These days, Grace Steckler has the kind of busy schedule familiar to anyone juggling work and parenting. As the president of Saving Grace Services, the Capitol Hill pet care, home cleaning and small home repair services company that she launched 12 years ago, she manages 35 employees. She's also married, and the mother of three young children and a teenaged stepson.
But if you ask Steckler about her life before marriage, children and her business — the 12 years she spent as Catholic nun — it's a very different story. Her days sound not only busy, but also pretty intense.
"In the convent, I had a pretty regimented life," says Steckler. Often her days began at 4 in the morning, before daylight. "We went to school, studied religious topics, had classes in spirituality. We would clean the bathrooms and scrub the steps and do the physical work that needed to be done."
And it was a life she loved.
"I used to say, I could scrub bathrooms all day long, as long as I had a friend to talk to," she says. "We would sing our musical songs. We would practice hymns. We would pray. But it never felt like drudgery."
Steckler entered the convent at 18. Before taking that dramatic turn into her new life, she was a self-described rebellious teen.
"Teenage angst," says Steckler. "It was just, I don't know exactly what my life is going to turn out to be. We had some big changes in our family life at that time, and I guess I just wasn't quite sure how to deal with them."
Steckler says she had a spiritual experience one night, and that's how she knew she was making the right decision. "I felt that I was filled up with love, and the next morning I woke up and I said, 'Okay, this is clear. I need to be a nun.' I didn't know what it was going to be like. The phrase that comes to mind is a leap of faith."
But she tried it out first. "I was going to a Catholic school and one of the nuns said, 'Well, we have weekends. You could come visit and see what it's like.' And so I did."
Changes over time
Once Steckler entered the convent, she expected to stay forever. But the closer she got to her 30th birthday, her feelings began to change. Steckler became increasingly dissatisfied with how her life was going. Part of that dissatisfaction had to do with generational differences.
The nun that was closest to her in age was 25 years older than she was. Many of the nuns were 80 to 85 years old. But it wasn't simply a matter of age, she says.
Steckler, who was also a high school teacher, organized and led groups of teenage girls on trips to help build houses with the group Habitat for Humanity, in rural West Virginia.
The nuns' attitudes puzzled her. "They would wonder, why wasn't I wearing my religious habit, when I was pounding the nails?" Well, of course I'm going to wear jeans and a T-shirt and a nice baseball hat on my head to cover up," she says. "I was focusing on teaching the girls, showing them that they can make a difference." The experience made her feel like as if she didn't quite belong there anymore.
And the longer she remained at the convent, the more her dissatisfaction grew.
"In the community room where we would sit in the evenings, the sisters would just watch television programs after they were finished grading their papers. And one night, I was coming up on 30 years old, and I was having a moment of reflection, and thought, 'I can't imagine me in 50 years sitting here in this community room, watching reruns of Murder, She Wrote.' That's not the life I see for myself, even though there are many things about the convent that I really loved."
But Steckler had an even more fundamental reason for her dissatisfaction.
"In a certain way, I felt that the religious life was very abstract for me, that I was living a lot in my head and not really experiencing life the way I needed to." So after nearly a year of dissatisfaction, prayer and reflection, the answer came to her.
"I said, 'Okay. I need to leave the convent,'" she says. "It was the same experience that led me to enter the convent."
Steckler credits her years at the convent with helping her to listen for what she calls inner nudges. "I think it's a matter of just being quiet," she says. "Just give yourself enough quiet time to listen for tiny, tiny bits of inspiration. I think you can steal those moments in the car, turn off the radio and just breathe. I think that's available to everyone."
Steckler says she has had dreams about being back at the convent. "I'm walking through the halls I used to walk through. But it was over for me." And a large part of the reason has to do with having children.
"I could talk about God's love when I was in a convent, but now I've got children hugging me," says Steckler. "That is what I need to feel in my life now, the concrete experience of being loved, of living in a family. I didn't have that in a convent."
And she thinks her successful business is an outgrowth of her experience in the convent.
"If you are searching for the good, then I believe you will make business decisions that will also have that sort of goal," she says. "You know, all of that is a reflection of what I try to do with my life. How can I improve? How can I give more? How can I do better? And I think I got that out of being in the convent. And that's the gist of Saving Grace Services. How can we be there to support people, so that they can have time to do the things that are important to them?"
[Music: Former Nun: "Blackbird" (Instrumental) by MaxOrange9]