Tara Clemens: God “is calling me to a more perfect fulfillment of what he created me to be to begin with.”
‘This is where I was led’: Lawyer to give up career for the greater promise of monastic life
January 12th, 2011
By George Raine
Tara Clemens has been living her dream: After she finished law school in 2007, she worked for a law firm in Portland doing work she enjoyed, and went on to co-found a firm in Anchorage where she assists clients planning for their future, some of whom are mulling end-of-life issues and making decisions about them. It’s perfect for Clemens. “I love the law. I love the challenge,” she said.
Still, Clemens has been restless. “There was just something missing,” she said. For the past three years she has been asking God what he wanted her to do, no matter the law degree and launching a potentially lucrative career. She believes she has the answer: Clemens has been accepted for the postulancy, or the second step in the eight-year discernment process in becoming a cloistered nun at Corpus Christi Monastery in Menlo Park. It’s a far different world from the one seemingly laid out for Clemens, the one she worked hard to achieve. There will be no marriage, no family, but vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Looking back over her life, however, she believes she has long been preparing for a religious life.
The seemingly dramatic turn of events in Clemens’ life comes as no surprise to her, certainly, because it’s a snapshot of a vocation:
“By the time I finished law school, as much as I love law, everything from an outside perspective was exactly what I could have dreamed and what I did dream, at one point,” she said. “Still, there was something that was not quite right. And so I continued to ask the Lord, ‘What is it that you would have me do?’”
The answer, or the calling she heard, became clear after several visits to the Menlo Park Monastery. There also came over Clemens, she said, a sense of peace when she was certain she had heard her calling correctly. That peace, she said, “is beyond words. It is peace that God gives. It is unlike anything we will find in this world.”
Her Protestant family isn’t on board, and she must erase some $114,000 in college tuition costs before she is accepted formally at Corpus Christi, an enclosed cloistered independent monastery within the Dominican Order. But, like so much in Clemens’ life, she forecasts only positive resolution.
“This is where I was led,” she said.
It is not something that Clemens, 32, would have considered as a younger woman. She was reared in evangelical Protestant churches where a religious vocation was not a large part of the conversation. It is certainly not a route Clemens’ mother, Carol Clemens, supports.
In the summer of 2007, Carol Clemens, out of the blue and out of context, said on three occasions, “Promise me you are not going to become a nun,” said Tara Clemens, who the following year was baptized in the Catholic Church.
“We were making dinner plans” when the question was asked the first time, said Clemens. Her answer was always the same: The thought had not crossed her mind but she couldn’t make that promise because she didn’t know what God had in mind for her.
At the time, she was beginning her law practice, at the front end of her dream job, specializing in probate, estate planning and elder law issues, but all the while she was questioning whether that was the course intended for her. She found a vocation prayer on the back of a holy card in a gift shop called The Grotto in Portland. She read it nearly every day:
“O God, who enlightens the minds and inflames the hearts of the faithful by the Holy Spirit, grant that through the same spirit I may know my true vocation in life, and may have the grace to follow it faithfully. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
The following year, Clemens went on several retreats with religious communities. In February, 2010, she spent a month as a guest at Corpus Christi in what is called an “aspirancy” – time during which to determine if the enclosed contemplative life will be “compatible with her gifts,” as the Dominicans note on the monastery’s website.
It’s a life for a select few. “At the end of the aspirancy,” the site reads, “the woman returns to her home and in the midst of her normal life reflects on her experience with us. If she feels truly called to a commitment to his life, and the community reflecting on their experiences with her agree to the possibility of this call, she applies to enter as a postulant.”
Clemens says the call is unmistakable, and it has become clearer after spending time with the sisters in Menlo Park. Their devotion is palpable, she said.
“That is me,” she said. “One thing that is evident is their love for our Lord and their love and dedication for the Church,” she added. “This is what I was looking for. That was the criteria for me in what I was looking for.”
Clemens said law school – Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, which she attended after earning a degree at Washington State University – taught her to examine things critically. At the same time, the demands of law school did not permit her to spend a great deal of time at her Protestant church, but, being a faith-driven person, she felt the need to look critically at Protestant doctrine and, eventually, Catholic.
“I took stock of where I was and I realized I was not where I wanted to be in my relationship with God,” she said. “So, I began to pray, ‘Lord, show me your church.’” That was her turning point to Catholicism.
Now that she is poised at the door of a monastery, is Clemens trying to reinvent herself?
Her answer: He is not asking her to become someone she is not – “not the new me,” she said. God does not call us to be different people, she said. “I would say that what he is calling me to is a more perfect fulfillment of what he created me to be to begin with.”
Clemens said that she has been open about her vocation with her devout Protestant family. “They still don’t understand, but I sympathize with that,” she said. “It is something that is difficult for many Catholics to understand. But, ultimately they love me, I know they love me and they just want what is best for me. They want what God would have for me.”
The remaining college debt, however, is currently the “last and only impediment” in Clemens’ path. Her target date to enter the monastery is June 8, pending resolution of the debt. There have been contributions; she owed $135,000 after earning her law degree. The contributions that have come her way are “very humbling and appreciated.” She added, “Deo gracias!”
There are currently 14 professed sisters at Corpus Christi, and Clemens was “a good fit” during her month-long visit, said Sister Mary of the Sacred Heart, the novice mistress, who worked closely with her. “We were very happy with her,” she said.
Clemens, she said, was comfortable with daily schedule of prayer, study, community work and more, and the sisters, who consider prospective applicants, voted to accept her, said Sister Mary. The screening includes a psychological examination, in addition to work history. All debts of candidates must be resolved before they enter.
Clemens’ debt-reduction cause has been taken up by the Laboure Society, a St. Paul, Minn.-based group that assists with priestly and religious vocations through student loan resolution.
Two other women are also considering whether to apply for acceptance at Corpus Christi, where, since it is a contemplative community, vocations are few and far between, compared with active ministries of teaching, nursing, social work and other pursuits, said Sister Mary. “If we get one or two a year, that is ideal. That’s really good,” she said.
Clemens’ efforts can be tracked on her blog at http://supporttarasvocation.wordpress.com.
From January 14, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.