I was on a very difficult discernment visit with a community, when a priest in confession assigned me to pray Psalm 23 as my penance.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . .”
As a 22-year old cradle Catholic, the words were so familiar that they had lost their meaning. But in this moment, they really took on new significance. In the midst of this stressful period, I felt Jesus reassuring me that he was there with me even though I didn’t feel it. He had led me here; he had started this journey with me and he would see me through.
He guides me along right paths for His name’s sake,
Even though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death,
I shall fear no evil, for you are at my side. . .
As I continued to read, in the chapel, before the giant crucifix that the community had behind the altar, the final verses of the psalm struck me like a lightning bolt:
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows. . .
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.
This hit me strongly, with both peace and anticipation. I sensed that the Lord was really getting my attention about something. I deeply felt a call from him, that despite the difficulties, he truly was calling me to enter this community and “dwell in His House” – this house. My cup did “overflow” with joy in response to this, and as I looked at the crucifix, it seemed to me that despite the struggles and sufferings I had encountered there, he had great graces to give me also, in that particular place with that community.
Fast-forward to the following spring, when I applied to this community, and despite the revelation I thought I had received, was not accepted.
If the experience in the chapel was a lightning-bolt showing me the way ahead, the rejection letter was a thunderbolt, appearing out of nowhere and painfully throwing me to the ground. I felt jolted by this on multiple levels. Not only were there the feelings of hurt and rejection, but there was something else, even deeper. I really had – so I thought – learned to recognize and listen to the Lord’s voice and followed an instruction direct from Him. And then, it would seem, he did not keep His promise. I fulfilled my end, and he failed to uphold his.
This disturbed me even more than the circumstances and misunderstandings that led to not being accepted by the community. For if something that I clearly heard God say was not Him, how could I ever trust Him again? More importantly, how could I ever trust myself again, in believing that he spoke to me?
I learned to pray anyway, even if it was more often complaining than anything else. I learned to go to Mass anyway even though my heart felt dead rather than alive in the Lord. I learned to go through the motions of my life, seeking his will for me in practical ways (job searching, finding God in friends and family). I took comfort that St. Francis too, thought that God spoke to him (“rebuild my church”) and it meant something completely different than he thought – in fact greater than what he thought. But something was missing, completely gone, to the point where I didn’t think it would come back and barely remembered what it was in the first place.
Fast-forward again to six years later. . . I had reached a place in my spiritual life that was more peaceful. I had learned to see the Lord in my daily life, even while I was unsure about the future. I had accepted that some things about his workings with us remain a mystery in this life; but it didn’t mean they weren’t real. Yet I still felt annoyed whenever I “ran into” Psalm 23. Like an old injury or pain that is mostly gone, but “flares up” under the right conditions, Psalm 23 was a sticking point in my relationship with God. I avoided it by skimming through when it came up in any reading I was doing, thinking about something else when it came up during Mass, and generally writing it off as a part of the Bible where God had something to say to everyone except me.
Then one cold winter day, I was sitting at my kitchen table with a warm cup of tea, doing my prayer-time for the day, and generally experiencing a pleasant time with the Lord. I opened the scripture readings for that day, and lo and behold, waiting for me was That Psalm. Its’ words jumped out at me from the page and danced before my eyes. They seemed to taunt me, reminding me how I didn’t trust God enough, reminding me how much I sucked at listening to him, and how prone I was to “getting it wrong” when it came to his message for my life. Oh no, not That Psalm! I thought. Not today. I will read the gospel instead.
Normally the gospels provide me much food for meditation. But that day it just left me restless. “That Psalm” kept distracting me. So I thought, perhaps, the Lord wanted me to go there after all. I turned the page, took a deep breath, and asked Him what he wanted to say. Then, by some small yet magnificent miracle of grace, when I read the words over again, they were no longer taunting at all. They came washing over me, like gentle waves that wore away at my resistance and washed over the hurt in my heart.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. . .
