Tag Archives: religious life

Sell Everything

I began my discernment journey 11 years ago with these two words that kept coming up in prayer, but I wasn’t sure what it really meant.

Months later, I attended a Vocation Discernment Retreat, hoping for God to give me an affirmation that I wasn’t called to the priesthood, so that I could get a confirmation on marrying the girl of my dreams then. But God instead revealed a path that immediately gripped my heart with excitement and joy, even amidst the pain of knowing I would have to leave the one I love with all my heart. I then realized: God was asking me to sell my dreams of marriage, for a higher calling to the priesthood.

Many years later while in my 6th year of seminary formation, I went through a vocation crisis. I was experiencing desolation in prayer, unworthiness in sin, and even an attraction towards someone. I thought God changed His mind, and I was close to calling it quits. That’s when I learnt that just as love is more than a feeling, but a choice, so too is my vocation dependent not just on my feelings, but on a choice to remain faithful regardless of how I was feeling. At this stage, I was asked to sell my need for spiritual consolations.

Recently, after having completed my seminary formation and waiting for my ordination, I went through another round of crisis, feeling frustrated and disappointed with things that seemed to obstruct what I wanted to do in my eventual priesthood. It wasn’t till someone challenged me if I had fully given up my life to Christ that I realize I had placed so much emphasis on my priesthood as the pearl of great price, that I hadn’t really fully given my life to Him who ought to be my pearl of great price. This time, God was asking me to sell my attachment to the vocation of priesthood in order to more fully give my life to Him and really do whatever He tells me. And when I did, all desolation was removed, and I felt immense peace once again.

For now I’ve learnt, that seeking one’s vocation is not about the WHAT, but about WHO am I giving my life entirely to, so that I do whatever He tells me to, even if it means SELLING EVERYTHING.

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Originally posted on Instagram.

The Efficacy of Prayer: Not Just Nice Thoughts

The monastery ain’t a hideout. A mug wants to come in here, take the vows, he should come because he wants to open himself to somethin’ bigger than the world, not because he wants to close himself up in a little ball like a pill bug.
– Dean Koontz, Brother Odd

For me prayer is a surge of the heart, it is a simple look towards Heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.
– St. Thérèse of Lisieux

A friend of mine who converted from atheism was flummoxed when I shared my anxiety about a curse on my family. Coming from an entirely rationalistic background, he did not believe in the power of curses. Neither did he believe in the power of blessings.

“Blessings are just nice thoughts,” he said. “Prayer is aligning yourself with the Divine Will. You can’t change God’s mind with prayer.”

No, you can’t. But blessings and curses are also means of aligning yourself and others with or against the Divine Will. God permits us to cooperate with Him in the work of salvation, renewing His disordered creation.

Another friend of mine, an Anglican, told me how her mother didn’t understand why I would even have considered entering a convent. “What’s the point of a convent?” The order with which I discerned was semi-contemplative, so we prayed a total of 8 hours a day, including during the washing-up. [I once became distracted praying the rosary aloud while soaping a plate and prayed an “eleventh Hail Mary”.]

What hope do we have when even Christians do not understand the earth-changing power of prayer?

This is one of my favorite saint stories:

St. Kenneth and St. Columba were always close friends. Once, Columba was sailing with some companions and Kenneth was far away in his monastery in Ireland.

Suddenly he became aware that Columba was in great danger at sea. He jumped up from the dinner table and ran to church to pray for his beloved friend.

Out at sea, Columba cried to his frightened companions: “Don’t be afraid! God will listen to Kenneth. Right now he is running to church with only one shoe on to pray for us!” The Lord did listen to St. Kenneth’s prayer and they were saved.

Although Kenneth and Columba often worked in different places, they knew that prayer is a powerful expression of friendship.1

God respects our free will completely, though we are mere dust motes in comparison to Him. Prayer opens us up to God, allowing Him to work marvels in our lives – especially the simple marvel of just going about our daily duties and meeting people, all of whom bear the image of God. Jesus always, always prayed before He acted. He was God Himself! Thus, He most of all understood the importance of prayer in maintaining a deep communion with the other Persons of the Holy Trinity, drawing strength in His human nature from this divine communion so as to do His Father’s will.

The etymology of “prayer” is from the Latin precari, to ask or beg.2 We depend completely on God for our very existence. Prayer is certainly a discipline which attunes us to the will of God. But more than that – as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we co-operate in God’s salvific action.

A man praying in a ruined Catholic church in La Vang, a town south of Quang Tri City, Vietnam on July 6, 1972.
A man praying in a ruined Catholic church in La Vang, a town south of Quang Tri City, Vietnam on July 6, 1972.

God exists outside Time and Space; to Him, all human history is present at once, in His Eternal Now. Therefore, from all time He has been able to take into account our prayers (and the prayers of the saints) while shaping the course of history.

God’s human suffering, the nails, the scourges, the cross; all this is outdone by his suffering as God; the weight of all the sins of all time, of everyone who ever lived. He became sin, became repulsive to the Father for our sake. If he is outside of time, if he is suffering right now, then, and this is really the crux, our sins directly increase His suffering that day on Calvary, his constant suffering. And our virtue can comfort him. This, this, this I believe is the ecstasy of the saints, the blood of the martyrs; that we can comfort our God. That we, by prayer, fasting and virtue can cradle the head of the Lamb. That we, through holiness, can lessen the pain of Our Savior, Our Father, Our Spouse. This concept is radical, yet not new. How many times have you heard, perhaps as a child, “that hurts God”, or “that makes Him sad?” Our faith, the Christian drama, is happening right now, as you read this.
– Marc Barnes, “Holiness, For Christ’s Sake!”

