Published January 25, 2007
A then “firmly pro-choice” philosophy major at Agnes Scott College, Joy Payton wrote her senior thesis on medical ethics to defend euthanasia. But during her research she came to realize that she couldn’t make a cogent argument to justify it and shifted the focus of the paper to refute it—and became pro-life.
Payton was raised in Nashville in the fundamentalist Christian tradition but was somewhat “unchurched.” In her desire to better integrate her faith into her life, she began attending the Newman Club Catholic student association, which simply seemed more “philosophically engaged” than some Protestant groups on campus. But once she became pro-life, “I became more and more enthralled with the Catholic Church and the Eucharist.”
“I came to believe Jesus Christ is truly present in a special way in the Eucharist.”
So by the end of college she felt called to Catholicism and joined the church at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church at Easter of 2001, only telling her parents after her conversion.
“I said to myself, this is not one more hobby but a total life change” in committing herself to God and the church. She was absolutely open to God’s will for her, whether single or married, with only one stipulation—just not religious life. “I felt resistant to say yes to God in religious life,” but “I resolved not to think about it.”
After all, this “inveterate extrovert” was very outgoing, had lots of friends and was just “too loud” to fit the reserved stereotype of a nun and make religious vows.
“I didn’t think people even do this anymore. I’m too bossy. I liked to party,” she recalls thinking.
And she dated, too, always assuming she would get married, but when she became Catholic she ended a two-year relationship with a man because of their disparate views on religion. When she called her mother and told her she had joined the Catholic Church, the first question she asked her was, “are you going to become a nun?” But she somehow couldn’t say no and responded that she didn’t know where God would call her.
She eventually began working at Worldspan as a computer programmer, a job where she felt appreciated and respected, but one that she didn’t really envision doing for 50 years. As she tried to squelch thoughts of religious life, they resurfaced in her mind and she would tell herself that she was just doing research when she snuck peeks at Web sites of religious communities.
Eventually she applied and was hired for a job at Swiss Air working in Switzerland, cutting a deal with God that she would spend a year or two overseas discerning her vocation. She got rid of most of her belongings, including furniture and even special books. When terrorists attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, the promised job collapsed with the twin towers, as the airline rescinded its job offer and the industry foundered.
She had virtually no possessions, no plan. “I kind of un-resigned” at Worldspan. As she experienced the thorns of that vicissitude, she reflected on how terrorism is a choice born out of hopelessness and how a sense of being voiceless, desperate, marginalized and maltreated fosters violent acts.
“I was in such pain and such wonder at how such a thing could happen, thinking this (horror) is normal for people in many parts of the world, living in fear and sorrow. … It was a realization for me that this is normal for a lot of people and what can I do in my life to ameliorate that.”
The young adult was also somehow unburdened by cleaning out her apartment and mind. “I had gotten rid of all distractions. No TV—my apartment was empty. I got rid of my books. I realized how much I loved having very few things. … That was such a liberating feeling and experiencing that was a surprise to me. Maybe I could take a vow of poverty and be really happy.”
The next month she began attending monthly discernment Masses at the Emory University Catholic Center. In a 2002 interview she told The Georgia Bulletin that “I’ve gone from being very resistant to reluctant in my spiritual life and my obedience to Christ and, over the past months, have become more open to where God is leading me and to whatever vocation that might be.”
She had also said that she struggled with the idea of not having children, feeling she’d make a great mom. Yet her spiritual director reminded her that “when your spouse is the Lord you have many, many of His children to care for as your own. There are so many people who need mothering, whether children, adults or peers. That’s where I hope to find the mothering part of myself put to use,” she said.
She began going to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, as “eucharistic adoration was so central to my life already.” She spoke with her spiritual director, Handmaid of the Sacred Heart Sister Margarita Martin, and, knowing that one doesn’t don’t marry the first man one dates, she began investigating other religious orders but was attracted to the Handmaids’ charism of reparation of broken hearts of the world combined with their core focus on the Eucharist. Her director encouraged her to listen to what her heart was telling her when considering this possibility. When she did that “every logical thought in my head said this is crazy,” yet in her heart “I felt such joy and peace and excitement. I thought, ‘yes, I think I’ll give it a try.’”
