In my mid-twenties, I left my home state of California and went to work in Texas. I didn’t know a soul, I had never been to the state before, and I didn’t know how long I’d be staying. But I was excited for what lay ahead: new challenges, new opportunities, new places to explore, and new people to meet. Looking back now, I’ll remember Texas for many reasons, but mostly I’ll remember it for being the place I first fell hopelessly, helplessly, completely and ardently in love.
Being so far from home, not knowing anyone, and being naturally introverted, I came to really embrace solitude and silence, and where better to embrace that than in prayer? Since I did not have a car, I walked everywhere. And on my days off I started finding myself walking the six miles round-trip to the nearest church. I would sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament for hours, sometimes reading, sometimes praying, often just staring at the tabernacle. These little rendezvous became what I lived for. However, I knew, I was certain, I sincerely hoped, that this did not mean anything more—it did NOT mean I was being called to the religious life. I wasn’t ready for that sort of commitment. God and I had a good thing going, so why ruin that by taking things to the next level? But to ensure that that didn’t happen, I added a stop to my walks home from church. I always stopped in at the Target that was along the way, and I would buy things that I didn’t need; often times they were things that I didn’t really want. But I knew if I spent my money at Target, rather than pay off student loans, I’d always have a buffer between me and the religious life. After all, you can’t become a nun if you have lots of debt.
After a couple of months, I finally had a car of my own and was able to go to Mass, adoration, and confession whenever I wanted, which was such a tremendous gift. And yet I was finding my peace dwindling. Finally, one day in the confessional, I told the priest what I had been doing. I told him about my frivolous spending, and I told him how I was really just scared, scared about what this all might mean, scared that God was asking me to do something I would not be able to do, scared that I would mess things up. This priest eventually became my spiritual director. He was kind and loving, patient and gentle, everything a good priest ought to be. Under his guidance, I began to explore this constant tugging on my heart. I read, I prayed, I researched different religious orders, I paid off student loans. And through a series of coincidences too numerous and too small to matter to anyone but myself, I stumbled upon the most beautiful order. I was drawn to them so immediately and so intensely. It was the icing on the cake when I told my spiritual director about them: he softly smiled and when I was finished, he said that he knew them well, that he was there at their very beginning, and that he was friends with the Mother Superior. Of course he was! And it was just further proof that I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to do.
I contacted the Novice Prioress and I arranged a discernment retreat. At this point, to me the retreat was just a formality. I had made up my mind. I was so sure of my future that I even began giving away my belongings. I no longer needed my cute skirts, I didn’t need multiple pairs of shoes, and I certainly had no use for a purse collection. I was ready to take the plunge, knowing God would be there when I jumped.
I loved almost everything about being at the convent, out in the middle of nowhere in some small town in Missouri. Just hearing the sisters sing was its own glimpse into heaven. (Here’s a sample of what I heard morning, noon, and night). I didn’t mind the 4 am wake up calls; there was something quite calming about spreading compost in the garden; and I was surprisingly okay with milking the cow. (I was, not surprisingly, horrible at it, though.)
However, something wasn’t right. There was no peace. I was so utterly confused. And truly heartbroken. As the days went on, I became convinced this was not where I was supposed to be. Call it intuition, but sometimes you just know. My previous joy turned into sorrow. How could I have gotten things so wrong?
When I returned to Texas, I told my spiritual director that God took me to Missouri only to dump me. That’s what it felt like. And it stung. It stung worse than any other breakup. It shook me to my core and left me feeling so lost, and really very betrayed. Confusion soon became anger, and you know, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. I gave up so much (ALL my cute skirts!), and I was willing and wanting to give up more, to give up everything. So what happened? What went wrong?
The reality is that it took me several years to understand what happened and why. The particulars of my story are unique to me, but I think the lessons learned can be applied more broadly, so I’ll share them now.
- I was not put on this earth to love God as I please. I was put here to love God according to His will. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but my own pride definitely was at play. I wanted to do God’s will but for some reason I thought I knew God’s will better than God knew His own will. I wanted to love God on my terms. But at 4 am this morning, I was awoken not by the prioress, but by my son, crying to be fed. My eyes were so tired it hurt just to open them, and in that moment I thought, this is how God wants me to love Him. It’s not the quiet solitude of the convent, but it is a different kind of (mostly) quiet (mostly) solitude, feeding my sweet child in the early morning darkness, loving God by loving what He has given me.
- I didn’t read God all wrong when I thought He was calling me to the religious life. It wasn’t some major miscommunication on my part. Sometimes God asks us to prove our love. He asks us to put our money where our mouth is. It is similar to what God did when He asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son: God was simply testing the extent of Abraham’s love. I’m not comparing myself or my “sacrifice” to Abraham’s, just using it to show that from the beginning God has done this, from the beginning He has asked us to provide proof of our love. He sometimes asks, “If I led you here, would you follow Me?” He wants a willingness of heart over a willingness of action.
- It is not our own actions that make us lovable. I must confess that for me, part of the appeal of the religious life was that then, finally, I would be doing something to earn God’s love. I would be giving up my life, so I could in turn feel right about accepting His love, and the sacrifice of His life to demonstrate that love. But it’s not a tit-for-tat system. And to view God in such a way is to completely misunderstand who He is, what He is. He is Love and He cannot help but love us, despite our unworthiness. Accepting His love comes first. Everything that is true and holy and good comes from that first step.
- There is nothing to lose and everything to gain in exploring a possible vocation to the priesthood or religious life. There’s no need to fear it, run from it, or ignore it. God will carry us through many fires if we only allow Him to hold us. There are no wasted journeys, or wrong turns with God. He leads us where He pleases and our sanctification is achieved along the way. I may not have been called to the religious life, but I’ll always be so grateful for that experience. I’m grateful for those many quiet months in Texas where I was allowed to spend so much time in the presence of God, especially now that I am a busy wife and new mother. At the time I was hurt and confused and mad. Looking back, however, I view it as one chapter in a life-long romance with God.
It is so often the case that life doesn’t make sense. It is easy to believe in God the creator; it is much more difficult to believe in God the constant provider, the lover of mankind, ALL mankind, the healer of the sick, the one who forgives all sins. Life is a series of many lessons, each one revealing to us more and more about our always loving God, if we only take the time to learn.