Wednesday, May 28, 2014

An Unexpected Call

On occasion friends and acquaintances have told me I have a natural voice for radio. I took this as a nod to my love of NPR and the way that the dial in my car always seems to end up on WNYC or WHYY as I travel, to and from New York City and Philadelphia respectively.

In my book, it's a compliment. And even if you don't think it is, it's far better than being told you have a good face for radio.  But, I digress.

Yesterday, I got the opportunity to put my voice to the test as a guest on the show On Point produced by WBUR, Boston's NPR affiliate.  The hour-long interview entitled "American Women, American Nuns" featured three young women at various stages of formation (myself included) and looked at the why and how of entering religious life today.  It was a good conversation running the gambit of topics from how the people in your life reacted to your choosing religious life to what it means to be entering an institution that is shrinking at an ever-increasing pace.

These types of conversations aren't always the easiest, but they are important.  They speak to the truth that I find in this life, the reasons why I feel called to live a religious life through the distinct commitment to a religious congregation and vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and they allow the conversation about call and the future of religious life to expand beyond the convent walls, where it can find new energy, new understanding, and we can seek out new and creative answers to how we- as a church and as religious women- are being called into the future.

To be honest, it was privilege for me to be a part of this conversation (see my love of NPR & religious life).  As I approach the end of my two year novitiate and hope to make first vows with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia this summer, this conversation also gave me a chance to put words on the call that I feel to religious life and the journey that has gotten me to this point.  

Regular readers of Wandering in Wonder know parts of this story and have joined me in reflecting on this journey as I've recorded my own wonderings and wanderings on these pages for the last four year of my life.  From my very beginnings as a long term volunteer with the sisters and the idea of what it means to consecrate time as a novice to the process of love and loss as you experience them in a new way as a sister and poetry about being set on fire and a deep call that becomes you, I have strived to provide a glimpse into what this life means for me and how wonder is all around us, calling us to be and become who we truly are.

As I sat in the sound studio yesterday in downtown Philadelphia, I was reminded of the unexpected ways God can speak to us. If you skip to the 38:30 mark of the interview above you’ll see what I’m talking about.  There are lots of preparations you can make for an interview. You can sit with your story and you can imagine what questions might come your way, but there is something you can’t ever fully prepare for about live calls.  In my case, this meant a connection to my past that I never could have imagined… an unexpected call that reminded me of those earliest days of discerning my call: high school youth group. 

It was during high school that my relationship with God became something more than what I had always been taught.  The God who I'd read stories about my whole life became real; a being that cared deeply for me, offered me love without condition, and called me to share that love with other.  In the midst of high school relationships, overnight retreats, and service projects, my faith became my own. I fell in love with God and a call to religious life was planted firmly (although discreetly) in my heart.

Hearing Jeff from Brighton’s voice brought me right back to that first unexpected call. I couldn't help but let that call- the call that resonates from deep within me- ring out for a little bit.

I didn't always know I wanted to be a sister.  In all actuality, even once I felt called, I tried to dismiss the idea as naive and misguided.  It was an unexpected call, inconvenient and yet utterly intrinsic; no matter how much I tried to deny it, that call returned over and over. Each time I felt it, I came up with some excuse as to why I couldn't answer quite yet. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. A spiritual mentor gave it to me straight- you have to take a step toward exploring this life before you can dismiss it. 

If this call was as crazy as I thought it was, I could take a step toward it and it would dissipate. So, I took a step. Now, six years (and many steps) later I find myself on the verge of making a preliminary vowed commitment, answering the call to love God and neighbor without distinction that I feel deep within me.    

The journey since that first step hasn't always been smooth. Lots of days I still think that parts of this call are a little crazy. So, why not give it up? Because I've come to realize that Love makes you do crazy things and that each one of us has a little something crazy in us; it's part of what makes us stand in awe of Mystery, what draws us into relationship with others, and what blesses us with grace when we open ourselves to the wonder, small and large, of the world around us. 

That is the call God places in each one of our hearts. The way we respond is in how we live our lives- with intention, with compassion, and with authenticity.  The results of such a response can be just as unexpected as the call. They can lead us to places we never imagined, to a life alive with possibility, and to a love of God that sustains and serves.

As John Donvan reflected at the end of our time together, "There may not be many of you [sisters], or not as many as there used to be, but there certainly are many ways to be you." That certainly is the truth. Each one of us is a sister in the way she is meant to be. We all are in the business of living the truth of our call, coming to understand that sometimes it is the unexpected calls that give us the opportunity to discover the One on the other end of the line. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Held Lightly

There is one word that pervades my vocabulary in recent days and weeks; it has become a catch-all for many things. It gives me comfort when everything else seems to make no sense and at the same time, it lies at the root of the discomfort I feel as it seems that everything is going wrong. It is the number one reply I give to people when they ask how I am doing and it is the thing that I most often forget when my head is spinning or I can't seem to figure out why my emotions or my being feel so out of place.  (I also guarantee, that it is the reason why I haven't updated the blog in recent weeks.)  What word could cause such a wide range of emotions? Such consternation? Such comfort and such confusion?

