Special to The Michigan Catholic
CLARKSTON — At her senior high school homecoming dance, a young woman gets a marriage proposal from the love of her life, to which she gives a resounding “Yes!” Who could imagine a more romantic scenario?
This is at least part of the story of the call to religious life for Jacqueline Beltowski.
Seventeen-year-old Jackie, as her family and friends call her, will soon be entering the cloistered religious order of the Poor Clare Colettine Nuns in Cleveland, Ohio.
She credits several spiritual encounters during her life that led her to this decision, including the “marriage proposal” above.
Jackie’s mother, Sharon, remembers her daughter’s excitement in getting ready for the dance at Clarkston’s Everest Collegiate High School in the fall of 2013. “Girls like to get dressed up and go to dances, even when they don’t have a date,” Sharon Beltowski said.
“I’ve always felt a bit out of place at dances and school events,” Jackie admitted. She was planning to attend the senior homecoming dance with some of her female friends, as many of the girls do, at the Everest girls’ school. The dance took place in the school cafeteria next to its chapel, and Jackie said she was aware of the nearby presence of her Lord. She felt called to make a visit, but she wondered what her friends would think.
Eventually, she couldn’t resist and went to the chapel. Kneeling in prayer, she talked to Jesus and felt an amazing amount of peace. “I was caught by surprise,” she said. “I remember saying, ‘Jesus, if you are you asking me to marry you, then I say, Yes!’”
Later, she would write a letter to the Poor Clares’ mother abbess at the monastery, with whom she had been in contact, telling her about this experience. Jackie said she feared she might have been imagining things. “The mother abbess told me she had no doubt He was calling me,” Jackie said. “God works in many different ways for everyone.”
“That day the teachers asked us if anyone had any prayer intentions, and I said I wanted prayer for my vocation,” Jackie recalled. “They prayed over me, and one of the teachers said the Holy Spirit kept repeating ‘Be not afraid. Step up. I go before you.’”
“I never had a message from the Holy Spirit before,” she said. “I realized He went before me in everything. So I began the process to become a nun,” and submitted her application to the Poor Clares.
Sharon Beltowski recalled watching her daughter talking on the phone to the nuns. “When she talks with them, she beams,” she said.
After visiting the monastery in December 2013, Jackie knew. “I couldn’t stop smiling. I fell in love with them,” she said.
“I like the idea of wearing a habit. That is what I think of a nun — it’s a sign. I like the look of a habit. It’s the more traditional way, through the centuries. It’s the symbolism of being the bride of Christ,” she said.
There is a lot of emphasis in the Poor Clares on being a bride of Christ, Jackie added.
“During the transition ceremony from postulant to novice, you wear a wedding gown,” Jackie said with a look of someone anticipating her own ceremony. “I can’t explain it well — spiritually, there is so much peace and joy from this decision.”
A choice among many
Jackie said she can’t remember what first attracted her to the Poor Clares, but she does recall reading a Catholic mystery novel by Dianne Ahern called “Break in at the Basilica” while in seventh grade. The novel talked about St. Francis of Assisi, and one of his protégés, St. Clare, who would later come to found the Poor Clares. “I was attracted to St. Clare and her lifestyle of giving up everything to live a life completely for Christ in every way,” she said.
“I liked seeing the sisters. You can’t go into their private area — you are in front of a grill. I talked with them for about two hours. They told us about their lifestyle and what a day is like,” Jackie said.
Jackie also entertained the sisters a bit, showing off some of the fruit of her years of Irish dancing lessons. “They enjoyed watching — they don’t get to see that very often.”
Afterward, Jackie said she has researched countless religious orders on the Internet, including the famous Missionaries of Charity, started by Blessed Theresa of Calcutta. She also considered the cloistered Dominicans in Farmington Hills and the Carmelites in Clinton Township.
“But every time I would read the Poor Clare rule of life, I would get so much peace and joy,” she said. “My heart was touched.”
But during her junior year of high school, Jackie said she began having second thoughts. “I thought I wouldn’t want to pray all day,” she said.
Her mother said college was another option to be considered.
“We believed she was too young and should get a degree,” Sharon said. “But after a while we changed our minds. We just knew the Beloved was calling her. She had to go.”
Jackie would discover the writings of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who received messages from Jesus regarding the devotion to the Sacred Heart.
“She had such love for Christ,” Jackie said. “Such an intimate, deep love. I remembered that intimacy with Christ is possible in the cloister, and returned to thinking about that.”
“The service they are doing for mankind is by going apart and praying for the world,” said Sharon. “In our world, the power of prayer is not valued. But they take prayer seriously. And they have stories of answered prayers and miracles.”
The support of her family
Jackie has great support in her vocational choice from her family, including her mother and father — recently ordained Deacon Chris Beltowski — and three sisters.
Her mother agreed to Jackie’s being interviewed for this article, admitting her daughter is a shy person. “But I told her that it may be her cross to let people know this life is a possibility,” Sharon said. “To plant the seed.”
Jackie’s three sisters — her twin Callie, 16-year-old Grace, and 13-year-old Rachel — have always been aware that Jackie was called to a different path in life than most.
“We were always asking each other if she should do this,” Callie said. “I thought, ‘How do you not see it?’ I’ve noticed it ever since she mentioned it in the fourth grade. She will be a great nun.”
