When I was in college, a good friend told me that we don’t have to find the saints – they find us. God places them in our lives at pivotal moments, to shed light on our own following of him. Since she said this, I have found it to be true on multiple occasions.
After six adventurous years of serving as a missionary, youth director, and other such exciting positions, I now work as a secretary at a church. I’ve realized God is calling me to a time of being still, and to use the advantages of a stable schedule to allow him to speak to me more deeply. While I am profoundly grateful for this position, and confident that God placed me here (through uniquely providential circumstances) I still feel that I am not doing enough. I miss my adventures. I am in tension between the peace that I am where He wants me, and yet a gnawing feeling of “not enough” that creeps in. I am happy to serve in the hidden tasks, yet can’t help noting the irony between the grandeur of what I did before (giving talks to teens, counseling others in their walk with Christ etc) and the exasperating minutiae of what I do now (fighting with the copier, spending hours on hold with Comcast!).
Underneath all this, is the ever-present tension that surfaces about what I am doing with my life in the long-term. I am at peace that I have given God all I can for now, but plagued by the same gnawing of “not enough.” I want to know the answer to the all-important question – what is my vocation, my purpose in life. I want to know why God will still not reveal it despite my earnest and faithful seeking.
Recently, into all these tensions, across the years, through a powerful thing called the Communion of Saints, came the perfect heavenly friend for me. While on hold yet again on a call for the parish, I was sorting through piles of paper on my desk and stumbled across an article about the life of a woman named Julia Greeley. I learned that her cause for canonization was currently underway, and was instantly intrigued. (For what is more fascinating than a canonization process currently underway in your own country?)
Julia Greeley was a Catholic, African-American laywoman who lived a poor and humble life. Her path to holiness was the epitome of the “hidden yes.” Recently recognized as “Servant of God” by her archdiocese in Denver, Colorado, Julia Greeley’s life was lowly and uncelebrated. She was born into slavery sometime between 1833 and 1848, and finally freed in 1865 by the state of Missouri’s Emancipation Act. Little is known about the intervening years, except that when she was a young child, she lost her right eye to the whip of an angry slave owner. Once freed, Julia made a living cooking, cleaning, and caring for children as a nanny.
In 1880, she became Catholic and was received into the Church at Sacred Heart Church in Denver. The Sacred Heart then became the central mystery and mission of her life. She would walk for miles to share devotional Sacred Heart pamphlets and medals with as many people as she could. She was also a dedicated servant of the poor. Though she herself lived in poverty, she gave of what she had, and also went begging for the needs of others. Friendship was a central characteristic of her life, in which she transcended the racial and societal divides of her time. White and black, Catholics and non catholic, rich and poor, old and young alike were numbered among her friends. Young children in particular were drawn to her and delighted in her presence. Her funeral overwhelmed her tiny parish church as over 1,000 people from all walks of life came to pay their respects.
She attended daily Mass faithfully, and in fact, died on her way to Mass, on the feast of her beloved Sacred Heart in 1918.
Fast-forward to June 2017 – nearly 100 years later – her remains were recently transferred to the Cathedral in Denver. She is the very first person to be buried there. As the bishop, Jorge Rodriguez, who presided over the ceremony pointed out “[Julia Greeley] will be the first person buried in Denver’s cathedral. Not a bishop, not a priest – a laywoman, a former slave. Isn’t that something?”
The humble are exalted. The last shall be first. Even to this day, few people know about Julia Greeley. In her life, she served in the lowliest (and even despised) roles. She had no “status” in secular society. In the Church, she was never a religious, theologian, or leader. And yet, it is her, whom God has lifted up and placed before our eyes.
Her life intersected with mine at just the right moment, to teach me what truly matters. Not only are the hidden yesses more powerful than we realize, but they are enough to bring us to Heaven. Julia Greeley’s life was all about the hidden yes.
The “yes” to forgive the grave wrongs of slavery and physical abuse that she suffered. . .
The “yes” to lead a joyful and charitable life in the midst of an unjust and still-segregated society. . .
The courageous “yes” to enter a Church in a time when there were few to no Catholics of her culture and racial background. . .
The “yes” to literally walk across the societal divides of her time. . .
The “yes” to travel miles on her errands of mercy and evangelization despite painful arthritis . . .
(this particular “yes,” in fact, remained hidden until the very recent examination of her bones during the exhumation process for her canonization!).
And the overarching “yes” to be the love of the Sacred Heart to all whom she encountered.
She has given me a different perspective. Everything has value. Where I am now could, as I believe, just be yet another stop along the way to where God ultimately wants me. Yet even if eternity were tomorrow, it could be ENOUGH to make me a saint. If I but choose to respond.