I envision God’s will not as an inflexible iron rod, but as a flowing river, which keeps flowing to the sea, winding around to accommodate obstacles in some places, and breaking through solid rock in others. The path the river takes is an organic interaction of the land and the water. Likewise, in our lives God is always present, sustaining us with His love; He does not bend us out of shape to fit His will if we are unwilling, but gently works away at our hard hearts, although sometimes there may be a blinding moment of rebuke and conversion, as with St. Paul, which completely transforms the landscape of a soul, allowing it to be irrigated by God’s grace.

Life in a monastery is not for wimps. It is as regimented as an army barracks and requires discipline to spring out of bed at morning call; it involves a complete submission of your will to the timetable of the community, hour by hour. You are not free to choose which passage of the Bible to pray each morning, noon and evening; you must follow the Divine Office. Yet, it is in this strict regimen that your soul is freed to meditate upon the Word of God and allow it to transform you, arming you for the battle for souls throughout the world. For we are one in the Mystical Body of Christ, and those who pray in Heaven and on Earth have been given the grace to lift up every other soul on this earth and in Purgatory.

Prayer is abandonment to the holy will of God; it is a seeking after Goodness; it is complete trust in His power to work redemption and healing in the darkest corners of the world. Prayer allows the Kingdom of God to burst in upon this fallen world, bringing light, life, peace and renewed hope through every tribulation.

Ultimately what would fulfill me the most would be to hold the world in my heart and pray for them.
– Erin Wells, “‘Powerhouse of prayer:’ Millennials are drawn to monastic life in Prairie du Sac

For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.
– Ephesians 6:12

And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel.
– Apocalypse (Revelation) 8:4

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1St. Kenneth”, Holy Spirit Interactive.

2Prayer”, Online Etymological Dictionary.

Image: Signum-Crucis

Is Religious Life Repulsive?

Religious LifeThe vows of religious life are repulsive, at least according to an article Br. Justin Hannegan recently wrote in Crisis Magazine provokingly titled: Sacrificing Religious Life on the Altar of Egalitarianism.

He writes:

All forms of religious life, at their very core, consist of three vows—poverty, chastity, and obedience—and each of these vows is repulsive … No one has an innate desire to uproot three of life’s greatest goods.  Such a desire would be mere perversion.

Br. Justin’s argument is that vocations directors need to leave behind the language of desire when talking about vocation. He argues:

The prevailing opinion amongst those who talk and write about discernment is that God calls men and women to religious life by placing an innate desire for religious life in their hearts.  If you have no such desire, it is unlikely that you are called. This advice, although it looks harmless on the surface, ends up thwarting religious vocations. 

My first thought upon reading this article was this guy is on to something. When I was discerning, I listened to a lot of people talk about discernment and give their vocation stories and the one story that spoke most to me was a talk that Fr. Stan Fortuna, CFR gave at a conference in the Bay Area. In it, he described his reaction to God’s call to religious life by shaking his fist at heaven and yelling, “Nooooooo!”

Nowadays, telling most young people, “If you are not attracted to religious life then it is not for you” is just not the right advice. Unless you have lived a life of radical virtue in today’s culture, chances are you are not going to feel a natural desire to the religious life. Young people will be more likely to feel an infatuation that flees when confronted with reality or simply feel repelled from it on every level. I do differ with Br. Justin in that, despite this reality, I still think talking to young people about desire is important.

The Language of Desire in Discernment

We are beings of desire and we cannot discount them. They reveal deep spiritual realities. St. Ignatius discerned his vocation through very careful attention to his desires and he taught that key is ordering our desires. The Christian life is about following Jesus who perfectly ordered his human desires to the Father’s will.

However, these days, young people must dig deeply to unearth a radical desire for holiness that is strong enough to combat the many temptations against living religious life. But we cannot discount the power of the desire for holiness once it is unearthed and ordered.

We also should not leave behind the language of desire for one of “effectiveness.” To encourage young people to take up the religious life because it is a more “effective” way to holiness, as Br. Justin seems to encourage, is a quick path to Pelagianism. Religious life is not about attaining holiness efficiently, it is about living our human desire and love for God in a special way. Our life cannot be lived without love; otherwise, the vows will indeed become repulsive and masochistic. The vows are desirable but only insofar as they bring us closer in love to Christ who lived them and in that religious find solace and true joy.

Is Religious Life Objectively Superior?

In his article, Br Justin points to the “objective superiority” of the religious life as something that should be unabashedly pointed out to young people discerning

I agree that religious do have a special call. It is not something to be apologetic about. Religious are not special in and of themselves, but the call is special. Why is it special? Because the life, more than married life, imitates the life of Jesus and foretells the kingdom of God.

