"What is Vocation?": A Postulant's Personal Answer....

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Back in July, on the day before I was to move to Macon and become a prepostulant, I headed to a church in Baltimore to listen to a famous Catholic author speak. And I did something totally uncharacteristic of me - after he was done, I raised my hand, stood up and asked a front of a very crowded church.

That author was Father James Martin SJ and the question was "what advice do you have for those entering religious life?" It was an egotistical question since I'm pretty sure no one else was joining the convent the very next day and as I asked the question, I even added that I was joining religious life the next day. A selfish decision on my part (and one that later embarrassed me) since I knew that in an audience of faithful Catholics, I'd get applause and maybe even the admiration of Fr. Jim.

Fr Jim, in his wisdom, gave me three snippets of advice. I put them in the back of my mind but soon forgot them. Since then, I've lived out eight months in the convent - six as a prepostulant, two as a postulant - and have learned so much about myself, about others, and religious life than I ever did in my six months in my former community. And today, as I was driving down the highway back to the convent, my mind was taken back to that Baltimore church and his voice told me once again those three pieces of advice.

See, in these past few months, what has been challenged is my definition of the word "vocation". I used to think of "vocation" as categories, as if God was sorting us in piles like laundry. My mom when she did our laundry always sorted them into rows and piles so maybe that's where the image comes from. I imagined "religious" in one pile, "married" in another, "single" in another, etc. And then there were piles for occupations too - teachers, nurses, social workers, etc. For the past few months, I've been trying to figure out which pile I belong to.

But eventually, I've learned vocation is a lot deeper than that and that God knows nothing of categories (in fact, He's not a big fan of them) Vocation is not linear, it's more like a tangled piece of string. Vocation is more than your marital status, vocation is more than your occupation. Vocation is a calling to be who you truly are. That means each person's vocation is different - doesn't matter if they're both Sisters or if they're both teachers. God is calling them to be different people and truly live out who they are - their faults, their gifts, their personality, what makes them laugh, what makes them cry. I know I've mentioned "everyone has their own personal vocation" on this blog before, but only recently have I "gotten it".

A lot of people have said that vocation is becoming who God wants you to be. I don't think it's becoming anything. I think vocation is a deeper awareness of who you already are. I think that's our vocation. If you become a priest, if you become a Sister, if you get married, it's because there's something in who you are that comes alive. But it's not simply that. Our vocation is not just a category - if it were, we'd be stretched out in a million different categories. Our vocation is realizing that we are a unique gift of God and those things that set our heart afire, those things that make us feel more alive are parts of that vocation. It's more than a martial status, it's more than a career, it's everything. It's not only accepting who I am, it's wanting to be who I am because I am made in His image.

So what was Fr Jim's advice? 1) Be joyful, 2) remember no one's perfect (including those Sisters you live with) and 3) don't forget to live your own personal vocation.
Thank you, Fr Jim. I finally got it....eight months later.

Feast of the Annunciation and the Renewal of Vows for the Daughters of Charity

Monday, March 26, 2012

Today, all over the world, about 19,000 women who have pledged their lives as Daughters of Charity renew their vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and service of the poor. On the feast of the Annunication, the feast of Mary's "yes", women are saying their own "yes" to God's call.

It's almost as if it's a wave - starting with our sisters in Australia, in Asia (Cambodia, Jordan, China, Kazakhstan, Eastern Russia, Korea, India, Laos, Lebanon, Indonesia, Phillipines, Iran, Syria, Israel, Thailand, Japan and Vietnam), in Europe (Albania, Poland, Austria, Belarus, Belguim, Portugal, Croatia, France, Czech Republic, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Great Britian, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Macedonia, Turkey, Ukraine and the Netherlands)  in Africa (Algeria, Kenya, Angola, Libya, Burundi, Madagascar, Cameroon, Mauritania, Chad, Morocco, Congo, Mozambique, Egypt, Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Eritrea, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Tunisia and Ghana), in Latin America (Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico), and then in the United States. (By the way, that's an average of 208 Sisters per country!)

