serve, and alienation from family or church are some factors.
I have watched many women enter my community and have seen others explore a vocational call. Too often they leave for something similar elsewhere, only to leave there for something else. It is hard to realize that the life I find so fulfilling is not the life many choose now. Added to that is the fact that communities of mainly older members—with few exceptions—are not attracting younger members.
Yet God always does something new. This is a period of diminishment. No one knows where God may be leading, but there will be new forms of apostolic and contemplative life, with bumps and starts along the way. New shoots emerge quietly. God will raise up what is most needed in the Church—often in surprising ways.
Q. What gives you hope in the Church today?
A. I find hope in the Church when I witness people grounded in the mission of Christ Jesus.
I find hope in a Church deeply grounded in Scripture and the sacraments in new ways since Vatican II and who make these realities more understandable and accessible.
I find hope in the Church because laypeople have taken leadership and ownership in the Church in ways I had not experienced when I was growing up.
I find hope in the Church because many laypeople are serious about prayer, retreat opportunities, and responding with passion to God’s initiatives.
I find hope in the Church as transparency increases, clericalism decreases, and abuse of minors and the vulnerable are dealt with effectively.
And I find hope in a Church devoted to the poor.