However, I would like to point out two things. Br. Justin quotes Vita Consecrata, the papal document in which Blessed John Paul II writes: “This is why Christian tradition has always spoken of the objective superiority of the consecrated life.” The Latin phrase in the document for “superiority” is praestantia and it can be translated as “excellence” and is translated that way in the Italian version of the document. I think this is a better translation.

Unfortunately, for many years Catholic faithful believed that the religious vocation was “superior” to the lay vocation. If one didn’t become a religious then sanctity and holiness was not for them. Br. Justin is correct in challenging the pendulum swing that now tells people it doesn’t matter. However he misses the key issue of calling.

Generally, we can speak of the consecrated life as “more excellent” than any other way of life precisely because it imitates Jesus and foretells the kingdom of God, and the way of life to which we all are called. However, on an individual level, we cannot speak of an objective excellence in the call to religious life. Religious life is not the objectively more excellent way of life for everyone. The vocation that God calls a person to is “objectively superior” to any other way of life because God has called that person to holiness through that particular vocation. I do not think we should shy away from emphasizing the special call that is a religious vocation, but it must be done with care and nuance.

– – –

In the end, Br Justin’s article seems to be a call to go back to the past but I respectfully respond with a call to go forward with balance. Our numbers will never be the same as they were in the “good ol’ days” and it is cause for some lament but we have also grown as a Church and as religious. But along with Br. Justin I do see some things that could change in the current approach to religious vocations. So, I join him in his forthright and frank challenge for change and conversation about the way we speak about religious vocations– for the sake of the Church and the sake of young people who need help in hearing God’s call.

Help Wanted in Vocations

Beginning my new job in vocations this summer has been an amazing experience.  Not only have I come to truly appreciate the importance of this ministry, I have also noticed that even with the amount of resources available, there is still something lacking.  As with any job or ministry, there are people who are invested in the success and improvement of it.  For example, in the business world, companies hire consultants to assist their various departments to improve productivity and growth.  Companies that do not change, adapt, and improve upon “the way things have always been done” will be left in the dust by their competition.  In the ministry of vocations, it is imperative that we listen to the voices of our “consultants,” the People of God to improve our efforts to help people answer God’s call in their lives.

A vocations office is not merely a recruitment office for priests and religious.  In fact, if these offices are focused primarily on the quantity of men they accept into the seminary, they can be likened to a corporation that simply mass produces their products looking to fill shelves rather than focusing on the quality of the product and how it affects the consumer.  A vocations office (or any ministry for that matter) cannot be a business.  Christianity is about developing and fostering a personal relationship with Christ and his Church.  Therefore each Christian ministry must flow from that understanding.

Where do we learn about fostering relationships?  From the earliest moments of our lives, our social and relational development stems from within our families.  I constantly catch myself interacting with my wife and son the way in which my father acted with my mother and me.  When I look at men and women who are discerning the priesthood or religious life, I often notice that they were exposed to priests, brothers, and sisters at one point in their life and had a profound experience and relationship with them.  I witness parents with young children bringing them to volunteer days and events hosted by religious communities and I pray that from those experiences a vocation will be fostered.  On a side note, when praying for a vocation to be fostered, it cannot be limited to one way of life.  For instance I cannot pray that my son grows up to be a priest.  Moreover, I must only pray that he be open to God’s call in his life and that he truly discerns through his relationship with the Lord, whatever that may be.  Back to the point, it is my duty to expose him and help him develop positive relationships with different priests, religious orders, and holy families.

Recently I have had numerous parents approach me asking how they can lead their children to their individual vocation.  In the weeks to come, I will be publishing resources and guides for parents on “How to react to a Child’s desire to be a priest or religious,” “Dos and Don’ts of Nurturing Vocations in the Home,” and “How to Pray with Your Kids.”  Some parents worry when their child (of any age) mentions that they want to be a priest or enter a religious community.  First things first-thank God that you are doing something right!  As with anything your child says they want to do or become (so long as it is healthy and good), encourage it with love and a genuine interest in it.  Parents, I need you to be a consultant for vocations. Let your priests and local vocation directors know what your kids want to know about priesthood or religious life.  Ask questions on how to better the fostering of vocations at home, in school, and in parishes.  This vital ministry cannot be left to Vocations offices—it’s too important and must always be seeking to improve.  Help wanted for the future of the Church – inquire within.

 

 

Live Panel Discussion: What Happens After Religious Life?

Aug13WebChat

Join a live discussion tonight, August 13, 2013 at 8pm on the topic: “A Practical Discussion about Leaving the Convent.”

The panel is a diverse make-up of individuals who have interest in the topic.

Tonight’s discussion was organized by the new apostolate Leonie’s Longing. Leonie’s Longing is a ministry created to serve the needs of women who have left the convent.  They aim to provide community for these women and also create awareness in the Church as a whole.

Tune in at 8pm to listen in on the conversation. You can view it by visiting LeoniesLonging.com/live

The Real Story of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist

Anybody that knows me or follows me on twitter will tell you, I LOVE the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

I live only 15 minutes from their motherhouse convent in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Most Sunday evenings, you will find me sitting in the back of the chapel, listening to their angelic voices fill their glorious chapel as they offer the evening sacrifice of prayer.

Love.

For years, I have searched high and low for the intimate details of their founding. Short of asking Sr. Joseph Andrew or Mother Assumpta themselves, I have wondered and searched of how it happened.