Sr. Denise LaRock, the vocations director for the Daughters of Charity, wrote a beautiful blog post about the renewal of vows today. You can find it here - Definitely worth the read!

Thirty-two years ago today....

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A shot was heard, its sound's echo eventually reaching all the ends of the earth. As a Salvadoran archbishop prepared the gifts of bread and wine at the offertory after the homily, a shot went through his chest. He grabbed unto the altar cloth to steady himself but fell backwards, with the communion hosts now scattered on the floor, and died.

It was a shot that would eventually ring in the whole world's ears. His name was Oscar Romero. He had only been archbishop of San Salvador, the capital, for three years - certainly a short term and maybe not enough to make a real impact. But a real impact he did make.

El Salvador was at the start of a horrible bloody civil war - the military-led government against leftist guerrilla groups, a civil war that would continue for 12 more years after Romero's martyrdom. People were disappearing, people were being murdered daily, some streets littered with blood. The Church was being persecuted, as the government thought priests and nuns who worked with the poor were subversives, egging on the poor against the government. I know several Sisters that lived during that time period in El Salvador and they recall that they've never been more scared in their life. One Sister, a young girl at the time, was walking to school when she saw a young naked body lying face down on the sidewalk surrounded by military soldiers. She held her books more tightly, lowered her eyes to her feet so no one would notice her and switched to the other sidewalk. Another Sister remembers bombs going off near the convent. The novice mistress ordered them to hide wherever they could and they scattered. She hid in a closet, where she stayed for hours afraid to move even after the explosions stopped. Meanwhile, the novice mistress assumed her dead because she couldn't find her.

The time was tense and everyone who spoke out was soon killed or mysteriously disappeared. But Archbishop Romero chose not to care about that. He knew he might be killed - he even said so. It was a radical act of courage to speak up for those who were gone every day, to denounce the violence in his publicly-heard homilies over the radio. He refused to attend government functions he was invited to "until the repression stops". He wrote a letter to US President Jimmy Carter, begging him to stop sending arms to El Salvador.

But Romero wasn't radical for radical's sake. He probably never saw his ideas as "radical" and I won't even say his ideas were radical. Everything he said was said out of love. The same love of neighbor Jesus Christ called for. The same love cloistered nun St. Therese called for in his "Little Way". The same love St. Vincent de Paul called for in his love for the poor. In fact, something Romero said in February 1980 could well have been something Saint Vincent de Paul would have said some 300 years earlier: "We believe that from the transcendence of the Gospel, we can assess what the life of the poor consists of and we also believe that placing ourselves on the side of the poor and attempting to give them life we will know what the eternal truth of the Gospel consists of."

Monseñor Oscar Romero is the "unofficial" saint of Latin America, a region I feel a deep affinity for, starting in high school and continuing until now, an affinity that led me to live in Bolivia for two years and visit a number of Latin American countries throughout the years. But that is not the reason I remember him today.

I remember him today as an outstanding example of what I, as a believer in Jesus Christ and follower of the spirituality of Saint Vincent de Paul, should be. I'm not called to be an archbishop, probably not called to be a martyr, probably not called to speak out against injustice publicly despite fear of death, but I am called to love all, most especially love the poor as St Vincent, St Louise, St Elizabeth Ann and Monseñor Romero did....for that is where Christ is and that is where the gritty work of the Gospel lies. Love is what will win, love is what Christ tells us to do more than anything else.

“Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love. Love must win out; it is the only thing that can." - Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917 - 1980)

Who is one of your personal heroes? Why do you remember them?

