Recently I was traveling on a puddle-jumper from Seattle, Wash., to Portland, Ore. My assigned seat was between a five-year-old boy and a young woman in her 20s. As often happens when traveling, we started a conversation. It began, however, when the little boy leaned over, winked at me and asked my name. The twentysomething beside me commented, “I think he’s trying to pick you up!” Then she introduced herself as Kelly. It wasn’t long before she asked me what I did. Having spent six years in vocation ministry, I cut to the chase and said, “I’m a Catholic nun!” “No way! Cool!” she said, “I never met a real nun. My mom will be so happy!” She asked how long I had been a nun and whether this trip was part of my work. She wanted to know when I got “the call” and how I knew. She asked if I was happy and if I had any regrets. Then she asked me for my business card so she could officially substantiate that she had met a real, live nun.
My experience with Kelly is neither uncommon nor unusual. I have had plenty of opportunities to witness to consecrated life over the years. Whether teaching in elementary school or high school, helping young adults with discernment as a vocation director or ministering to other vocation directors as the associate director of the National Religious Vocation Conference, I have met people, especially young adults, who are interested and inquiring about religious life. They desire to understand the mystery of God’s call; they long to follow their own heart; and they struggle to live with meaning and significance. They want to know “how to know if you are called.” Kelly gave me an opportunity to reflect on my 25 years of life as a sister and the difference it has made. Kelly’s keen interest and poignant questioning allowed me to ponder anew the significance of my call and what I have learned.
A call always involves an invitation to freely come and see. Reflecting on my own call has helped me in tending to others as they discover theirs. Each vocation is a unique mystery. It is our story. We commonly expect God’s call to be dramatic, clear and unquestionable. More times than not, it breaks into life when we least expect it and life is moving along nicely. It occurs in the midst of our everyday, ordinary circumstances. I remember minding my own business teaching junior high school, planning for a future with someone I thought I was in love with, and being satisfied with an active social life. But there was this recurring sense of wanting more and desiring to be satisfied on a deeper level. Ultimately, I did not want to settle for what others expected of me in life. I felt drawn to pursue an alternative possibility: religious life.
My call to religious life, like that of many others, did not come in isolation. It arose as one among several good opportunities from which I could choose. I was not grasping at this choice as a last chance because there was nothing else to do. God provided a rich array of invitations and allowed me to see that they were all good. I looked for which choice would allow me to be most at home in myself, to be generous in service to others and to live the dream that God was dreaming for me.
When I started to embrace God’s call I began to discover what my gifts were—what I was good at, what gave me energy and joy and provided me with what I needed to be interiorly at home. Of all the things that I could do, I wanted to choose what would let me give myself away in service to God and God’s people. Frederick Buechner, a writer and Presbyterian minister, defines “call” as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” Ultimately, my call to religious life made a way for God’s dream to be lived out in me and for me to be joyful. The thought that I could love deeply, work professionally and minister to God’s people was exciting. It spoke to me of the fullness of God’s word with all its promise and potential. Coming to recognize these aspects of call has helped me to listen more deeply with others for how God is moving them. I suggest that those who are discerning a call meet with someone like a vocation director, who can accompany them on the journey. That provides a way of reflecting on all of life’s experiences and helps them to listen for God’s dream and their deep joy.
A call is about God’s time. It involves waiting and tending to a process. After experiencing an initial call to come and see, I realized that God was faithful to me in the invitation to religious life. I needed to allow myself to surrender to God. Like anything that intends to grow, I needed nurturing, support and attentiveness so that I could cultivate eyes to really see and ears to really hear God. I realized that tending to the discernment process meant more than completing all the necessary tasks or doing all the appropriate things. In the process, I waited on God’s time. My impatience sometimes made the waiting seem purposeless, when really it was an opportunity to be especially mindful and attentive. Jesus’ parable of the barren fig tree is a favorite of mine. Like the orchard owner, I had little time for what appeared to be a barren, useless tree. There was no fruit, and to anyone unfamiliar with the process of waiting for things to germinate and grow, it might seem reasonable to cut it down prematurely. My temptation was to shortchange the fertile waiting process because it seemed barren.
A profoundly personal experience early in my religious life taught me the inestimable value of waiting and the potential for recognizing God’s presence even in what appears barren. On a fall day in 1994 my mother was walking home from church when she was struck and killed by a drunk driver. The grieving process was an unforgettable lesson in waiting. Initially, it was chaotic, disorienting, empty and unproductive. It was nothing like what I expected the grieving of a loved one to be. I believed that an experience of death should yield resurrection and new life.
Needless to say, I was impatient with the bereavement process. Like the orchard owner in the parable, I wanted to cut down the process. I was tending to it faithfully, yet still found no fruit. And the pain was wrenching. Why should the waiting and grieving exhaust my life? Slowly and gradually, in God’s time, I began to see and hear signs of God’s presence with me, gently leading me. Because I fully entered the dark and barren experience of grieving, I met God who was waiting to prod me along, taking the most abrupt and tragic sorrow of my life and using it to cultivate my heart. What seemed like barren waiting was bearing rich fruit. On one of my annual retreats during that time, God gave me the gift of freedom, grace to let go of this burden and know that Jesus the Mantle of Light was enfolding, healing and holding my mother no matter how she died. At the same time, I was being invited to rest in her care. Like a child in her arms, I experienced her tenderness in a new way. I came to know God in this intimate way as well. As God promises, not even death could separate us.
This experience has become a tremendous gift to me as I have accompanied others in sharing their stories and the details of their lives. It has attuned my heart to listen deeply and actively to wait with them in the distillation process that purifies God’s call. God’s time and God’s way are often not like ours.
A call is a journey of trust, and God is always with us. Often when I am walking, I find pennies. My friends laugh as I stoop to pick them up, but I think they are constant reminders of God’s presence in our lives. They challenge me to recall in whom I place my trust: “In God we trust!” I certainly believe this, but it is quite a challenge to live. God invites us to step out in faith. For those discerning a call, it is no different. We are not given to see the end, only the horizon that lies before us. With a long line of predecessors, Jesus calls us to follow. In reflecting over these 25 years of religious life, I am reminded of my own call to religious life and that the loving God who created me and provided for me this far will not abandon me now. This is the ministry that vocation directors, spiritual directors and mentors offer others who are discerning their call. We accompany them with the grace and wisdom that we have come to know; we are spiritual companions. We give life to the scriptural stories of Abraham, Moses, Ruth and Mary, each of whom responds yes to God’s invitation in an act of profound trust. Together we come to know Emmanuel, God with us.
A call is a gift graciously given and full of grace. Meeting Kelly on the plane that day was a provocative encounter and a graced moment in which I could share the unique vocation story that is mine. Tracing the loving activity of God in my life, I realize the privilege of being a co-worker with God in vocation ministry. This privilege has exposed me to the joy and gratitude of those who recognized God’s invitation to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. It has opened me to the sacred story of many. It has united me with women and men seeking a wholeness they thought impossible, but who came to realize that all things are possible with God. And it has undoubtedly shaped and formed the sister I am today. Vocation ministry has been a challenge, to be sure, but a formative and life-giving one. I believe that religious life is alive and well, that God is still calling people. Our witness every day, in big and small ways, is a testimony to this life. It has been the best of 25 years for me. Here’s to 25 more!