So, I now try to make jokes, when I finally get through on the Comcast call. Their customer service agent is a person too, whom Julia would have seen as a friend. I win my fight with the copier, knowing that I’ve made the pace of life smoother for everyone else even if they never know about it. And when anxiety about the future creeps in, I try to whisper, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in You!”
Servant of God, Julia Greeley, Pray for Us!
Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!
Former slave Julia Greeley first to be buried at Denver’s Cathedral
Four years ago today, I laid my bags out on the front steps of the convent and waited for my father to drive in and pick me up. Most of my memories of religious life are still vivid and immediate, but that day is broken up into fragments. I remember unfastening the cord that tied my postulant medal around my neck, and handing both to my superior. Checking and triple-checking the drawers in my cell in case I’d left anything behind. Getting in the car and seeing the sisters standing under the veranda to wave goodbye. That night, opening the farewell card they’d written for me, and wanting to frame it and tear it up all at the same time because it hurt to see their handwriting. It was a long time before I stopped expecting – hoping – to wake up in my cell in the morning and find that everything that had happened since then was a dream.
I once heard a line in a film: “When the past dies, there is mourning, but when the future dies, our imaginations are compelled to carry it on.” After I’d been out about two years, someone asked me whether I wished I’d stayed in the convent, and whether I would go back if I could. From memory, what I said out loud was something profound like, “Um… I don’t know.” What had actually shot across my mind without the need for thought was, In a heartbeat. My future in the convent had been cut off at the root, and my imagination couldn’t give up the idea of going back, trying to make it right, to finish what I’d started.
And now? A few days ago, the anniversary of the date on which I’d told my superior I needed to leave, I sat down and made a list of all the people I’d never have met if I’d stayed in the convent. Colleagues. Housemates. Mentors. Clients. Friends – people I knew both in person and online. The list went for nearly a page. Then I started on a second list, laying out in black and white the things I’d done in the last four years that would never have happened if I’d stayed in the convent. Publishing my writing online; preparing for a career; making a journey overseas and coming home feeling like an adult for the first time in my life. And a third list: the music I’d never have heard, the books I’d never have read, the foods I’d never have tasted, the conversations I’d never have had. Set out on paper like that, the richness of what God has given me in the last few years blew me away. I’d have loved to have been a sister, but to wish now that I had stayed in the convent would be to wish everything I have loved since then multiplied by zero. I couldn’t do it, in a heartbeat or otherwise.
Today is the first-class feast of Saint James the Apostle, which means I’ll need to make time, in between all the other things that have to be sandwiched into the next twelve hours or so, to sing the Te Deum. I want to make time to sing it properly: unhurried, and with real gratitude. In the Divine Office this morning, there was a reading from Saint John Chrysostom:
But nevertheless let us now look at how (the apostles) came unto Christ, and what they said.
Master, they said, we would that Thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire. And He said unto them: What would ye that I should do for you? Not, surely, that He knew not what their wish was, but that He would make them answer, and so uncover the wound, to lay a plaster on it.
That is what He has done in these last few days. I’ve spent far too long binding up the wound of regret and anger on my heart as though it were not serious, crying, “Peace! Peace!” when there was no peace (Jeremiah 8:11) and it must be time by now for Him to lay a proper dressing on it. I’ve felt a lot of grief in the time since I left religious life, but today I’m going to focus instead on the joys that have been given me throughout those years. The people I’ve known, the things I’ve done – everything God has given me to love. Four years to the day out of the convent in which I’d once hoped to spend the rest of my life, I am going to sing the Te Deum and mean it.
There are a lot of difficulties when returning from religious life back into secular life. One that I hadn’t really expected, but that has become quite a challenge, is direction. When I was in the convent I thought I had my life figured out. I thought I had found my vocation. I thought I was living where I would spend the rest of my life with the people I would spend that time with. My direction was very clear and I knew I was in the Lord’s will.
And then I left. And I felt like my life was a mess and I had no direction. I fell into the trap of despair. I was sure there was no hope. But day after day the Lord has been faithful. He has been bringing me out of that trap.
By leaving I felt like I was leaving the Father’s will for my life, not at first, but I fell into that trap after being home a little while. I was consumed with trying to figure out a plan. I needed to figure out what my next career move was as well as my vocation. I wanted to figure every little detail out before I made any sort of move in any direction.
The reality, though, is that by leaving I was actually staying in the Father’s will. He called me out of the convent. I was listening to His voice when I decided to leave. And while that left me “directionless” in the eyes of the world, it really didn’t. It took as much courage and discernment to enter religious life as it did to leave. And both decision were made with the Lord.