An Ode to Sister Anne

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spiritual writer and Dutch priest Henri Nouwen wrote, in his book “Letters to Marc About Jesus”, “it is very important for you to realize that perhaps the greater part of God's work in this world may go unnoticed

Sr. Anne Higgins, with her quiet reflective demeanor, fades into the background – wandering the former Provincial House in Emmitsburg, tending her garden, writing poems, watching the birds eat from her birdfeeder – yet I count her as one of the most influential Sisters in my life. When I think of that quote by Henri Nouwen, I think of Sr. Anne and how God truly worked (and works) through her in practical obscurity.

I first met Sr. Anne in August of 2003. I was a soon-to-be college freshman on a retreat given by my future alma mater, Mount St. Mary's College. Despite my adventurous self, I was nervous to be attending a college where I knew no one. Sr. Anne, an English professor at the college, was one of those giving the retreat, along with others in Campus Ministry. I don't remember much about that retreat, but I do remember how truly approachable and friendly she was. While older, it seemed like she fit right in with the college students. Yet, even more than “fitting in”, she seemed to understand them.

Just a few months later, she invited me to my first discernment retreat – which turned out, perhaps to the surprise of Sr. Anne but mostly myself, to be my first step in my discernment journey with the Daughters of Charity. I wouldn't have Sr. Anne as a professor until a few years later for one of her few non-English courses, Christian Spirituality. We read everything from St. John of the Cross to the poet Rilke. It would turn out to be one of my favorite courses at the Mount. Somehow, Sr. Anne made the readings come alive and led me into understanding the significance of these writings in my own life. Without her even knowing, she held my hand through a rough spiritual patch and walked with me on the journey to discover my own personal spiritual charism. Many of those books I never gave away, including my copy of “Dark Night of the Soul”, which is still full of highlighted passages and notes in the margins.

May you never take the attitude of merely getting the task done. You must show them affection; serving them from the heart; inquiring of them what they might need; speaking to them gently and compassionately; procuring necessary help for them” (St Louise, A.85) Although St. Louise was speaking of caring for the sick, one of the first ministries of the Daughters of Charity, I feel her advice exemplifies Sr. Anne's attitude in her ministry as a college professor.

Sr. Anne takes her job of teaching English seriously and she takes her second unofficial job of being a published poet seriously as well, but most of all, she puts charity for the students above all else. When I say “charity”, I don't mean this in the superficial academic sense – deadline extensions, excused tardies, etc - but rather charity in what the Daughters of Charity believe it to be and practice – love, love you would give Christ Himself. Sr Anne listens to the students, not just about their academics but about their lives. Former students, even from her days when she was a lay teacher at Seton High, remember her with affection and most still stay in contact with her. More than any other professor, it was Sr Anne who made time to teach me guitar or have coffee chats with me, a good almost-five years since my graduation.

Sr. Anne's own poem, “Elizabeth Seton: Light and Grace” (found in her book “Digging for God: Praying with Poetry”) reminds me of her physical example as a continuation of Mother Seton's dedication to her students. The last stanza reads:

Her words to a student far away:
“My heart has gone home with you”
Home with us, with
light to know,
grace to do.

While Sr Anne may not have intended it that way, I like to think of the “us” as the Daughters of Charity – always with the heart of Mother Seton, with the light of faith to know deeper every day, with grace to do through their works of charity. Perhaps I feel an even deeper connection with Sr. Anne because we basically have the same personalities (INFJs) and we are both teachers and writers (though I am admittedly not a good poet!) but mostly it is because she was the first Daughter of Charity I ever met and it was her who introduced me to the approachability and compassion of the Daughters, not by inviting me to a discernment retreat, but rather by her own personal demeanor of charity.

Because of her quiet nature and her simplicity, Sr. Anne usually blends into the woodwork. After all, teaching English and writing poems isn't as “glamorous” as founding a homeless shelter or being a social worker in an inner-city hospital, but her work is amazing all the same. While her ministry isn't the norm for the Daughters, it has done a wonder for me, vocations to religious life, and all Mount students throughout the ten years she's taught there. And for that, I think St. Vincent de Paul, St. Louise, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and all those before her would be proud.