He guides me along right paths for His name’s sake,
Even though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death,
I shall fear no evil, for you are at my side. . .
“This is still true,” he seemed to be saying to me. “I am still your shepherd. I always have been. Through the “deaths” of rejection and confusion, still I have been beside you. Even though you have stumbled in the dark, still you have not strayed from ‘right paths’ because I have been with you.”
You anoint my head with oil,
My cup overflows. . .
You spread a table before me in front of all my foes. . .
I realized I had been anointed. Literally. At my baptism. That was where he had chosen and called me. And that call in itself, was unique and beautiful. He had not chosen me for religious life; at least at that time, in that community. But he had chosen me to be baptized. And he called me and chose me still, out of all the others on earth who could be privileged to know His name and yet, by some mystery, hadn’t been. It was a great honor and a great responsibility. “My cup overflowed” again, for different reasons, but even more so than the first time.
I felt in that moment too, that he had “spread a table in front of all my foes” because the darkness and the devil were vanquished, in a very significant way. The “fear of being wrong” in prayer began to lose its’ power.
And then finally. . .
Only goodness and kindness follow me, all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Previously I had misinterpreted this to mean “only blessings follow me” (in my relationships with other people) all the days of my life. But now I realized, these words were not the Lord’s promise to me. They were my promise to Him, in return for His goodness as my shepherd. I would choose to be kind, to bless others, that even the smallest encounter with me would grant them an encounter with Him. And “his house” – beyond being the Church I was privileged to belong to — was also His presence. In that, I could choose to dwell always, regardless of success or failure.
These revelations were profound for me. That Psalm that taunted me was transformed into the first place I now go for consolation. When other storms have come, that is where I have found Him.
I pray that this experience of mine grants His peace to each of you reading it. I hope that it gives you a foretaste of the healing he has for you and the nearness he wishes to restore to you, even in the scriptures or devotions that you now find most painful. He makes all things new, even the thing you find most “ruined” at the moment.
By Bernadette Monica.
Three years after leaving my former community it seemed like all the pieces in the puzzle of my life were finally coming together. I had found another community and everything appeared to be indicating that this was truly what the Lord had planned for my life. The community’s spirituality and charism resonated with my heart in a way I never could have imagined. With each faltering step forward I took, each time expecting to find myself falling flat or hitting a dead end, I was surprised to find myself filled with a peace and joy unlike anything I had ever known. The whole experience was so different to discernment the first time around – where formerly I had discerned out of external pressure, anxiety and fear, here instead I found freedom, beauty, and goodness. Even when facing the remnant fears I had from my previous discernment of religious life, I felt more exhilarated than afraid at the possibility of taking a leap of faith and placing everything in the hands of our Lord, trusting everything to His grace and providence. And so it was that, after spending 6 months or so discerning with the local mission of this new community, I found myself on a plane from Sydney to the US to visit the community’s Motherhouse, and discern if this was really where I was being called.
I half expected to arrive and feel like a fish out of water, having the realisation that I was not where I was meant to be, like when I had visited other communities in the past. Instead I felt completely at home, and fell in love with the community and their way of life. One of the postulants and one of the novices even remarked how well I fit in with the community and how they hoped to see me enter in a few months, God-willing. It seemed that the only obstacle remaining was that my family were not supportive, and even on this front I was sure that in time they would come around, even if there might be some challenges in the meantime.
Imagine then my surprise and shock on the day before my departure when I finally had an interview with the vocation director only to be informed that she didn’t think I would be able to cope with the demands of their community life. I always knew it was a possibility that a community might discern such, or that I might decide myself that it wasn’t the right fit, but her impression was so at odds with the peace and sense of belonging that I felt, and I wasn’t satisfied with the vague reason she gave as justification. Even so, it wasn’t an absolute no, and it was agreed that on my return home I needed to really take everything to prayer and discuss things with my spiritual director, and that I could continue to be in contact with the vocation director to discern a path forward.