Finally she did and announced her decision at work.
“I so enjoyed being a computer programmer,” she said. “I was going from already being happy to taking a big risk that this new life was going to be more fulfilling.”
Her team manager, Bill Hao, approached her after that and told her that he had been considering the priesthood since high school but had delayed exploring a vocation. She then encouraged him to discern his true vocation.
Now 29, she entered postulancy in August 2003 and after spending nine more months in Atlanta moved to Miami, where she had her own room in the community’s convent. But the decision wasn’t made without struggle, in particular as she contemplated the vow of poverty. She had grown up in a “lower middle class to poor” family wearing hand-me-down clothes, and attended Agnes Scott through a combination of scholarship and student loan money. At her job “I really enjoyed financial security and didn’t know if I’d be able to give that up,” including the occasional shopping spree at the high end shopping malls in Atlanta.
She now admits that the first year in Miami was “very, very difficult” because she missed friends, was too hot and was “changing the way I spent money.”
“I was used to going to buy whatever I wanted to,” she explained of community life. “I no longer had carte blanche with my own money. I was part of a community fund.”
She gradually reshaped her attitude to view it as a family fund where spending must reflect their values “to support people hungry without hope,” and to ask herself if she really needed something before buying it. And yes, she missed having her own car and questioned, “How can I live with these people?” Yet on the major questions, such as making a vow of chastity, she felt secure and therefore was “where I’m called to be.”
She took courses at Barry University in Miami, and acquired the ability to communicate reasonably well in Spanish. She even ran the Miami half-marathon wearing a T-shirt reading, “We do not run aimlessly.” She also loves writing and chronicled this and other reflections on religious life in “The Convent Files,” which she has posted since 2003 on the order’s Web site.
In one excerpt she describes how she likes the “public” life of being a nun because she likes to talk and speak in public but also frets about having to be “on” all the time and “nice to everyone all the time.” At an event with teens “some of these kids don’t know any sisters or brothers and I’m it for their exposure to religious life. Do I try to be ‘hip,’ or is that cheapening my image? I play it by ear and try to be Christ-like. That’s the best I can do. But when I’m alone in the car, I still sometimes turn the radio station to alternative and rock out to STP (Stone Temple Pilots) or Nirvana—very ‘unnunny’ music—just to remember that I’m still me.”
And as she massaged a sore calf muscle after a nine-mile run during Advent she reflected that Mary must have been troubled initially by the Annunciation that disoriented her life.
“If I don’t let God disturb me, I’ll stay stuck in my routine, in my habits in the status quo. … Lots of kinks to be massaged out, lots of knots to be relaxed away. I guess the moral of the story is not to look for calmness and stability as a sign I’m on the right path. After all, the last thing I felt when I decided to plunge from corporate life into religious life was calm and stable. Sometimes the sign that God is at work in me is a sense of being greatly troubled,” she wrote.
Her prayer life in Miami, as for all sisters, involved praying the Divine Office every morning and evening with the other sisters, daily Mass, an hour of adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and making an hour of private prayer daily. She also studied in her formation program and worked with young adults in faith formation.
During that formation she was the only postulant. Now there are three postulants and one about to begin postulancy, along with the 33 sisters in the United States and some 1,400 worldwide. She also spent three months in a remote, impoverished village in Bolivia as part of her formation, where she prayed and worked with sisters running a boarding house for students from outside the town that enabled them to attend the nearby school.
In January 2005 she left Miami for Philadelphia to live with nine sisters in their retreat house for her novitiate and made her first vows on Jan. 6 in a ceremony attended by Father Tim Hepburn and Hao, now a seminarian.
A native of the Philippines, Hao had supervised Payton’s team at Worldspan and recalled how, when she announced her aspirations to religious life, “I was really surprised.”
“I didn’t even know she was Catholic,” he recalled. “When we got to talk, I guess I saw her in a different light. She was encouraging. … I think we did encourage each other like we’re still doing. Now we’re praying for each other every week.”
Their discussion prompted him to attend the monthly archdiocesan discernment Mass and to pray about his vocation for a couple of years before he applied to become a seminarian.
“I think this is the life God has been calling me to since the beginning. It’s just been put on hold so long,” said Hao, who is attending Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.
