Last weekend I had the opportunity to share my vocation story, or what’s been written of it so far, with about 100 people. It was actually the first time that I told my story to a large group of people since I chose to leave the religious order with whom I had been in formation last year. I had told my vocation story many times while I was in the convent, but obviously, I’ve recently found myself telling an entirely new story. Okay, maybe not an entirely new story- more like a more full one. With every new significant moment in my life, my vocation story gains a new chapter. While I was in formation with the Salesian Sisters, I mistakenly thought that my “vocation story” was nearing its end. Of course, ultimately, our vocation stories only end when the book of our lives end, but there’s also that token “vocation story” that we can all share. While our vocations are lived out through our entire lives, generally, when we ask for “vocation stories,” we are referring to that process by which we learned what our vocation was. How did you realize that God was calling you to be a priest, or a religious sister? How did you know that you had found the person that you were meant to marry? How did you learn what kind of life the Lord was calling you to lead? These are the questions that everyone wants to have answered. Everyone wants to know how to discern a vocation, and everyone is always curious about how we individually reach that point where we can say, “This is where the Lord is calling me.” We all have a story, though many of us still have a lot to write.
A year and a half ago, I thought my vocation story was pretty much written. I was invited to share this story with teens who believed that I was farther along on my vocational journey than they were. I might have even believed that myself. Now I know that I was wrong. There was still much of my vocation story that needed to be written. There was a time where I believed that I had discovered the vocation to which the Lord was calling me, and I threw myself completely into the new life that I had adopted. I sold all of my clothing and wiped my bank account clean in my preparations to take the vow of poverty. I joyfully modeled my actions after the many holy women that surrounded me. I prayed constantly, and I was always trying to make choices that I believed would lead me closer to my vocation. I spent a great deal of time in the chapel, and when I wasn’t praying, I was studying, reading spiritual books, or helping the other aspirants and sisters. If I thought it would make me a better sister some day, I did it. If I thought that it might discourage my vocation, I avoided it. I tried to give myself entirely to the formation process, believing that this was where I was supposed to spend the rest of my life. It took me several months before I began to admit that I might not be as close to the end of my vocation story as I had originally supposed. In fact, it began to seem as though I was still writing the prologue.
The changes were subtle at first. I needed a bit more motivation to wake up at 5AM to shower before morning prayers, but I blamed it on lack of sleep, which probably had a lot to do with it. I felt like I was forcing smiles and laughter, but I assumed that I was just overly tired and needed more rest. While I enjoyed community time, I began to crave time with the family and friends that I had left at home. I began to withdraw, seeking the solitude of my own bedroom, and especially the chapel. I was still praying a lot, but the direction of my prayers had definitely changed. I was less confident, and more confused. I was praying for guidance and begging for signs, where once my prayers had been filled with thanksgiving and contentment. While I had once enjoyed the feeling of certainty, it began to feel as though the entire world was spinning and I could no longer see straight. I couldn’t figure out what the Lord wanted for my life, and I began to search desperately, seeking answers.
After several months of intense prayer and discernment, I decided to leave the Salesian Sisters. Where once I had believed that my vocation story was nearly written, I now saw that I was simply ending a chapter so that I could begin a new one. Within just a few weeks, my life changed completely. I moved home. With my mother’s help, I purchased new clothing. I got a job. I bought my first car. Suddenly, I was an entirely new person, one that I barely recognized. I felt like I was experiencing adulthood for the first time, and I began to wonder where the Lord was leading me.
I stumbled across my new job accidentally. Or through divine intervention, more likely. I had begun to doubt whether I would find one, and then I received a message. An invitation. A challenge. “It’s in religious education,” my friend told me. “You’d be working with little kids, grades 1-6. I think you’d be good at it.” At first, I didn’t believe her, and to be completely honest, I only agreed to interview because I was desperate. This was not the kind of job that I was looking for. I had never worked with little kids before, unless you counted camp. But I’d never taught them- just entertained them. I was not suited for it. I had barely even taught CCD before. Why would they want to hire me? But I agreed to the interview, because I was desperate and because I am not one to say no. And maybe because I thought Mary’s hand was in it, if only a little- my interview was scheduled for May 24, the feast of Mary Help of Christians. I showed up with little hope of actually getting the job. There are plenty of other people out there more qualified than me, I reasoned. But by the grace of God, I went anyway, and by the time I left the office, I knew I wanted the job, needed it even. I was hooked.
When I went home, I still figured that I wouldn’t get the job. I still wasn’t qualified, though in hindsight, I realize that I was able to talk for an hour about my experience in ministry, a fact that clearly suggests that I was more suited for the position than I originally assumed. But as I drove home, I felt like I was hoping against hope as I prayed that I would get a phone call. As the days passed and the call didn’t come, I began to let myself down easy. I had known that this could happen, I reminded myself. I obviously shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up, since reason told me that I wasn’t suited for the position. But then the call came. A request for references. And then, while on vacation in Disney World, a job offer. It was mine, if I still wanted it, and of course, oh yes, I still wanted it.