After a challenging day filled with confusion and heartache I awoke on the final morning of my 12-day visit aware of the challenges that lay ahead, but also full of hope and trust that the Lord would remove this obstacle if it was His will. I returned home and it felt like I had a foot in each of two worlds. I prayed and sought spiritual direction, and after two months, though aware of the possibility of refusal or the likelihood of being asked to undergo a longer period of discernment to discuss and work through her concerns, I contacted the vocation director asking to speak with her again, and expressing that I felt I was being called to take the next step in discernment. We arranged to speak on the phone, and in the 20 minute conversation that ensued it was made clear to me (albeit in the kindest and gentlest way possible) that the door to discerning with the community was no longer open for me. In the space of a few minutes all the growing hopes and dreams I had treasured in my heart were dashed, and the Pearl of Great Price was pulled far from my reach. To say I was heartbroken would be an incredible understatement. I was recently struck by a line from Ted Danson’s miniseries adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels that seemed to sum up where I was at very poignantly:
“We love words, we humans; we use so many, so easily, ‘til they’ve lost all their meaning. But when I say as that last day dawned my heart was breaking – I have never known such awful pain and loneliness.”
I cannot describe my emotions and the testing of my faith over the past few months. I have never really dated, but I imagine that on some level this is akin to enduring a breakup of a longstanding relationship when from your own end you thought everything was going really well and were perhaps even expecting a proposal. After the traumatic experience of leaving my former community and all the growth and healing of the following years, to find a community that was healthy, vibrant, on fire with love for the Lord, and seemingly such a perfect fit for me only to be turned away even from applying felt almost too much to bear.
Over the last month or so the initial intensity of emotions and the agony of rejection has ebbed somewhat, but I’ve been painfully aware that around this time is when sisters will be receiving the habit and professing vows, and that in a few short weeks a new group of postulants will be entering various communities.
Upon learning that the postulants I knew during my brief time at the Motherhouse would have received the habit and their new religious names in the past day, and that the novices will be making their first profession of vows tomorrow, I sat down this morning to pray a rosary for them. It’s a Saturday, so it seemed very appropriate that I should be praying the Joyful mysteries for them. I’m so happy for these women reaching these milestones in their own vocational journeys, but I was aware of parallels I could see with the mysteries I was praying and the experiences of these women, and how this contrasts with my own experience. My own discernment feels more suited to the Sorrowful mysteries. I took this to our Lady as I prayed, and she gave me some beautiful insights which I want to share in the hope that it might bring others a little bit of peace and hope in their own struggles and confusion.
Firstly, on the Joyful mysteries. Perhaps many of you can relate to how these seem to tie in with religious formation, at least as I was seeing it.
The Annunciation: That unexpected and surprising moment when the Lord first presents to a young woman’s mind and heart the possibility of a call to religious life. “How can this be…?” she might ask. But like Mary she is exhorted to not be afraid, and assured that nothing is impossible for God, and that it is through His power that His will will be done, if only she gives him her Fiat.
The Visitation: The vocation starts to become more concrete. A woman finds a community she feels drawn to, and her apparent vocation begins to be affirmed by others – friends, family, her spiritual director, members of the community. And with Mary, the woman rejoices at the marvels the Lord is working in her life.
The Nativity: A birth; new life. The time comes for a woman to enter her community and leave her old life behind. A time of change and growth as she starts out on the new road she has been called to walk.
The Presentation in the Temple: At the appointed time, the woman begins her formal initiation into the community. First she receives the habit and her religious name; later she will make her first profession of vows, offering her life to “be designated as holy to the Lord” (c.f. Lk 2:23) and having her gift accepted by Him through her superiors. It strikes me only now as I sit down to write this that it was at 8 days that our Lord was circumcised, given his name and was formally initiated into the Jewish community, and at 40 days that he was presented in the Temple and redeemed according to Jewish custom and law – there is surely a parallel here with the process of being initiated into a religious community!