And tonight, I finally found the story. And it’s from Mother Assumpta herself!

I know that I am not alone in my love for Christ’s brides, specifically these Dominican Sisters. So without further ado, the story of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, from Mother Mary Assumpta Long herself.

LCWR – 5 Reasons to Leave the Labels Behind

I am at war –but not with my fellow sisters. My enemy is the devil.

Women’s religious orders have been on a divergent path, mirroring the same divide among the Catholic faithful, for some time. The division finally reached a point of eruption recently when the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith asked the LCWR, an organization of women religious, to reform some of its practices.

As a woman who discerned religious life with several orders in California, I was introduced to this divide in an up close and personal way. I visited unhabited, LCWR communities as well as the whole shebang, habited CMSWR communities, (CMSWR is the alternative umbrella organization for women religious).

To be quite honest, I was not impressed with what I often saw on both sides. I visited community after community where the divide between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics was a topic that inevitably came up in some way, subtly and not so subtly. I began to wonder if it is possible for an order to just be Catholic. Period.

Now, I am the typical woman discerning religious life these days – God has given me the grace to trust the Holy Spirit and believe the Church’s teachings on faith and morals. But, I also don’t have a chip on my shoulder. Just because a religious sister has views on women’s ordination that I don’t agree with doesn’t mean I am going to overlook her important work, in human trafficking for example, or ridicule her decision not to wear a habit. It is true, some religious in the US took Vatican II and ran with it, and some ran way too far. But it is also true that these sisters stuck it out in a time that was filled with chaos and uncertainty, (I love Vatican II but I really think our Church could have profited from some change management training).

We can look at pushing the limits in different ways but I choose to see the positive. Over the centuries, most of the treasures of our Ecumenical Councils were a response to ideas gone too far. So, I trust in the Holy Spirit. I know our Church can survive and even benefit from inevitable boundary pushing that occurs in times like these.

Unfortunately, many faithful Catholics get really worked up about these things. Some insist we are at war. I think it is important to remember that evil is at work on both sides. When we pretend this is a battle of good versus evil, we forget that the battle is happening within each and every one of us. Evil is not just at work on the side we don’t happen to agree with.

When I was living in California this divide among the faithful of the Church was perfectly illustrated in my choice of Masses to attend. I lived smack in the middle of two parishes, one which had most Masses in Latin and another that regularly had women preaching the homily. In the first parish, one of the priests questioned the validity of Vatican II, and in the second many Church teachings were considered outdated and unChristlike.

I had just returned to my faith after many years away and was not sure what to make of this divide in the Church, captured so perfectly in my dubious choice between neighborhood parishes. So, I did what any naive, new Catholic might do. I chose to attend both.

I learned a few lessons from my experiences at these two geographically close but ideologically distant parishes that I think anyone could apply to the state of the Catholic Church in the US and the current uproar surrounding the LCWR:

1. Personality Differences – I would love to do a Meyers-Briggs personality test on the Catholic left versus the Catholic right. I am pretty convinced that the divide in our Church is at least loosely tied to personality differences. When I remember that we each have different gifts and insights that we bring to the Church, this helps me to look at things with a lighter, more hopeful heart.

2. Let’s Get Back to Basics – I know a priest who is convinced that playing a piano as opposed to an organ at Mass is wrong. A matter of preference, probably even based on a Church document, had been turned into a matter of right and wrong in his mind. I think the division in our Church would be much less hostile if we could step back and ask ourselves – Am I getting worked up about a strongly held preference (i.e. habits or no habits) or a vital doctrine of the Church?

3. Parroting the Republican/Democrat Debate – Simply by using the labels “liberal” and “conservative” we are mimicking the political world around us rather than creating real Christian community. We naturally think of “social justice” Catholics versus “pro-life, family values” Catholics but this is only because we live within a society that makes these false distinctions. The Catholic faith is purple, not blue or red.

4. Campfire and Kumbaya Anyone? – It is hard to bash “liberal Catholics” or “right-wing Catholics” if you have friends of that persuasion. I learn a lot from my conversations with my left leaning, Catholic friends and they are often open to hearing my point of view.

These relationships keep me from hurling insults either way because I know I would be hurling them at my friends.

5. What Do We Agree About? – Certainly, the Church is infallible on issues of faith and morals but infallibility does not mean that the way the Church communicates something will not change. This is an important thing to keep in mind when discussing Church teaching with someone who disagrees with you. They may be right on almost everything but their conclusion.

So, who is with me?

Let’s leave behind the labels. Let’s try to love until it hurts. And let’s work for the unity that God longs to see in the Body of Christ.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/tnoble2.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Theresa Noble is a postulant, aka nun in training, with a religious congregation of sisters in the US. She left her job in California with eBay to follow God two years ago. She currently lives in a convent in St. Louis where she prays, evangelizes, bakes bread and blogs at pursuedbytruth.blogspot.com.[/author_info] [/author]

Must We Like Each Other Equally?

This week, as part of vocations week, I had the pleasure of meeting up with Fr. Jason Vidrine‘s middle school class in Louisiana (via Skype), to discuss religious life.

After briefly introducing myself and why I became a sister, the floor was opened up for them to ask questions. One wanted to know what I do for fun. Another wanted to know how many times a day my community prays together. Then came a very interesting question,

“Do you like all your sisters equally?”

