By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published April 26, 2012
Sister Joy Payton thought about turning back six months into her three-year program at the Pontifical University of Comillas in Madrid, Spain, as the articulate woman struggled to speak and study theology in Spanish and deal with cultural differences in everything from music to light fixtures.
And as the Catholic convert participated in religious formation there, she saw “really no young people at Mass” in Spain’s churches that were struggling to connect with youth.
But as she learned to ask for help, persevered with Spanish, forged ahead and experienced fellowship with fellow Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus from around the world, she discovered her full value in Christ.
“I was accustomed to being competent at school and in life. Going to Spain and speaking Spanish like a 4-year-old was a real ego blower,” recalled Sister Joy, an Agnes Scott College graduate and former Atlanta computer programmer.
“I went back and grew to love it so much after sort of going through that radical stripping of that identity, that false identity. … It was just sort of energizing, having my finger on the pulse of Handmaids, who we are as Religious women. … In the end, it was a hard time for me to leave—so much growth.”
Since returning from Spain in 2010 with a graduate theology degree, Sister Joy, 34, now teaches at the Handmaids’ Ancillae-Assumpta Academy outside Philadelphia in active ministry and prepares to make final vows. And she carries with her the wisdom gleaned from the painful trials and joyful surprises along her adventurous path to life as a woman religious, forever prayerful for her spiritual family in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
Becoming A Sister Gave Peace
Having grown up with a relatively un-churched fundamentalist background in Nashville, Tenn., Sister Joy majored in philosophy at Agnes Scott and got involved in the Newman Center because it seemed more philosophically engaged. She became pro-life after shifting the focus of her senior thesis on euthanasia, broke up with her longtime boyfriend with different values and became a Catholic.
With only cinematic nun images in her head, she resisted the persistent curiosity she felt about religious life. After all, she was too loud, outgoing and funny and thought she’d make a great mom. And, as a computer programmer at Worldspan, she definitely enjoyed buying things after growing up with limited means. So she took a job in Switzerland for Swiss Air and sold nearly everything she owned before 9/11 occurred and her gig fell through. She was left feeling surprisingly free to have an empty apartment.
She then reluctantly joined a vocational discernment group and by 2003 entered postulancy for the Handmaids, drawn to the Eucharistic focus of the order founded in Spain in 1877. She moved to Miami where she had a “very, very difficult time” initially as she missed driving her car and spending her own money. But she found peace in community life, learning basic Spanish, ministering in Bolivia, writing her Convent Files blog and even running the Miami half-marathon sporting a T-shirt reading “we do not run aimlessly.” She joyfully professed her first temporal vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in 2007.
Sister Joy experienced profound loss with the death of her mother to illness in 2009 and then of her father and stepmother in 2011 to a house fire.
“I continue to be sure and confident in my vocation, but I recognize in having gone through these major losses there’s a lot of emotional healing to make a lifetime commitment,” she reflected. “I felt confused but never felt God was absent or God took my parent away. … Having the suffering Jesus in my faith life was very sustaining when I was acutely suffering.”
She also feels a clear sense of call to “consecrated celibacy.”
“It’s a way that God calls me to love and open my life and be available for more people,” she said.
‘I Discovered … That I Loved It’
At Ancillae-Assumpta Sister Joy was placed as the science, technology, English and math coordinator and algebra teacher and immediately felt comfortable, having feared a teaching assignment initially.
“It was such a surprise. I discovered not only that I loved it, but I was good at it,” she said. “I’m so grateful God put me in a congregation where I can honor and love who God made me to be and hone those talents in God’s service.”
Sister Joy has her own room in the convent, once the family mansion of the Saturday Evening Post publishers. She awakes at 5 a.m. and prays while sipping her coffee, runs some days in training for an upcoming 10-mile race, attends Mass and zips off to class. Before supper she spends an hour before the Blessed Sacrament and prays evening prayer in community. Among other activities, she reads science fiction, maintains the order’s website and shops for simple clothes at thrift stores, as a way of fighting like others the temptations of consumerism.
As a religious she strives to be a spiritual mother.
“I do feel called to really love my students and challenge them to be good people, full people, kind people who make a difference in the world and are good Christians,” she said.
And she embraces her order’s charism of reparation.
“It’s repairing brokenness of the world, whether in relationships between people, between people and their God or broken relationships in the Church. In my diocese, where people have suffered a lot with the abuse crisis, it really resonates so strongly with who I think God calls me to be,” she said.
Sister Margarita Martin, a Handmaid of the Sacred Heart, ministers at the Oasis Católico Santa Rafaela trailer park in Athens and helped guide Sister Joy to bravely heed that call.
“We are very blessed with her presence and her gifts to the Lord and we pray for her and we hope that many other women follow,” said Sister Margarita, who ministers alongside other women in discernment. “She’s so talented that I think she’ll be very, very resourceful and give glory to God” wherever she serves.
Longtime friend Rudy Schlosser, campus minister at Georgia State University, appreciates that resourcefulness as Sister Joy helped arrange housing for 14 students at World Youth Day in Spain. He recalled how they together led To Encounter Christ retreats in Atlanta.
“During the retreat she revealed this (call to religious life) during an amazing presentation. Her fun, inviting, friendly personality and her personable, amazing presentations will be characteristics of Sister Joy I will always remember,” he said. “She allows people to be themselves. She loves all people for who they are. She is a great communicator and listener. She is also a great ‘marketer’ of Catholicism, a true role model for what it means to be a young Catholic person, a young nun.”
He added, “I know she prays for me and all her friends often. … Those prayers are meaningful and impactful.”
Sister Joy said that her order’s international presence in 26 countries always brings new life despite cultural tides of decline in religious life. And they focus on quality over quantity as Jesus started with 12. In the United States the Handmaids have five in formation and several in discernment. She assures those considering such a vocation that God will surely bless those who are called.
“This is a way of life that is in favor of the human person,” she said.
Before making final vows, she looks forward to spending several months in Rome at the motherhouse near the Vatican. After that she is open to going wherever God leads her, whether to work among the poor of East Timor in Southeast Asia or to keep teaching at her school.
“I feel God could call me to any of those places and make me happy there. God would give me whatever I need to enjoy a fulfilled life.”