The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: Perhaps some might tie this in with a woman’s final profession of vows when she becomes forever a bride of Christ. I see it as something a little more abstract – those moments perhaps years down the track when she grasps a deeper understanding of the mystery of her vocation, or reaches a more profound level of intimacy with her bridegroom. This might perhaps come after a period of spiritual dryness, just as Mary spent three days searching for the missing Jesus, and like Mary, on finding Jesus once again the woman will be filled with joy, and is left to ponder the mysteries of God’s workings, and the purposes He fulfils in all things.
In contrast to this I can see in my own recent experiences a shadow of the Sorrowful mysteries:
The Agony in the Garden: That fateful conversation with the vocation director where she initially questioned my suitability for the community’s way of life; my wrestling with this, questioning, “Why me?” and wondering what it was that she saw in me that she hadn’t seen in the others who did end up applying, or alternatively, what she hadn’t seen in me that she had seen in them; wondering if there was a red flag over my head because of my having previously been in a community; the confusion over how everything had seemed to lead to this point and everything seemed to fit so well only to have the shadow of doubt cast over it all; and finally, reaching the point in prayer of being able to accept the cup I was being asked to drink, and coming to an understanding that if this truly was my vocation then the Lord would remove all obstacles at the appointed time, and that if it wasn’t then nothing I could do on my part could it make it so.
The Scourging at the Pillar: The return home and the months of prayer and discernment. Grappling simultaneously with the very real possibility of rejection and the hope that things might still work out; having others affirm that they thought I was on the right path, while knowing the odds were stacked against me. The feeling of flesh being torn from my side as I prepared to speak with the vocation director once again, laying my heart on the line while knowing there was a very real possibility that I may not receive the answer I was so desperately hoping for.
The Crowning with Thorns: That definitive moment of having the door of what I had hoped to be my vocation closed and bolted on me. Being prepared for the possibility did little in the moment to ease the pain of having thorns pushed cruelly into my flesh. In the hours and days that followed that fateful phone call it felt like there was a ring of thorns around my heart, slowly shredding it to pieces.
The Carrying of the Cross: The weeks and month following my rejection have involved a long process of coming to terms with the situation, working through my emotions, and trying my best to keep moving one step at a time, to get back up when I’ve fallen, to accept help from the Simon’s of Cyrene in my life, and to place myself at the foot of the cross. I’ve had to learn to see this as a way of becoming more united to Him, and to trust more and more in His plans, even when they make no sense to me. I’ve had to make a conscious decision to trust in His promises and to believe that He is indeed working for my good.
The Crucifixion: I can see here an invitation to lay down my life in a radical way to the will of God. An earlier Leonie’s Longing blog, Sacrificing Sacrifice, has proved very helpful in coming to an understanding that, where I had hoped to lay down my life for God through religious consecration, perhaps what is more pleasing to Him and sanctifying for me is accepting His will and choosing to trust even when it proves painful, or when I’m being asked to let go even of the truly good and honourable desires of my heart. Like Christ on the Cross we are invited to place our lives completely into our Father’s hands, accepting and trusting in whatever His will might be.
On another level I can see in the Sorrowful mysteries parallels with the experience of leaving my former community. Perhaps you may relate to some of these:
- Troubles, doubts or difficulties in the lived experience of community life
- Perhaps a difficult conversation with a superior, or some painful growth in self-awareness
- The experience of actually deciding to leave, or particularly of being asked to leave where that has been the case
- The aftermath of leaving your community and readjusting to lay life
- Learning to accept and surrender to God’s will, and for those who have left dysfunctional communities, healing and learning to forgive and let go.