He said that Payton was a very skilled programmer and hard worker on his team.
“When I saw her in Philadelphia two weeks ago, she has grown, but she’s still Joy who makes jokes—humorous and wacky. The sisters, they love her because of her energy and humor, but she’s a very bright, hard-working and intelligent person.”
Sister Margarita also attended Sister Joy’s first vows ceremony and has watched the young adult grow as a woman of God.
“To me it has been beautiful and wonderful to see that rose open little by little, always very promising from the beginning, that you envision that this is going to be a beautiful rose,” she said.
She always felt Sister Joy was very promising with her enthusiastic service in the Atlanta Archdiocese with the To Encounter Christ retreat program and Young Adult Ministry programs. She encouraged her “to be brave and faithful, to take steps to follow her gut feeling on how God is calling her. For me it’s been very inspirational and beautiful to see that rosebud opening up.”
She said that Sister Joy’s school in Spain—her next part of formation—is renowned for its theology program.
“It’s been seen she would benefit, and the church and our ministries would benefit, from her studying there.”
She said that Sister Joy, like all sisters in her order, will also spend a year at their motherhouse in Rome, which has a view of the Vatican.
“It’s beautiful to be in the center of the universal church. We are in a community that comes from all over the world—24 countries—that’s the beauty. You feel we are universal like the church, like (our foundress) Sister Rafaela wanted us to be.”
There are four Handmaids in Atlanta and three in Athens at Oasis Católico Santa Rafaela, who live now among poor Hispanics whom they assist by serving as a “voice of the voiceless” and offering tutoring to their children. She explained that their order focuses on healing broken hearts “through education, through empowering the person to become closer to God and getting to know God, both through human, social and spiritual development. The idea is reparation of the Sacred Heart in the broken hearts of brothers and sisters.”
Sister Joy’s response to the concern about the dramatic decline in vocations to religious life is that every order started small, which doesn’t mean it can’t accomplish great things despite its pruned size. She believes that in order to increase religious vocations—as well as to lower the divorce rate—people need to spend more time in solitude where they can listen deeply to “the still, small voice within them.” She invites other women to consider religious life. “I’m not a Pollyanna. We do have a significant decline in numbers, and that is a challenge. God is not going to call you to a life that is going to be miserable or to something that is going to fail.”
Sister Joy noted that after three years of formation for the order one makes first temporal vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and then renews them after three years. After six years of temporal vows, one then makes final vows.
“The church, in her wisdom, wants to make sure you want to make them.”
Her parents see that she is very happy about her path, so they support her decision.
As she discovers her mission, she is now thrilled to have been given the opportunity to sojourn with other sisters from Portugal, Germany and Spain in Madrid where she will earn a master’s degree in theology at the Jesuit Pontifical University of Comillas in Madrid, a place she described as “the Georgetown of Spain.”
“It will be quite an adventure for me,” she said before leaving in mid-January, where she’ll be able to “truly experience the paschal mystery of living in another language.”
She will also connect with the roots of the Handmaid order that was founded in Spain in 1877. Sisters can choose whether or not to wear the official habit of the order, and Sister Joy sometimes elects to wear her own simple clothes, while at other times wearing the grey habit.
Whether functioning in English or Spanish, with her computer and writing skills, she also hopes to continue improving the order’s Web site to create a more powerful vision of their global mission for those casually browsing. Writing is an intimate passion that enables her to process thoughts and feelings, and “He’s given me this gift and love (of writing) and I want to keep going with it.”
She hopes in her ministry to help link persons of the industrialized world with those in the developing world, in the spirit in which Mustard Seed Communities in Atlanta connects Georgians to their charitable outreach, the abject poor of the Caribbean.
“A major part of my call is to bring the First World and Third World together. … Until we can live among and experience poverty, there will be no change in our habits,” she said. “I’m open to anything. If the church needs me in the States, I’m definitely willing to minister and be a presence in the U.S., but I also loved my time in Bolivia. I want to be a missionary. I could be a missionary in the U.S., the Philippines or the Congo.”
In an e-mail following her vow ceremony, she wrote, “It was beautiful, amazing, and I am still floating with joy.” She described pictures of her signing her vows during the ceremony as images that “show me ‘signing away’ my life with great joy.”