They remember fondly, when Jackie was in fourth grade while attending public school, that she chose to come to career day dressed in a nun’s habit.
Later her sisters and she would attend different schools. Jackie chose Everest Collegiate, and Callie stayed at Lahser High School in Bloomfield Hills.
“Jackie hated public school,” Sharon said. “She was miserable. I thought, at first, she should bloom where she was planted. And I would ask myself, ‘How can we separate them?’ But they are all different kids.”
When the Beltowskis found Everest Collegiate, they considered moving all the girls there, since Everest offers education from preschool through 12th grade.
“But Callie loved her marching band at Lahser, and Grace had some really good friends at her Bloomfield middle school.”
The family did send young Rachel to Everest for a year and a half, but Sharon said her youngest daughter wasn’t fond of the long half-hour drive from where they live, and she enjoyed the fine arts program at her middle school.
“I’m not saying Everest is perfect, but I did have a lot more ability to be nurtured in my vocation there,” Jackie said. “I was kind of nervous to tell people about it. I’ve really wanted to be a nun all my life. Lots of my friends at Everest just knew. They said, ‘Oh that’s cool. You have the call?’”
At Everest, the girls receive spiritual guidance from the consecrated women of Regnum Christi who teach there. Everest also hosts young women in the Immaculate Conception program who are discerning a possible vocation with Regnum Christi, though Jackie said they never tried to “recruit her.”
“They encouraged my vocation,” she said. “I could relate to them, in some ways. They are directing their lives toward God. They understand religious life. It is hard to understand if you don’t have a call.”
Megan Luttinen, an Everest student who graduated with Jackie in 2014, was Jackie’s roommate when the seniors took their annual trip to the Holy Land during Holy Week.
“Rooming with Jackie made me more in love with my faith, because she is so into hers,” she said.
Megan said the night before the students were to go to the Holy Sepulchre (where the sites of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection are reportedly preserved) the chaperones told them it was going to be an early morning.
“They said we were going to have to get up and be out of the hotel by 6 a.m. Almost everyone in our group groaned. And I remember Jackie setting her alarm and being so ready to get up at 4:45 a.m. She woke me up and was literally dancing around the room, she was so excited to go to the Holy Sepulchre.”
Jackie’s sisters remember how she reacted during a recent annual youth conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville, an event they estimate draws about 2,000 young people.
“At the end of the final Mass, the priest asked all the young people to stand who were now receptive to a religious vocation, and a lot of people stood up, including Jackie,” said Callie. “It was interesting to see.”
Grace remembers during Eucharistic adoration, everyone “experienced the Holy Spirit in a different way. Jackie was so joyful, so happy to be with God,” she said.
Callie said, “The rest of us were sobbing, and Jackie was laughing.”
The positive and negative
Jackie’s siblings have witnessed both positive and negative reactions from others about Jackie’s vocation to religious life.
Sharon said that when her friends, and even some family members, found out Jackie was considering becoming a nun, some would say, “You have to talk her out of that.”
Sharon admits she was worried Jackie would not be going to college, or getting any formal job training as a Poor Clare.
“We made her apply to colleges,” she said. “But Jackie said it didn’t feel right.”
Sharon said that after Jackie enters the cloister next year, she may still discern that it’s not for her. She will spend a year as a postulant, and then two years as a novice, and three years with temporary vows before taking her final vows.
“This is where He has led me so far,” said Jackie. “God calls when He wants. We are not the judge.”
Responding to a common comment she gets, Jackie said, “In our world we rely so much on material things. But you get so much joy and peace and clarity when you give up these things.
“I’m not throwing my life away or giving up everything. I’m gaining everything. I’m gaining God.”
A day in the life
Jackie said a Poor Clare’s day starts at midnight, with the office of readings and silent prayer. Then they go back to bed. Their day revolves around intervals of prayers, including perpetual Eucharistic adoration.
The sisters live totally off the alms and charity of the community in which they live, which also worried Sharon at first.
“They do sell rosaries in a small gift shop, and they used to make Eucharistic hosts, but it took away from their prayers, so they sold that business.”
“Their life is hard sometimes. As a mother, I am worried about that. I worry about her health, what if she gets sick, needs to go to the dentist.”
“But the Poor Clares have a large number of donors. They are well taken care of.”
Family members also worry whether Jackie will ever have any fun in her life. “Her dad’s sisters — the girls’ aunts — came with us on the visit we made in December of 2013,” said Sharon. “One of them, April, asked the sisters, ‘Do you guys ever order pizza?’”
“They said a local vendor often offers them pizza, which they accept,” said Sharon. “Their local community takes good care of them.”
Sharon remembers thinking, “Boy, do those ladies smile. And they all have beautiful skin.”
Sharon clarifies that it’s not fair to think all cloistered nuns are “strict.”
“They are happy. They joke and laugh,” she said.
Jackie doesn’t know whether any other young women will be joining the order at the same time with her. “It is confidential,” she said. “But I will find out.”
What advice would Jackie give to someone who is discerning?
“Remember God is love and perfection,” she said. “Just keep repeating the phrase ‘Jesus I trust in you.’”
“Know that it’s hard, but it’s OK to be blind and unsure, because Jesus is leading you by the hand.”
This article originally appeared on the website of Regnum Christi, USA, and is republished with permission.