I was reflecting/praying with the Gospel today and I realized I’ve been going about my return all wrong. Today’s Gospel is a passage we’ve all heard a million times, but the Lord used it today to bring me some new insight. Jesus addresses Thomas after he questions how they will know what direction they are to go after Jesus ascends into Heaven by saying,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
You see, I keep complaining about feeling directionless and like my life is a total mess. I want to know the future so I can make a move in some direction. But the Lord revealed to me today that I do know the direction to walk because Jesus is the way.
If I walk in Jesus then everything will fall into place because the goal isn’t to figure out what career I’m supposed to be in or what my vocation is. Don’t get me wrong, those questions are important, but they aren’t the be all and end all of this life. The ultimate goal of this life is to be in communion with the Father in Heaven. And Jesus tells me, and the disciples, in this passage that the way to the Father is Jesus Himself, not a specific career, living situation, or vocation. Our careers and vocations can help us get to Heaven, that is the whole point, but finding them and living them cannot be the ultimate goal. Then we lose sight of our purpose here on Earth which is to get to Heaven.
“Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and all these things will be given you besides.” -Matthew 6:33
So while it is easy for me to fall into the trap of feeling “directionless”, the reality is that I know the direction I need to walk. I know the way because Jesus is the way.
Re-published with kind permission from Erin’s blog Arise My Daughter and Come.
May/June can be hard months for those of us still discerning our place in life. Weddings, ordinations, professions of vows, and entrances into religious communities are a painful reminder that another year has come without any such milestone in sight for us. We rejoice with our friends and families – do our best to put on yet another reception with love, and send yet another friend off to the convent/seminary with prayers. And sit through yet another homily about “celebrating a yes to the Lord and to one’s vocation.” And go to confession yet again for envy/self-pity/lack of trust in God.
Am I right? Or is that just me?
I read an article recently called “We said yes too” about the struggles of Catholic couples who struggle with a miscarriage or infertility. While those around them get celebrated for having many children, they often experience the implication that those who don’t have a wild 7+ member crew in tow “aren’t open to life” or “haven’t said yes.” The author goes on to explain how she and others like her have said yes – hidden yesses too deep and painful to share. Yes to giving back to God an unborn child gone too soon; yes to the surrender of hopes and dreams in the struggle with infertility; yes to allowing the gifts that God has given to be enough.
When I read her article, as a woman discerning her vocation who has hit many painful detours along the road, I identified deeply with what she said. Though my life and struggles are different, my heart leapt with bittersweet joy as every word resonated.
“I have said yes too,” I thought. Not the “yes” that gets celebrated during “vocation season.” Not the exhilarating “yes” of a vow to the Church or to another person to commit my life forever. But a silent, not-spoken-out-loud kind of yes, I had given.
The “yes” to surrender my will and my desires to God and trust him for the timing.
The “silent yes” to Him in not settling for a “celebrated yes” that I knew wasn’t His will for me.
The “yes” to being faithful in prayer even during the times where I was no longer sure who I was praying to. . .
As well as the little “yesses” too that can cost a lot at times. Yes, Lord, I will smile at my friend and share his/her joy right now even though I would rather run away and cry. . .Yes, Lord, I will bite my tongue and accept criticism in humility when a priest or leader in the church asks “haven’t I thought about my vocation?” (Believe me, I ‘ve thought about it!!! Too much maybe!”)
We, dear single, discerning ladies, have said our “yes” too. I am not arguing that these “yesses” become publically celebrated. Firstly, that would be awkward, but secondly, some yesses are meant to be hidden. As Christ lived the first 30 years of His life, so too are many of the yesses along the way to holiness, hidden – sometimes even disguised and misunderstood. Such is the brokenness of humanity and the mystery of God. But as I was reading this article and reflecting on my own “yes,” I realized how important it is to understand and treasure it myself . I think, in the future, it will help me to step back from others’ celebrations just long enough to pause, and pray. “I too have said yes, Lord and you know it. Give me the strength to keep saying yes, even when it is difficult.”
Each woman can fill in what her “yes” has been. . .
“Lord, I said “yes” to entering the religious life, following you while my family thought I was crazy. . .and then, when you sent me back to that same family, I said “yes” again just as generously, although this time it was with tears. . . “
“Lord, I followed you out of the convent and into the world, not knowing where it would lead. I’ve accepted every bump in the road and being “a fool for you” as I adjusted back to secular life . . .”
“Lord, I desire marriage and a family, but I’ve said YES to waiting for it to happen in your time and in your way. . .”