The answer is simple: Transition.

That is the state of life I find myself in these days. Two weeks ago, I plunged back into life in Philadelphia after nine months in Chicago and, to be honest, my head is spinning.  Not only do I find myself making the transition back into the life I have been away from- slowly making an effort to reconnect with friends near and far, taking the time to be with my family, and gently easing into connections with my sisters who want to hear about the experiences I have had- I also find myself trying to process the end of an experience that took me out of my comfort zone and put me in relationship with three other Sister of Saint Joseph novices in a communal novitiate program for the last year.

And as if that transition wasn't enough, I return to a landscape that is more different than I left it. First off, upon moving back East, I moved in with a new community (a convent new-to-me and sisters I did not necessarily know before two weeks ago).  I knew this was going to happen, but it doesn't make the transition any easier.  At Christmas, I packed up my things from the novitiate house I spent my first year of novitiate in into boxes, unsure of where those boxes were headed. Now, five months later those boxes and myself have landed in northeast Philly and are trying to find our place in the world.

In addition to a new living situation, I also return to a Congregation deeply immersed in the process of Chapter (see: the process by which we set our course as Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia for the next five years.) That alone is enough to make a new member's head spin, but on top of it, as the congregation sets its course, I am also in the process of setting my own course within the congregation.  In the last two weeks that has meant writing a letter requesting to make vows in this congregation and beginning the process of searching out and discerning full-time ministry options for after I (hopefully, God-willing) make my first vows.  In the weeks ahead this course setting will mean continuing that ministry search, meeting with our congregational president prior to being presented for vows, and the process of seeing if I will be approved to make first vows.

With all of that, I think it's honest enough to say I am in the full swing of transition.  The impact of such change ebbs and flows. Some days, I am absolutely sure I am and will be fine. Other days, I have my doubts.  And sometimes, those two types of days are one-in-the-same. Really, it depends on when you catch me and what exactly I'm pondering at that moment.

All in all, though, I have to say I am doing alright. My big accomplishment in the first week home was being able to locate where I had placed all my clothes in the drawers of my new dresser. Beyond that, many things seemed too monumental to be tackled.  The future looms large.  Yet despite the pressure (real or imagined) that transition can manifest within me, I am reminded of something I shared with my community in Chicago before we parted ways.

As the prospect of heading home loomed large, we all reflected on the lessons we had learned during our time together and the movements we felt called to as we moved forward.  The question at the heart of our discussion one night: What has the last nine months brought to birth in you? 

Sitting with that question, I knew there were many valid answers I could give. Many lessons had been learned; I had been stretched and grown and felt the call to continue that growth as I prepared to leave.  But as I opened my mouth and my heart to share, what came was the simple lesson of being held lightly.

Looking back on all that had taken place in my time in Chicago, I could clearly see that my time growing in community and growing in relationship with God had called me to hold things lightly...including myself.

I brought a lot of things with me to Chicago- ideas, presumptions, expectations, and the like.  The invitation that I received wasn't to  forget these things and/or let them go, but to hold them in such a way that they didn't get in the way of my growth.  I needed to know what I believed or wanted or desires or felt short changed by, but more importantly, I needed to be able to hold those things lightly enough that I could understand why I felt that way about them...why I believed or desired something... what lay behind those desires or disappointments... ultimately, who I am and how I am. To do that you can't just let go of things, you need to hold them. You need to look closely at them and at yourself. And you need to do all of that in the loving comfort and care of God.

As I shared this with the group, I recognized all the year had called me to hold lightly. I came to see how in time, after holding something, I would be invited to change it for the better and to grow in that process of change. It wasn't easy. But transition (the root of transformation, really) rarely is.

And as I shared this with the group, I realized that the invitation to move toward the future was right before me- as much as I must hold the lessons, experiences, ideas, and emotions I have had/ am having lightly, I must also allow my God to hold me lightly.

This isn't easy. It means not taking yourself too seriously and living in a manner that is vulnerable and humble enough to surrender to what you are being called to.

In transition, when all you really want is control, being held lightly removes the safety net of control and replaces it with one that is far less tangible and comforting. It is one that I am reminded of when I feel like I am falling. Then I remember that I need to be gentle with myself... I need to embrace the little accomplishments in my days... that I am held by the one who won't let me fall too far. The One who has led me thus far and who has held me lightly even as I have fought the Divine grip. This is the God who holds me lightly in love and gives me a firm foundation. And in doing so, creates the space and lets me live so that I might grow in the space I am transitioning into.