Moved by the Spirit

SISTER FRANCES CELINE:

A Year In Their Lives

December 28, 2003|By Gary Dorsey

It the peak of her legal career, Fran Horner earned more than $350,000 a year as a partner with the Washington firm Covington & Burling, specialized in tax issues for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and lived in Paris near the Arc de Triomphe.

At 40, her resume was sterling: former assistant to the U.S. Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service; undergraduate and graduate degrees in math from Johns Hopkins; a law degree, cum laude, from Harvard.

She ate at fantastic restaurants. She had many friends, plenty of work and a wonderful apartment. She was not unhappy.

But the former Fran Horner was also nearing the end of what she now calls "the longest discernment process in history."

On Sept. 14, 2003, the woman now known as Sister Frances Celine of the Holy Spirit began her novitiate with the Carmelite Sisters of Baltimore. This past year, Fran finally became the person she believes she was meant to be -- a woman dedicated not to law but to contemplative prayer.

It marked the culmination, she says, of the most courageous decision of her life.

"This was never what I envisioned for my life, and I can understand why people might not comprehend it," says Sister Fran, at 44 now living with the Carmelite community in Towson. "I'm not sure I can even explain it. But I can tell you what happened to me."

About 14 years ago, 30-year-old Baltimore native Fran Horner was living in Anne Arundel County with her parents in a house they owned jointly overlooking the Magothy River. She had a busy life with Covington & Burling, and expected to be made partner soon.

One day, the firm scheduled her to visit a client in Hawaii. Knowing she would fly first-class and have lots of time to read, she decided to drop by a bookstore.

"At the time, I didn't read spiritual books at all," she says. "I didn't do anything like that. But for some reason, I was passing the religion section, and I looked down and pulled out a book about a person I had never heard of in my life: The Autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. I said, 'Hmmm, I think I'll read this.'"

On the plane, Fran began to attempt some of the spiritual exercises mentioned by the 16th-century Christian mystic. They overwhelmed her.

"I had experiences of God's presence that, in some ways, irrevocably changed my life," she says. "It didn't undercut my ability to do very well in a professional setting -- I went to Hawaii and did a great job for my client, but it changed my way of seeing the world."

When she returned to Maryland, the intensity of a new prayer life continued. Although she had grown up Catholic and attended Our Lady of Mount Carmel church in Essex, she had never been particularly religious. In fact, her great love was logic and mathematics. Perplexed, she went to see a priest for advice, and he referred her for spiritual direction to the Carmelites of Baltimore.

"I remember I walked in the first day, and something said, 'Home,'" she recalls. "I can't explain that. And I was scared to death. Really scared to death. But the sisters were wonderful, and after some time, I entered into a more formal discernment about whether I would enter the community.

"Eventually, I was trying to make a decision, and it was very hard. I had a lot of family pressures against coming here, and my own pressures, of course -- I went to Harvard Law School. I had all this intelligence. I had these gifts, and I was, what -- going to bury them in a contemplative monastery? That couldn't be how my life was developing! I couldn't get my mind around it.

"I remember saying to God, 'All right, I'm going to stay here and make partner with Covington and Burling. I'm not going to enter the Carmelite monastery.' I said, 'If you have a different idea, you'd better speak now.'"

That day, the phone rang, and it was Shirley Peterson, the first woman commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. She wanted to know if Fran would consider becoming her assistant. "I remember walking back from the IRS that day laughing," Fran says, "I thought, 'OK, God, that was fast. I'll do that instead.'"

Over the next decade, she blossomed as a tax lawyer -- made partner with Covington & Burling and joined the OECD, an international organization of 30 member countries dedicated to bolstering democracy and the market economy. "I was there trying to make peace between countries when they were about to have a tax war," she says of her time with OECD. "You know, it was a small kind of peace, but peace is peace, you know."

At the same time, her prayer life continued to blossom. She also became choir director and president of the parish council of an English-speaking church in Paris.

Eventually, the tension between a vibrant spiritual life and an astonishing material life caught up with her.

"I realized that one reason you make so much money as a lawyer is because your life is being bought away from you," she says. "It's a priceless life that's being bought cheap, in a sense."

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