Wow. what a question!! And it is an important one. There wasn’t time to discuss this question at length, outside looking at community life being similar to life in our families. I asked the class, “Do you like all your brothers and sisters equally?” To which I could pan across the room at the faces and see they were not all that sure they did. Naturally, we have siblings we get along with better than others, while other siblings can get on our nerves a bit more. And, also like a family, community must strive to include all, and to love all, especially the ones least likable. The family – and religious community – is where we put the Gospel into practice, “love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 13:34).

Today, as I was thinking about my conversation with these inquisitive mid-schoolers, I was reminded of some recent writing on monastic friendship through the eyes of Aelred of Rievaulx. To understand what true friendship is, one first understand what charity is.

To understand charity, Aelred speaks of love in three parts:

attraction (natural impression made in our mind by person or object); 
intention (inclination of our will towards person or object); and
fruition (result of this act of the will by which we enjoy the result of this act of the will).

Since man is corrupted by original sin, it is possible for each of these three parts of love to be flawed. Man can be attracted to the wrong object, or in wrong proportion to it or other objects.  Love, when any of these three parts are corrupted – moving us to love wrongly – ceases to be love and becomes cupidity instead (and sin enters into the picture).

Aelred uses these distinctions, looking at love and cupidity to distinguish between true friendship (which comes from right loving) and false friendships (based on some imperfect or corrupt love).  In this way, he defines friendship as a perfect form of love, even when we consider our enemies whom we are called to love.

Taking this brief (and most inadequate summary of Aelred’s teaching!), we can take a look at the mid-schooler’s question, “Do you like all your sisters equally?” Based on attraction, we are naturally attracted to some more than others, just because some are easier to like than others. Based on intention, we do intend to love all of our sisters because we know the Gospel calls us to this ideal. The fruit – or quality – of our community life is manifested by how we choose to love. Where we sincerely strive to love each sister, we find a richness in our community life; rather, when we consciously choose to treat each one according to our attraction, our community life is fragmented, and does not portray the love of Christ as brightly.

Our foundress, Saint Magdalene of Canossa, in speaking on Canossian religious life, encourages us to live out a perfect love of charity in her words, “Union of heart and love among sisters is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Institute.” These words also reflect Jesus’ priestly prayer, “ut unim sint” – that they may be one. Both of these ideas are only possible though, if our love is like that of our example in Christ, “love one another, as I have loved you.” And our living in community in whatever form that takes – religious life, family, married life – has all the tools it needs for success.

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Spiritual Friendship, Aelred of Rievaulx

 

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/profile_sr_lisa-e1313147535417.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Sister Lisa Marie Doty is a Canossian Sister. She enjoys giving retreats and vocational talks to teens and young women in the Sacramento Diocese, and on-going formation to her Institute’s Lay Canossian Associates. She is also the local vocational director for her religious family. In her spare time, she enjoys graphic design, playing with new media, taking walks and making rosaries. Her website isNunspeak.[/author_info] [/author]

Wasted for Love

A couple of weeks ago, in the post, A Path to God, we considered the painful truth of discernment of religious life (or priesthood), and gave some helpful tips for working through a healthy discernment. I hope in the coming weeks to share my own reflections, delving into my journals of past-discernment of my own vocation.

Soooo, I begin this week, sharing a reflection I gave to our Canossian International Missionary Volunteers in Rome, on the subject of consecrated life.

If, as you read, and have questions – or would like me to post on a particular aspect of religious life – just place it in the combox. I’ll pray about it, and respond accordingly. 

Enjoy!

Sr Lisa Marie, professing Perpetual Vows before the General Superior, in St Magdalene of Canossa Parish, Rome – Italy

Reflecting on my vows three words come to mind that summarize the whole of my religious vocation: ‘here I am’. This is the response I gave at the celebration of my final vows on the 3rd of December 2006 when the General Superior, M. Marie Remedios called out my name before the Bishop Domenico Sigalini and the assembly at the Church of St Magdalene Canossa in Ottavia – Rome. It was my response to a call by God to participate with Him in His plan of salvation. God called my name and I responded. All of us are called by God but in various ways. Our Christian life is a life of learning to respond according to the state of life we live: some of us are single; others of us are married with children; others of us are religious and priests. But all of us have the same duty of learning to respond whole heartedly to God.

When we open the Bible, we find stories of many who have been invited to follow God, and how they responded. Abraham responded to God with these very words in Genesis 22,1 when he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac to demonstrate his faith, and in his faithful obedience he became the Father of Nations (Rom 4, 1- 17). Moses too received an invitation by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and when called, responded the same way: ‘here I am’ (Ex 3,4). And so also with the Prophet Isaiah when the Lord asked ‘whom shall I send?’ (Is 6,8) Isaiah’s response was ‘here I am, send me’. What is it then to be ‘called’ by God?

Sr Lisa Marie goofing around with friends in Italy

The word ‘vocation’ comes from the Latin word ‘vocare’ which means ‘to call, to summon, to invite’. Our vocation then – to the religious, singular or married state – is an invitation to live according to the will of God.