While praying the rosary I had a few insights from our Lady in light of all of this which I found comforting and encouraging. Firstly, she affirmed to me that the Sorrowful mysteries don’t make sense on their own. It is only in the light of the Resurrection that our Lord’s Passion and death have any meaning or salvific effect. Without the Resurrection and the Glorious mysteries, none of the other mysteries take on their full meaning and power. Without the Resurrection the Sorrowful mysteries would also cast shadow, doubt and confusion on both the Joyful and Luminous mysteries, as well as these mysteries not making any sense in and of themselves. What could be the purpose in the Nativity by itself for example, let alone if it was all only to end in our Lord’s painful and humiliating death on the cross?
The Resurrection gives us hope, and is a promise of things to come. Perhaps we are now in a luminous period in which we are slowly having the Lord’s will revealed to us, and through which He has something to teach us and areas in which He wants us to grow. In the meantime we can look to the Glorious mysteries as a promise of the hope that is surely to come. I am reminded that, after all, my vocation is not the final destination but only a pathway to aid me in reaching it, and if the Lord is allowing a few detours en route I can still trust that in the end He will bring me to the final destination of perfect union with Him, and that we will be united all the more closely through the times He has allowed me to carry the cross alongside Him through the sorrowful mysteries of my own life.
Sometimes Scripture consoles us; at other times it shakes us up and pulls us out of our comfort zone. Sometimes the words on the page easily pass through our own lips as a prayer to the Most High; at other times we can barely bring ourselves to read the words, let alone allow them to penetrate our hearts.
One recent morning during my personal prayer I sat with the first reading from Mass, the third chapter of the first book of Samuel. It is the story of young Samuel hearing the Lord call three times during the night, without yet knowing who it is. He believes it to be Eli, his mentor, calling him and promptly replies, “Here I am. You called me.” Eli tells Samuel to return to sleep, but after the second instance, the wise man understands the truth and counsels his apprentice to respond to the voice of God, saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
I finish my perusal of the first reading and glance at the Responsorial Psalm paired with it. It echos the active response to God’s call with the words, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.”
Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening…Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will. Try as I might to make these words my own in this moment, I am finding it near impossible. I do want to hear God’s voice and do His will, but my previous attempts seem to have failed. I’ve spent some time being sluggish toward fully embracing His plans. Now I want to get back on track, but I’m dealing with the consequences of my wanderings. I don’t feel worthy of uttering these words, much less capable of bringing them to fulfilment in my life.
I scan the page to see if I can latch onto another phrase to carry with me through the day. I continue reading the verses of the Psalm… “To do your will, O my God, is my delight.” I sigh. Beautiful words, but I’m not quite there yet. Delighting in God’s will doesn’t seem to be my current state of mind. I’m working on getting there, but “delight” doesn’t seem to describe anything within me right now.
“Here I am…” I stop there. Here I am. Yes, I can say that much. I can be here. I can show up. I might not be able to do much more at this point. I can’t pray as I ought. I can’t lay down my life in joyful surrender (just yet). But I can come to prayer and say “Here I am, Lord.” That is, after all, where Samuel began. His “here I am” turned into a willing “speak Lord, your servant is listening.” And we can surely imagine him going on to say, “to do Your will is my delight.”
I’ll get there too. But right now, I start by making that small act of being present, and allowing Him to mold my faint heart into one that finds delights in doing His will once again.
Stay with us, Lord, as we journey through this day, through this life.
We are wayfarers. The path is unclear, the past confusing, the future uncertain.
Our hearts are downcast, our spirits are sad.
You begin to speak to us as we walk along.
You speak words of truth and consolation.
We do not immediately recognize You given the state we are in.
But little-by-little we notice that our hearts are becoming fuller, our spirits are raised.
In some mysterious way, joy again becomes tangible.
We long for more of Your presence, we beckon You to stay,
so afraid you might leave us desolate once more.
But our fears are unfounded:
not only do You stay for a time–You devise a way to remain with us always.
By making Yourself known in the breaking of the bread,
you pledge to give Yourself to us each day and remain at our side,
filling us with the joy that only you can give.
Our cry “stay with us, Lord!” is an affirmation of our faith in the promise that You will,
and a profession of our own desire to walk this path hand-in-hand with You.