by Sr. Nicole Marie Varnerin, originally written for The Messenger
Growing up, one of my favorite movies was “Shrek.” I loved Donkey’s character and his banter with Shrek. Beyond the silliness, which made it a very relatable movie, there were good images and lessons.
One of my favorite scenes is when Shrek is trying to explain what ogres are like. See, Donkey is relating to Shrek based on the stereotypes of an ogre. To Donkey, ogres are mean, violent creatures who terrorize villages. But Shrek, who only uses the stereotype to be left alone, grasps at a way to help Donkey understand that ogres are more complex than that. He looks around and sees the onion in his hand. Shrek says, “Ogres are like onions.”
After some comical banter where Donkey is trying to figure out the similarities, Shrek shouts, “No! Layers! Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it, we both have layers.” Donkey then tries to convince Shrek to use another simile, one that is a little more pleasing to the senses. Shrek responds, “I don’t care what everyone likes! Ogres are not like cakes.”
The simile of the onion is crucial here.
Shrek did not choose another layered item to compare to ogres because a person’s relationship to an onion is more complex than a relationship to cake. Onions don’t always smell or taste nice to begin with. But as you cook them, break them down into their layers, they become tastier. And the slower and longer you cook an onion, the sweeter it becomes.
Onions are at the same time challenging and delicious. The same way the skin of the onion looks papery and inedible, an ogre’s exterior seems rough and unwelcoming. But as you peel back the layers of Shrek throughout the movie, we arrive at the sweet center of a caring individual who just wants to be loved and understood.
So, what does this have to do with religious life?
Before I started considering becoming a sister, my thoughts about sisters were entirely based on stereotypes. There are several nun stereotypes I have been exposed to in my life and, now that I am a part of the sisterhood, I can tell you that the stereotypes are never true. Sisters have layers just like ogres. And when I broke down those layers and began to get to know some sisters, I arrived at the sweet center and appreciated them for who they are.
While each congregation does have a corporate identity and mission, the way a sister lives out that mission is as unique as she is. So my advice is to get to know a sister. Learn about who she is and what she did in her life. And share yourself with her, too. I promise that most sisters are good listeners, and a lot are very good storytellers. Pretty soon, you will be peeling back layers of the onion of religious life.
My experience as a novice is also quite like an onion. Formation has layers. I started out on the surface, learning about our history, studying theology and trying out different ministries. As I peeled those layers away, I got to the deeper layers of personal and communal prayer and community life. Some of these layers were quite bitter. I was challenged by my own insecurities and learning how to live cross-generationally. But as I continued to cook down those experiences into feelings, working with each day as it came, I found myself with a pan of sweet, delicious caramelized onions. And each time I peeled back a new layer of onion to go deeper into awareness of who I am and who I am called to be, I added more bitter, acidic, raw onions to my pan.
I am currently in the process of pulling back yet another layer of my formation. In just about four months, I will be standing in front of my sisters, family and friends, vowing, for the first time, to live a life of chastity, poverty and obedience. In preparation for this I am peeling back the layer of what each of these vows means to me and to my sisters. I am asking questions like: how can I best live out my call to poverty? What will living the vow of obedience mean for me? And how can I best express my motherhood as I live celibately?
I’m working on cooking these onions down and to be honest they don’t taste very good right now. But I know that in a few months, when I stand in front of the altar giving my life to Jesus, I will have a big pan of caramelized onions.