I began a few weeks later, and over the next few months, I fell in love with what I was doing. Though the paperwork was tedious, and I spent more time in my office than I had originally thought I would, I fell in love with my students, and with my job. Even though in the beginning I couldn’t see myself as a Director of Religious Education, I began to realize that not only could I do it, but I could easily imagine myself doing it for the rest of my life. I loved the work. I loved ministering to these incredible children, naive in the faith, but desiring to learn. They were hungry, and by the grace of God, I found that He had given me what I was supposed to feed them. I had found my dream job in the most unlikely of places.
But it wasn’t just a job. It was my vocation, beginning to flourish. The seeds had been planted while I was still in the convent, with my first little class of special needs students. Now, with my formation days behind me, I found Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, where I was given the water and sunshine needed to make the flower of my future bloom. In a way that I had never experienced before, the Lord’s plan for my life began to unfold before my eyes. And He was not done.
As I began my work at Mt. Carmel, I also strove to rekindle the friendships that I had struggled to maintain while I was in the convent. I traveled, seeking to spend time with the people I valued most. I still maintain that one of the oddest things about my time in formation was that while it seemed as though my world had slowed down or even stopped, everyone else was moving past me with rapid-fire speed. While I spent my days studying, reading, and just appreciating the company of those around me, my friends were planning weddings, graduating college, getting jobs, and having babies. While I had become accustomed to the comforting routine of convent life, I was faintly aware that life outside the convent walls was not so simple. There was a certain degree of sameness, an unchanging foundation, to my life in the convent. While there were random new and exciting experiences thrown in every once in a while- trips to Yankees games or grand benefactor dinners, these were rare spikes in a relatively steady, simple life. They were pleasant bumps compared to the great mountains and valleys that my friends were facing. While convent life did keep me busy, I was vaguely aware that some of my friends were experiencing the joys of an impending marriage, while others were anxiously expecting their first child, and still others were prayerfully struggling through financial difficulties. As much as I loved my friends, I felt quite removed from their lives, and once I returned home, I worked to rekindle the friendships that had waned while I had been in formation. It was difficult to re-insert myself back into the lives of friends who had grown accustomed to my absence, but they loved me enough to drawn me back into the rush of life.
And I also was rushing forward with them. During those first few weeks that I was home, my friends and I had many reasons to celebrate. Jobs were being secured. Weddings were being planned. Babies were being brought into the world. I was relieved and thrilled to be in the midst of it all once again. I worked to reestablish the friendships that meant the most to me. These were the relationships that had endured while I had been away in the convent, albeit in an altered form. As our lives changed, so did our friendships. While there was less communication between us, there continued to be prayers for one another. Our friendships survived because Jesus Christ was at the center, and a child of God who chooses to give her life to her Creator will not be punished for her decision. Our relationships had changed to accommodate our changing lives, and once again, a change was needed. I didn’t need much of a reason to text my friends, or to call them, or to make plans with them. I went to see them, and they came to see me. We went to see movies, spent hours drinking coffee at Starbucks, slept over each other’s houses. And we went to see baseball games together. I never thought I would be so happy about a baseball game, but I also never thought a baseball game would change my life.
I went down to D.C. that week expecting to watch some baseball, spend late nights with friends, and throw a bachelorette party. I didn’t think I would be reunited with the man who would become the love of my life. But God works in mysterious ways. My life was changing in ways that I never could have imagined. Within just a few months, I had gone from living in the convent and discerning the religious life to living back at home and figuring out what the Lord wanted for my life. In such a short time, I had secured a new job, bought my first car, and was on the cusp of a new relationship. I was overwhelmed by the amount of transformation that my life had undergone, but I was also experiencing a joy that I had never known before. I was finding love in all the most unexpected places.
Last weekend I was awed by the fact that it has been nearly a year since I left the convent, and it’s incredible to see what the Lord has done with me since that choice. In the weeks immediately following my decision to leave formation, I agreed to interview for a job because I desperately needed the money, but I ended up discovering my vocation. I never thought that I could excel in religious education, but I was wrong. Over the past year, I have gone from thinking that I could never be a DRE to believing that this is something that I can do for the rest of my life. When I left the convent, I knew that the religious life was not for me, but I had no idea what was for me. I knew that God was not calling me to give my life to Him as His Bride, but to what was He calling me to give my life? Or to who? I left the convent with a lot of questions, but God has clearly rewarded me for the little trust that I managed to show Him. He has blessed me with answers, though they were not always the answers that I thought I would get. Of course, in the end, God knows me better than I know myself, and He knew how I can best love and be loved. He knew what would make me happiest. I have found what I’ve been looking for. I found love. I love my job, and my students. I love the life that I have found in religious education. And I love the man I found again at a baseball game.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!