The Vows: A Church's Rebellion Against Our Culture

Saturday, March 17, 2012

It's quiet in the house. Then again, it's almost always quiet here - a result of living with all introverts. But today it's especially quiet - not a footstep is heard, not any snippet of a conversation, not a creaking of the stairs.

Today, the four Sisters I live with are in retreat in preparation for renewing their vows next Monday. Usually these retreats, since they are universal for everyone in the house, are made in the house rather than a retreat center. Not a word is spoken out of respect for the contemplative nature of the retreat, which explains why our little house on Ward Street is so still today.

If you were observant, you noticed I said something that is not typical of other religious communities - "...for renewing their vows next Monday" Religious orders only renew their vows in the juniorate -otherwise, there are first vows and final/perpetual vows. The Daughters of Charity are not a religious order. Rather, we're a Society of Apostolic Life, one of St Vincent de Paul's genius inventions for us. Unlike the description on Wikipedia, the Daughters do take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, just like any other religious order.  The difference is they renew them every year (with the intent of forever) instead of making one perpetual vow.

This retreat allows the Sisters to mentally, emotionally and spiritually prepare themselves for their renewal of the commitment to poverty, chastity, obedience and service to the poor (that being the fourth vow). The silence allows myself, not technically on retreat, to reflect on the vows that I hope to one day make.
I believe that my generation longs to rebel against our current culture. We're sick of the materialism, sick of the sex and violence blared at us 24/7, sick of the judgment. I believe that that's why Catholicism has seen a burst of vocations to the contemplative and cloistered life, indeed a beautiful thing. The 20-somethings, such as myself, maybe not even just those in the Catholic world, are aching for something different.

Each of the four vows the Daughters of Charity take - poverty, chastity, obedience, and service of the poor - screams against our modern culture. Poverty is at odds with the materialism of the world, chastity at odds with our sex-centered culture, obedience at odds with individualism and egoism, and service of the poor contrary to our society's need to materialism and comfort. I am, in no way, rejecting the world. There are positive things in our culture, such as our need to keep learning, a need for every voice to be heard and a continuous effort to be tolerant of all races and religions. There are good people in the world and I believe there are more counter-cultural people (against the negative aspects) out there than we realize, maybe even more counter-cultural people than "cultural". Taking these four vows is something truly radical and not easy. It never has been, not even back in the 1600s when the community started. I have a real admiration for those who make these vows, Daughters of Charity and other religious orders alike. The vows are a way the Church rebels against our current culture. In that way, we try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who is counter-cultural both in His time and ours.

When I think of the Sisters I live with as 'rebels', it makes me chuckle because these are women who (seemingly) quietly live out their lives as school principals, pastoral associates, homeless shelter directors, etc. Yet the truth is they are rebels. Our culture tells them they shouldn't be working for free, tells them they shouldn't be living on a simple monthly "allowance", tells them they should be with husbands or boyfriends. But these four Sisters - ranging from ages 79 to 51 - say "no, thanks", make a yearly promise to go the opposite direction and, by doing so, rebel against what our culture is constantly telling them to do. It truly is an audacious thing to do.

Not all of us are being called to make these radical vows - poverty, chastity, obedience and service to the poor - but each of us is called to rebel against our culture in Christ's name. We are called to rebel against the negative things of our culture, even if it's simply showing the world our rebellion by something like the vows all religious take. The question is - how do you rebel? How do you embrace the positive things in our culture and reject the negative? How do you follow in the footsteps of the counter-cultural Jesus?

(Picture from the Vincentian image gallery, believed to be a French vow day card)

An Open Letter to St. Louise de Marillac

Friday, March 9, 2012

Dear Sister Louise,
As a good writer, I feel every letter, especially to someone I've never written to before, needs an introduction. But as I wrote to Monsieur Vincent, I'm not sure that I need to write one to you. Do you already know who I am? Do you and Vincent have conversations in heaven, or even laughs, over your postulants?

