“Let me tell you the story ‘bout the call that changed my destiny…”
Okay, I’m guessing that my peers who grew up on 90’s pop music just bobbed their heads and mouthed these opening words to the 2001 Backstreet Boys hit “The Call.” Maybe you even ended the phrase mimicking AJ’s catchy inflection: destinay-ay. Most of the song, which is about a wishy-washy dude being unfaithful to his girl, has nothing to do with my vocational journey. But this first line came to my mind at the L.A. Religious Education Congress when my community and I had a chance to chat with Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and one of our favorite spiritual writers.
Fr. Jim was just as approachable, kind, and sincere in person as one might suppose from his writings. When I told him that I’m in formation with the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, he smiled with genuine delight and asked me how it’s all going. Then he asked if I wanted to hear the two best pieces of advice he’s got on living the religious life. I was touched and replied that obviously I did!
1. “Ok, the first one is this: stay true to your governing desire. You’ll have lots of desires in your life,” he said. “You’ll desire to get married; you’ll desire to have kids; you’ll desire lots of different things. But keep going back to that question: What is my governing desire? And that is what will lead you and pull you through.”
2. “The second one is simple,” he then shared. “In the difficult times, go back to the power of the call.”
|Fr. James Martin and I|
I’m 98% sure that when Fr. Jim said that second thing about “the call,” he was not referring to the 2001 Backstreet Boys hit. I do think that maybe he was talking about that divine invitation that God speaks into each of our hearts, helping to guide us to our vocation. In fact, the word vocation comes from the Latin word “vocare” which means “called.” Our vocation is the unique way that we’re called to be God’s love in the world.
We come to know our call through various and varied experiences. It is something that grows and becomes clearer throughout our lives, but there are often telling moments we can identify that revealed parts of our call to us. They might be fairly ordinary events that seem somehow mystical to the person experiencing them: an unforgettable first date; a life-changing encounter with someone in need; hearing a song that seems it was written just for you. Fr. Jim's advice is wise for anyone in any life, I think -- when we hit bumps in the road, retelling the story of how it all began might give us some insight into why we are where we are and some courage to keep pushing ahead.
The first “telling moments" of my own personal call came as quite a shock, as I had never given a conscious thought to becoming a Sister. I want to write them down today (and share them with you). Here goes: Let me tell you the story ‘bout the call that
changed [revealed] my
|Our neighborhood in Duran, Ecuador|
As you read in my first blog entry, my call to the religious surfaced during my time as a volunteer in Ecuador with the program called Rostro de Cristo. Some crazy impulse, also known as God, inspired me and ten other recent college graduates to commit one year living together in community and walking beside the people of Duran, Ecuador, an impoverished town outside of Guayaquil on the Pacific coast. (My one year actually became two – another surprise from God and a story for a different time!). We each had different work placements in the community and also spent a lot of time, true to the mission of Rostro, just being with our neighbors. God transformed us and opened our eyes as we entered closely into the lives of people who struggle with great economic poverty but who live a powerful faith life.
|The volunteers, minus Elyse and Amy!|
A few months into the year, we loaded up the 12 passenger van and drove to the little beach town of Crucita (little cross) where would we spend a weekend on retreat. It was a much needed time of rejuvenation for us as we were dealing with all that comes with being an international volunteer. I missed my family and friends dearly; I already fantasized about the moment that I would see my parents again in the Cincinnati airport in August. Learning to live in community was hard; it was too early to see all of the rewards. At the same time, we were processing the poverty and pain that surrounded us.
On Saturday afternoon, I sat on my towel in the sand, feeling the wind whip my hair around gently as I contemplated the vastness of the water before me. I talked to God and wondered many things. Was I right to break up with my boyfriend in August? How will I make it through the next nine months? What will I do when I get back to the U.S.? How will I know what career I’m supposed to follow? How will I know who I’m supposed to marry? (I’ve always been good at excessive worry and rumination.)
Very clearly, I felt a deep sense inside of me: ‘Just wait,’ said the loving voice. ‘Trust me, and all will be as it should be in time.’
The next morning, I sat in the same spot, my heart a bit more peaceful as I considered the hand of God guiding my future. That’s when that seemingly quiet, kind, and gentle voice from the day before returned, this time in a different mood. I don’t know how, but the words floated into my consciousness: “You should be a nun.”
I reared around, trying to find out who was playing this weird joke on me. But there was no one, just the words hanging in the air. “How strange,” I thought. “Where did that come from?” It disturbed me a bit, but I didn’t think too much of it. Maybe it was just the St. Teresa of Avila prayer book I was reading putting ideas in my head. They would surely soon disappear.
The next day, we were back in Guayaquil. A few of the girls from my house and I had made plans to visit with a community of nuns from Peru. We took the bus downtown to their lovely home. They gave us time to pray in their chapel and toured us through the convent. Despite the peaceful environment, I felt increasingly nervous in their house. Then, they showed us a video about their ministries. As images scrolled across the screen of the Sisters teaching, singing, hugging little children, handing out food, etc., my stomach flipped. Something mysterious inside of me said, “I could see myself doing that!” I started to sweat in terror. What was happening? I held the feelings inside and looked out the window on the bus ride home.
|Melissa and I at work|
Two days later, I was at my morning worksite – a clinic where Melissa, a fellow Rostro de Cristo volunteer, and I worked in health promotion. I spent a lot of time in the Psychologist’s office, helping with pre-HIV exam counseling. Francia, the psychologist, was also a counselor for children from the neighboring school. On this particular Tuesday, Francia was out, so I was in the office alone. A cute little girl I had never seen before wandered up to the office door.
“Hola, amorcita! (Hi, love!)” I said as she poked her head in. We started to chat. She told me her name was Jennifer and she was 12 years old. She asked if I was a psychologist. I told her that I studied psychology but would have to study for a few more years to become a psychologist. Then I asked her, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I couldn’t have prepared myself for what came next. Innocently, she smiled. “Yo quiero ser una monjita. (I want to be a nun)”
“Are you for real, God?” I thought, looking up in no particular direction as my face flushed. Suddenly, the conversation wasn’t about the little girl anymore. I pretended to be delighted, but I began to interrogate her: How long have you known you want to be a nun? Why would you ever want to do that? Don’t you want to get married? Don’t you want to have kids?
I was a maniac, trying to squeeze wisdom out of this 12 year old girl who answered each question with uncanny poise. Finally, the recess bell rang. “Bueno, hasta luego! (Well, see you later!)” she said and slipped away, totally unaware of the storm she had just stirred up in my heart.
Instinctively, I dialed down to the nurse’s office where Melissa was working. “Can you come here for a minute?” I heard her feet on the concrete stairs. As soon as she sat down, I started to sob and told her everything. “It’s possible that God could be calling you to the religious life,” she said, comforting me gently. “But you don’t need to know that right now. God will show you in God’s time.”
Her words calmed me momentarily, but my heart remained troubled. Later that night, I frantically wrote in my journal:
God, seriously, what are you doing to me?! I’m just sitting there, trying to work, and little Jennifer comes in and…What does this mean? This year is already so hard for me, and now this? The life of a nun is not the kind of life I want to lead. The thought brings me pain. I don’t want to follow it, pray about it, or even think about it. I’ll do anything you want God – just not that!
God had called, and I had pressed the ignore button. But the "Missed Call" message remained there, flashing stubbornly on the screen…
To be continued