And how do we know the will of God? This is the journey of each person to discover what God wants of him or her, but it is always tied to the mission of Christ who said, “my food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish His work” (John 4,34). The ‘work’ of the Father is redemptive, bringing about liberation for all humanity bound by sin from the time of Adam and Eve. Christ came to fulfill this plan of salvation through His life, death and resurrection. All Christians are called to collaborate in this redemptive work by bringing others to know and love God the Father through Jesus Christ. We too are called to hunger for all to know God through fully living out his will through our love.

We learn to share our faith through our experience of God; an experience that is manifested in our life of prayer. Prayer, then, is the key to knowing the will of God. A comedian in the United States was keen of saying ‘you can’t have a relationship with someone you don’t talk to.’ In other words, you can’t have a relationship with God without making time to talk to Him and listen in the silence for His Word. I like to look to Mary as an example: the young girl from Nazareth who listened to God, and her listening prepared her heart to respond when God called her to be the Mother of our Lord, Jesus (Luke 1:28-38). In her example we see the fruit of prayer – a receptive heart ready to do whatever God asked.

When I entered as a postulant with the Canossian Sisters in 1998, I began to respond to God in my prayer where I found a desire in me to dedicate my life to service of God. Although the desire existed in me to want God’s will, I struggled constantly with my own desire and wants; I struggled with fears of letting go and failure. These are the struggles of humanity that each of us grapple with. St. Paul spoke of this struggle when he said in his letter to the Romans: “for the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (7,19). One of the most important things I have learned in all my years of preparation for my final vows was that despite my sin – doing the things I don’t want – God continues to love me.

Our humanity is so used to judging people based on what they do, or in religious circles, how good one is. My experience of God has taught me that despite my weakness, my failure, my small capacity to love as Jesus loves, Christ still loves me and desires me to belong fully to Him. I have found that I will never be perfect or worthy to belong to Christ Himself; but I have also found that God wants me anyway. He takes me as I am and I find that it is His love that perfects me. And slowly, with His grace which flows always through the Sacraments, I am being transformed to be more like Him and more able to love like He loves. This new awareness has prepared me to choose a life of belonging to the One who is Love, with a desire to live my life so to make Him known.

Sr Pat and Sr Lisa Marie with Volunteers

During my preparation for my vows, I discovered in myself this readiness that dares to give everything to fulfil God’s will. In my Bible, the words ‘here I am’ are translated as “ready”. I had to ask myself, ‘am I ready to do this – to give everything I have, and everything I am – to give myself to God forever?’ I found within my prayer the answer: an unhesitating ‘yes’. It is a response that has taken time to mature through the years as I have discovered for myself the vastness of God’s love.

I was happily surprised in the days before my final vows that I was ready, and could hardly wait to stand before the world to say, “Yes, Lord, I am yours forever.”

If you could, please, pray for vocations to our Institute, the Canossian Sisters, and for the upcoming Advent retreat for young women (November 19th), and an evening with high-school girls (November 20th). Much appreciated!

 

Path to God

Last week on VP, I took the opportunity to write a post on marriage and a recent experience I had, witnessing a friend give himself to his new bride through the Sacrament of Matrimony.

One of my blogging buddies, and VP contributor, Elizabeth Hillgrove commented on the post, saying, “I love reading a reflection on marriage from your perspective as one in the religious life.”

I commented back a challenge, with a supposed wink, “Thank you, Elizabeth. It would be interesting too, to read a post from you on the ‘possibility of religious life today’.”

And so a brief exchange in posts began. First with an entry here at VP (now Ignitum Today) by Elizabeth, where she takes a look at religious life through what is probably many people’s view, via movies. Ah, but before I could respond, mutual friend and blogger, Anthony S. Layne, stated “Somebody’s evading …. :^)=) … I’d like to see a post that digs into this a little further … but only if that’s not asking for more than you’re willing to share…In fact, I may post on that myself.”

And post on it, he did. Well worth the read if you haven’t already!

My admiration goes out to Elizabeth for stepping up to Anthony’s challenge, for she wrote a second post on the topic, this one digging a lot deeper, honestly admitting the difficulty of DISCERNMENT. Yes. That’s what it is.

And, what is discernment? We discern every day. That is, we make choices every day, so what makes us go into panic-mode when considering religious life? Ok, so we’re not exactly making a decision about what to eat for dinner; these daily discernments, we know, will not change our life drastically.

One of the biggest difficulties of considering religious life is an emotional barrier. Well, we’re human. We were created for relationships. Elizabeth expresses this reality really well in her post (and oh, how it brings me back to the days when I was floating around the idea in my head of being – do I dare think it – a nun!):

“As I lay in bed, having listened to the sermon (on discernment), I wept. I wept when I became aware of a darkness filling the void where discernment belonged…I ached, a violent, physical pain in my chest, at the idea that choosing a religious vocation meant my children would never exist… I cried thinking about writing letters to my family and friends instead of seeing them… My tears fell because the religious life has rarely been a serious consideration and I realized that meant I had walled up a path to God.”

For me, it was a wanting to know God’s will, while at the same time NOT wanting to know it, because I was afraid I was standing on a precipice, and the next step would bring the world I knew into chaos. Sure, I could rationalize “if it’s God’s will, he will take care of everything.” And of course, I believed that, but my humanity being what it is, still felt a bit uncertain; would I bear up under the pain of separation from family (not to mention a letting go of my independent lifestyle)? I wasn’t sure I was ready for that.