“Lord, I do not know where I’m going, but I’ve said “yes” to journeying joyfully even when I feel desolate. . .”
“Lord, being at Mass right now only brings me pain, but I say “yes” to being here with you anyway. . .”
Each of us can find a lot of these “yesses” in our lives, and I have realized it is important to remember them. I believe that for me such remembrances will be the key place where I will find the power to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to walk in faith when I would rather see.
Of course, we are not alone in either the remembering or the resolving to do better. I hope it consoles you as much as it did me, to rediscover that no “yes” goes unseen by God. I think these yesses, that are the last to be thought of in this world, are the first to be remembered in His eyes, and the foremost to be felt by His heart. I think the more conscious of them that we become, the stronger we will be in remaining faithful to them.
God-willing, one day we too, will have the opportunity to make one of the “celebrated” yesses. But in the meantime, the silent ones are nonetheless real. Treasure your “yes” and allow the Lord to treasure you.
It was the day before I was due to leave Walsingham, England’s Nazareth, and head back down to London for my flight home. I’d hoped that by that stage I would have figured out some answers: do I have a religious vocation? If so, where? And when? My pilgrimage was almost over, though, and no clear answers were in sight. Instead, during my penultimate Mass in Walsingham, the priest gave a homily about waiting that has stayed with me for months.
“Some of you,” he said, “may have heard of a boy named Jack Cornwell.” A lot of the older people in the congregation nodded. “He was a Boy Seaman, First Class, on board HMS Chester in 1916. The ship came under heavy fire from four German battleships, and all the sailors who were on deck manning the Chester‘s guns were killed or fatally wounded within fifteen minutes. Jack Cornwell was in one of the most exposed positions on the ship, but he remained at his gun awaiting orders from his captain – and that’s where they found him after the battle, barely alive and with his chest full of shrapnel, but still standing at his post, quietly waiting for orders.” He died two days later, at the age of sixteen. The priest went on to add that Boy Seaman Cornwell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest – and rarest – military honour in Britain, for “gallantry in the face of the enemy.” (According to Wikipedia, he was the third-youngest person ever awarded the VC.)
Jack Cornwell’s gun, aboard HMS Chester.
“I often feel,” the priest continued, “that I’m not doing a very good job of following God’s will – so often when I try to find out what He wants me to do, and to do it, I end up falling short. I want to push harder and try and force things to happen, but end up getting nowhere instead. You may find the same thing sometimes. But all of us – priests, laymen, religious – we are all called by God to stay at our posts, waiting for Him to give us our orders. Even when we’re wounded, that’s the way we are called to live: whoever we are, we are all standing where God has placed us, and quietly waiting for orders.”
The readings for the first Sunday of Advent, too, are about watching and being ready, “for no one knows the day or the hour.” Sometimes we are called to take action and make a leap of faith, but more often, we are called to wait: to remain alert and watchful, so that we are ready when the time comes and God calls us to move. I’m grateful to the priest for his openness about the sense of falling short in service to God, and for cutting through my own impatience with the reminder that we can’t force our lives forward, even in paths that might be His will, before His time comes. The greatest honour lies, instead, in remaining steady and awake at the post in which God has placed us, knowing that when it is time, His orders for each of us will come.
By J.E. Sigler
If you are one of those women who feels that her departure from the religious life means that God has rejected her from “the heart of the Church” and relegated her to “second-class holiness” in the world, you need to keep reading.
For a graduate course in the philosophy and theology of work, vocation, and calling, I am reading a wonderful volume called The Disciples’ Call: Theologies of Vocation from Scripture to the Present Day, edited by Father Christopher Jamison, OSB. The book is a collection of essays compiled from a conference of vocation directors and religious formators in the UK several years ago. It is a strikingly modern look at issues of critical import in calling and vocation today, and it is refreshingly frank in its discussion of “the hard questions” the Church is currently dealing with in this area.
What I find particularly interesting about this book are the two completely different, conflicting even, views of vocation that are constantly emerging in it. On the one hand, there’s the Thomistic view; on the other, the Ignatian. What’s the difference?
First, let’s review what we already know: All Christians are called to holiness. By our baptisms, we are all consecrated to the Lord and required to live out some form of poverty, chastity (though not necessarily celibacy), and obedience (to God and, if married, to our spouse; if religious, to our superior and sisters; if ordained, to our bishop; etc.). On this point, all Catholics, even Saints Thomas and Ignatius, agree. The two views of vocation emerge when we ask: In addition to this first call to holiness that we all share, is there a second, additional call to a particular vocation?
