Editor’s note: Sister Virginia Joy Cotter is from Greenville, S.C., and attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School. She is a member of the Sisters of Life (sistersoflife.org), a religious community based in New York and founded in 1991 by Cardinal John O’Connor. They take traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, plus a fourth vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life. This is an excerpt from a vocations story she wrote.
By Sister Virginia Joy Cotter
I’m the youngest of three, born in S.C. I went to Catholic school and then public high school. It was understood from a young age that our faith was a significant part of our lives. By the time I was in high school, my faith was certainly important to me but so were a lot of other things — friends, my appearance, soccer, school, etc.
I always believed that God had a plan for my life and assumed it included college, work, marriage and children. As I looked at schools, I felt overwhelmed with life’s possibilities. I wanted to play soccer, travel abroad and have the “ultimate” college experience.
This search took me to 12 colleges. I visited one Catholic school at the request of my grandparents and was shocked by the number of students actively practicing their faith. I was 18 years old, 10 hours from home, and knew virtually no one. Yet going into the chapel, I experienced a sense of being known and understood. I encountered Christ in a more real and personal way than ever.
It sounds dramatic, but suddenly my college decision was about more than choosing an academic or sports program. I was either going to focus my life around God and trust in His plan or I wasn’t. It was only by the grace of God that I was finally able to trust and be confident that choosing Him was all that mattered. I learned a great deal about my faith and grew in my relationship with Christ. I began to desire His will for my life not just long term but day-to-day. I was blessed with wonderful friendships and had a great experience. Upon graduation, I was ready to go out and “fight the good fight.”
My first job was selling high risk entertainment insurance — paintball parks, rock climbing walls, mechanical bulls and go-karts. It was entertaining and unusual, but I knew more was expected of me. I was overwhelmed with God’s generosity in my life — faith, family, friends— and I desired to give in return.
I decided to do one year of mission work and then resume a “normal” life. I found a program in Los Angeles where I could live in community and do pro-life work. I was assigned to a home for pregnant teenagers, with about 60 girls and 40 babies. While the work was chaotic and tiring, I really loved it. It was such a gift to enter those girls’ lives and be with them.
After Los Angeles, I sought a program for troubled teens that incorporated a spiritual dimension. God opened doors to a Catholic Youth Ranch in Wyoming designed for troubled teenage girls that focused on healing mind, body and soul. I was privileged to see God work in the lives of these girls and their families.
Both experiences are tremendous blessings that I continue to pull from to this day.
I also served as a college counselor at a Catholic high school. Part of this job was getting students to discern their vocation.
Naturally, this had me thinking about my own vocation.
One day at Mass I was praying my intentions and found myself praying for my religious vocation. I was shocked. I had briefly thought about religious life in college but passed it off as not for me. My life was good, but I was restless.
Prayer and advice about working with what’s right in front of us led me to visit the Sisters of Life, who I met in our school chapel.
I had high expectations — a neon sign saying either yes or no. As you can guess, there was no sign. But my disappointment was overshadowed by the sisters, who were so joyful. While I was drawn to their life, I was also drawn to marriage, and didn’t know what to do.
At one point on the retreat I was reading the vocation stories of the sisters and found myself relating to one sister’s story and prayer for courage. Until then, it never occurred to me that I might need courage to follow God’s will.
Later, while talking with the priest on the retreat, he reiterated that it takes a lot of courage, particularly in following the call to religious life. He joked that it would be easier if God slipped a note under our doors, telling us clearly what we should do. When I went back to my room, there was a note under my door. It was from the sister whose vocation story I had been reading. She wrote that she had been praying for me and advised me to “take courage.”
Finally, the last day of the retreat I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament and experienced a profound grace, I knew God was calling me to Himself. My response was “Yes. I trust in Your plan and I want to live it!”
I continue to pray for the grace to say yes every day as I learn to receive the gift of this vocation.