Some good advice I found, which is helpful for whatever decision is before us, we must recognize that our feelings can deceive us. We live in a society that feeds on emotions and, at times, forgets we are rational creatures too. It is best, then, that as we discern the possibility of religious life or priesthood (for you guys out there), we must involve our rationale and not allow our emotions to get the best of us. Our emotions are important, but they can block us from opening up the doors to new opportunities, or, as Elizabeth said, “wall up a path to God.”

That is why religious communities call brief visits by inquirers “come and see” rather than “come and stay.” They are open-ended, with the purpose of such opportunities to help a discerner have a glance at ‘real’ religious life, and help tear down the walls of any preconceived notions of that life (you know, like that of the singing nun and lovely Sister Bertrille, the flying nun). At the same time, no obligations are placed on the inquirer. They may participate in prayer, meals and other communal activities. They may go with a professed to observe them in action in their apostolate, and see if they can find themselves doing the apostolate too. There is time built into these days for the inquirer to ask questions about the community’s life and rule. And there is time for personal prayer.

Prayer is key, both on visits but even more so in our day-to-day life discernments. Before even thinking about religious life, I recommend these things:

  1. Ask Mary the Mother of God to help you. Consecrate yourself to her Immaculate Heart. Let her guide you where her Son desires. She will not lead you astray.
  2. Stay close to the Sacraments of reconciliation and communion. These help purify the heart so to hear God better in His word, and to prepare the heart to desire God’s will in our own lives.
  3. Develop a deeper relationship with God through prayer. Create discipline in your own daily routine that gives time for prayer and meditation (or, try living as a religious in the world as much as you can).
  4. Act. Go and see. Inquire with communities whose spirituality is close to your own. If you have a spiritual affinity for a saint, what order did she belong to? Are there communities nearby that are of the same religious family?

As a friend of mine who was discerning at the same time as I said, “what are you waiting for? If you don’t like it, you can leave. But at least you can say you tried.”

I tried, hoping I wouldn’t like it. My friend didn’t enter religious life in the end. Fortunately for me, I found myself drawn deeper into the mystery of religious life and persevered.

Is it painful? Do I miss my family? Yes, at times – especially holidays and birthdays – I long to be with them (my first Christmas in the convent deserves a post of its own). Yet, God in his patient love has shown me that he has prepared me all my life for this. He has made me His own, and this has made all the difficulties worth it. Yes, I have found my calling. I have found my path to God.

Some helpful resources for the discerning soul:

Religious Vocation

Vocation Quest

Institute on Religious Life

A Vocation Prayer

 

Some inspiration from a hidden pearl of the Church, Saint Magdalene of Canossa, who shares her own discernment of her vocation:

Magdalene became a foundress of a new type of religious life for women in founding the Figlie della Carità, Serve dei Poveri, known in the States as the Canossian Daughters of Charity, Servants of the Poor (Canossian Sisters).

 

 

Being nun the wiser

With the help of a winky face, Sister Lisa challenged me to reach into the deep end of my spirituality.

Her honest and beautiful approach to a recent wedding led to her curiosity of my perspective on the possibility of religious life today. The winky face was for effect.

Other than the occasional pop culture reference, the majority of my childhood exposure to women in religious life was at family events (several non-habit-wearing nuns in my family) and from the 1966 classic, The Trouble with Angels. If you have never seen this film (shame on you), I suggest you stop reading.

The goofiness of 1960s films culminates in this story about a trouble-maker and her partner in crime. These teenage “captives in a nunnery” spend three years throughout the movie at a boarding school populated by nuns and other teen girls. Heads butt and rules break at every turn.

By the grace of God, after a lot of trial and much more error, the trouble-maker comes to understand a purpose in self-sacrifice, especially that which it takes to be a religious sister.

“But how could you give it up?” Mary presses. Reverend Mother smiles and says, “I found something better.”

Though discernment has only elevated to a guess and check process for me (thanks, God, for giving me so many second chances), I understand that this “something better” will be both different and obvious for all of us. We hear our mothers and grandmothers say “I just knew” that they had found the man to marry.

For those called to married life, this is how God told them they found “something better” than whatever more selfish options lay before them. I trust that God places the “I just knew” moments on the hearts of those called to serve Him through vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

For those women, like me, shaking in your boots right now: Why are we afraid to know this? Can it be as simple as a fear of the unknown? We fear that God has a plan far beyond our decades-long expectations.

You find a man you Love, marry him, and have babies on your journey back to God. That’s what you do! Mainstream Catholic culture is fertile ground for the marriage vocation, but we need some PR help for the religious life. Let’s start with ourselves.

The idea of being a religious sister is scary to me because I know it would be fulfilling. I could work with children, speak a different language, live simply, and create strong bonds with a community. I’ve tried to keep the religious life option “open” in a “Yeah, sure, God, whatever” way much of my life.

At points in high school I felt begrudgingly obligated to be a nun since I seemed to be the only one not blocking it out entirely. Someone has to be a nun, I thought, as if I was saying “Someone has to sweep the floor today.”

I suspect God doesn’t want us to come to Him begrudgingly. He wants us to come to Him in Truth.