St. Thomas says that there is not, and what logically follows from this is that the religious life is one response to the universal Christian call to holiness. It is a choice each individual makes, her personal response to the call God makes to everyone. But to St. Thomas, religious life is always the surer (i.e., the easier) path to perfect charity and salvation, and so, he argues, all who feel even slightly inclined to it ought to at least try it. St. Thomas believes that, basically, nearly everyone is capable of living the religious life, and since it is the most perfect (meaning, again, the easiest!) way to fulfill the original, and only, call to holiness shared by all Christians, we ought all to give it a go.
On this view, a lack of perseverance in the religious life is truly a failure to achieve “the better way,” and to return to the world is really to return to something “less than perfection.”
However, St. Ignatius says there is a second call to a particular vocation, in addition to the universal Christian call to holiness. And so, on his view, one ought to wait for this call before embarking upon any vowed state in life. St. Ignatius agrees with St. Thomas that the religious life is objectively a better path to holiness, in the sense that it makes the attainment of holiness easier, but subjectively, the religious life may not be the better path for a particular individual. And so he concludes that all Church-approved vocations ought to be given consideration by each person.
On this view, a lack of perseverance in the religious life is not necessarily a failure to achieve “the better way,” but more likely simply a sign that one was not “built” (by God) for that life (at least not permanently). And a return to the world is not a return to something “less than perfection,” but to one’s real (permanent, God-given) vocation.
As Father Joseph Bolin, in chapter four of The Disciples’ Call, points out, the Thomistic view is the traditional view of vocation and the one most often implied in historic recruitment materials to the religious life: “God is calling you, daring you to follow Him. Are you generous enough?” (p. 74). But this view places all the onus for perseverance on the individual’s will, and as Father Bolin sees it, this is a severe weakness of the Thomistic view: True, such an approach will increase vocations to religious life, and likely capture all, or at least most, of those “true” religious vocations, i.e., people who really are called to the religious life. But it also has the effect of capturing a lot of people who are not suited to the religious life by guilting or inspiring them to embark upon “the (objectively) surer path to perfect charity and salvation,” even if that path is not subjectively the surer one for them. The consequences of these “false positives” are potentially very dangerous, and well known to us.
“The Thomistic approach… will cause people who consider religious life, perhaps enter for a time, and then cease pursuing this vocation to have a negative self-image, perhaps to give up Christian life altogether, or at any rate to be satisfied with mediocrity in living the Christian vocation. For, if the will to embrace and follow the religious life as a way to love God is all that is necessary for a vocation, then leaving the religious life would seem to indicate a lack of love, an unreadiness to serve God without reservation. This lends itself to the practical conclusion that if one is not capable of attaining holiness in the easier and better way, there is really no hope of becoming holy in the lay state” (p. 80).
Of course, Father Bolin argues that this conclusion is patently false.
Many of us are familiar with these two views of vocation. But what, at least in my experience, many people do not realize is that we often conflate the two perspectives. And this, I believe, is where vocational distress begins.
Think about it: You probably felt that you had a second call to the religious life, an Ignatian assumption, as St. Thomas says there is only one call. But when you returned to the world, you may have felt, as many women do, that you somehow “failed” in or had been rejected from “the perfect way” and so are “less than,” a distinctly Thomistic assumption, as Ignatius does not hang the perseverance in religious life entirely on the individual’s will. On the one hand, you may have assumed that people are either built for the religious life, or they are not (Ignatian), and that those who are built for it love more, or are destined for more holiness (Thomistic).
But to collapse these two views is both wrong and harmful. Remember: St. Ignatius requires a second call, but he also strongly emphasizes the subjectiveness of the call to holiness, i.e., that there is a better path to holiness for each
individual person, and this path is not necessarily the religious life. On Ignatius’ view, some people are built for religious life, and others are not, and both are best suited to attain holiness in the ways God made them for. St. Thomas, on the other hand, emphasizes the objective superiority of the religious life, for all or at least most, but his view also entails that the choice of religious life is just one way to respond to the universal Christian call to holiness that we all share. Whether a person responds to that call by committing to the evangelical counsels, marriage vows, or whatever else, she’s still got the same call everybody else does: “The difference between those entering consecrated life and those who do not is not a difference in the degree of their love, but a difference in the ways they choose to grow in love” (Frather Bolin, p. 81).
Personally, I am an Ignatian when it comes to discernment. Whatever you are, I hope that you can see how both views provide consolation for the woman who has returned to the world, provided you keep them straight: Either you have a second call to something other than religious life, and following that call is the best possible way for you to attain holiness. Or else you have the exact same call as religious sisters, and the degree of holiness you attain out here in the world will depend entirely upon how hard you work at it!