It was awkward in the beginning to write to Vincent in a familiar way, yet I do not have that awkwardness writing you. Did you know, Sister Louise, that you're the one saint that I wish I could talk to face-to-face? Don't get me wrong - Vincent is great and so are the million others. But if God gave me a proverbial coffee-shop date with one saint, I would pick you (even though you seem more like a tea person).

You're probably wondering "well, why me?" It's not because, as a good Daughter of Charity postulant, I should pick the foundress of my community (though that may have a bit to do with it) It's for a more personal and maybe superficial reason. See, I think you and I are more alike than both of us may think. Please know I mean that in the most humble way. I certainly don't mean my canonization process is coming anytime soon.

We're both avid perfectionists, both of us probably to an annoying fault. From the almost 400-year old writings/letters we have from you, that's pretty darn obvious. You even write about how there were points where you were even afraid to receive Communion because of your inadequacy! Truthfully, your perfectionism makes me smile....because I think "Yes, thank God I am not the only one!" So my question, Sister Louise, is how did you deal with it? How did you reconcile that scared perfectionist self with the self that is on fire with love of God and charity?

Our proverbial coffee-shop conversation may actually be egotistical on my part, to which I apologize. My poor excuse is that I believe it is during religious life formation is like a mirror of our selves, showing a reflection we've never fully seen before. That reflection sometimes leads to lots of questions, whose answers aren't too easy to find. And as for me, I have lots of questions.

But enough about me - those questions will have to wait for another letter, not an "open" one. Next Thursday (the 15th), we celebrate 352 years since your death. I like to think you already know but, just in case you didn't, your Daughters are strong, a characteristic both borne out of you and their spirit of humility, simplicity and most of all love of Jesus Christ.They're truly servants of the poor, our Masters, but in ways you couldn't have even possibly imagined back then. There's even conversation going around about how we can use our cell phones for outreach in your spirit! Yes, cell phones! The Company isn't perfect, yet I can imagine you being awfully suspicious if it were. I can imagine you telling Vincent "there's something going on here that no one's telling us about...." Yet I think you would be proud of your Daughters. Please keep praying for us. Please keep interceding for us. Please continue to watch over us...and maybe even have a few laughs while you're at it.

I have a deep-rooted feeling that one day that proverbial coffee-shop date will happen - though be it in heaven, where I'll come to you with even deeper questions. Or maybe I won't even say anything, maybe the two of us will sit and drink our coffee (or tea) in silence and smile, as only two really good friends who have spent such time together can do. Meanwhile, though, I remain here on earth, clumsily trying to follow in Jesus' footsteps as you yourself did, and hope that I'm doing you and the Company proud.

In love of Jesus crucified,


Saturday, March 3, 2012

I beg have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them, and the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Back in high school, I loved going to the bookstore (heck, I still love going to the bookstore) and looking through novels in Spanish. I would flip through them, see the letters jumbled in an order I didn't understand with their mix of accents and tildes and think to myself "One day, I'm going to be able to read this. And without a dictionary" I was only in my second, third or fourth year of taking Spanish, but I had the die-hard ambition of reading those novels but I knew I couldn't just pick it up and read. I would be looking up every other word in the dictionary, mistaking verbs for nouns, not following the tense. So instead I waited and I learned in the meantime. About four years later, in college, I'd be reading the 380-page novel Iacobus in Spanish. Even later still, I'd be in Bolivia, pulling out Spanish novels in our personal library to read for fun.

I think that's what discernment is like.
It's about waiting.
It's about learning.
It's about frustration as we impatiently want the answers NOW and/or as we get frustrated with ourselves for not knowing the answers.
It's about confusion as we navigate through the jungle of vocation and temptation.
It's about discovery, the discovery of who we really are and why God made us.
It's about mystery as we watch our life unfold before us.
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