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28

His yoke may be easy, but I often carry burden on me like a marble backpack. The option of a religious vocation is even scarier now that I’ve found a man I Love and who Loves me.

In fact, he Loves me so much that when I told him about this post he said, “We all need to be constantly discerning our vocations and our Faith, etc. That’s what makes it legitimate. You can cheat on me with God any time you want.”

Those who chose the right man to marry tend to feel more fulfilled than those who yield to factors like convenience or pressure on the path down the aisle. It is the same with all vocations. Our vocation is a choice, one that aims to glorify God and to point us to be with him for eternity.

At the end of The Trouble with Angels, the trouble-maker decides to remain at the boarding school to begin her novice year in the convent, surprising and upsetting her best friend. At her departure, her partner in crime erupts at Reverend Mother, saying her formerly trouble-making friend was brainwashed and the decision to stay was not her own.

The older nun’s eyes drooped at this declaration, yet she said, “It was her decision. You, of all people, should know how strong she is. She didn’t yield, Rachel, she chose, and I’d rather have one like Mary who chooses than a hundred who yield. She has so much to give!”

We need to be open with God and honest with ourselves when reflecting on our vocation. He created us with a great concoction of skills and gifts to be given to others. Why waste them?

Don’t shut the door because, you know, God opens windows too (forgive me for the cross-movie-nun-reference and my corny title).

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Photo credit.

Hop over to Startling the Day for more! UPDATE: A friend suggested I take another shot at this post, as I spent more time saying nothing than something. Here goes.

The Beauty of Marriage

I had the priveledge of attending the marriage of Gary (one of my former Canossian volunteers who served 2 years in Malawi) to Hope (a former SOLT volunteer, who served in Central America). The wedding was without great fanfare, or large crowds, but never have I attended one so beautiful.

Why was it beautiful?

On one level, it was an experience that seemed to just fit for this young couple. I found myself watching in awe at the ‘rightness’ as they moved through the ceremony, and, on that level, can only compare it to this:

 

On a deeper level, without special adornment of the Church with flowers, or paid cantor (a school friend sung beautifully), the focus became the Bride and the Bridegroom, celebrating their union within the eternal beauty of the Mass. What I experienced in watching this couple who are obviously in love is best described in the words of Tertullian:

“How can I ever express the happiness of a marriage joined by the Church …? How wonderful the bond between two believers, now one in hope, one in desire, one in discipline, one in the same service, … undivided in spirit and flesh, truly two in one flesh. Where the flesh is one, one also is the spirit.” 

It was this desire to be one, best described in the scripture passages they chose for the occasion. First, that from the Book of Tobit, where on their wedding night, before retiring to bed, Tobias and his new bride Sarah decide to kneel down in prayer together. Tobias blesses God, and then asks:

“Now, not with lust, but with fidelity I take this kinswoman as my wife.
Send down your mercy on me and on her,
and grant that we may grow old together.
Bless us with children.”  (Tobit 8:7)

For the Gospel reading, they chose part of the priestly prayer of Jesus, John 17:20-26, which speaks of the unity of Jesus and the Father, and the longing for all believers:

“that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you,
that they also may be in us,

that the world may believe that you sent me.”

The homily by Fr. Anthony Blount, SOLT, tied these images together, of the newlyweds praying together by their marriage bed, and that of unity by reminding us of Genesis 2:24, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.”

He went further to help us look at the reality of marriage by way of “the three M’s”:

  • Mass: How the bridegroom symbolizes the Eternal Bridgegroom, Christ, who longs to embrace us – the Church – as His bride. Mass is the ‘new and everlasting covenant (as proclaimed in the Eucharistic Prayer over the cup). If lived well, we encounter heaven. Marriage is a similar covenant, an image often used in the scriptures as an image of the everlasting covenant God makes with His people. Both are binding out of love. If we are attentive at Mass, we become more aware of God’s constant calling us to this perfect covenant made by Him to us.
  • Maturity:  Father used a very interesting image of his own mother – gentle soul by nature – in the kitchen pounding a piece of meat. Almost a violent act, tenderizing. Maturity in the person is a person ‘tenderized’ by God’s love through hard lessons learned in life, and a maturing of the soul takes place to prepare it for what He has in mind. We are sinewy and tough by nature, and need to let God teach us in order to reach a place of maturity, to be workable to the designs of God.
  • Mission: Marriage is a journey of service, of mission. Both Gary and Hope have served in foreign lands for a time, serving the poor by giving of themselves. Marriage, too, is  a mission to serve. It is saying, “My life is for something greater than myself.” It is an act that flows from the maturity of the person. It is also a mission to the Church, by raising up faithful children who long to commit themselves to ‘something greater’ than themselves. It also pointed out, they are beginning their life together on the morning before Mission Sunday, testifying to their willingness to be a part of the Church’s greater mission.

These ‘Three M’s’ are necessary for all vocations.

It just so happens all the elements of Church vocations were present in St Sebastian’s: Parents of the bride and bridegroom; single and married friends of the young couple; the priest; myself as a religious; and even in Gary’s siblings, his brother is a religious brother with the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, and his sister, who could not be present, is preparing for her entrance with Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles. We – together – were expressing the beauty of the Church when each fulfills his or her proper place within her.

All of these things, together, made the celebration memorable and timeless.  In a word, beautiful.