For the past two years, I have been actively exploring whether God is calling me to a vocation in religious life. It was a bit of a surprise to me at first.I grew up in a small town and went to public schools – far away from any religious communities. I knew of nuns from movies and TV, but never met one until I was in college. And by meet, it was more in the way of waving to her – I went to a large state university and she frequently came to the campus’ enormous library to do research.
You see, from when I was 18 until I was 26, I largely left my Catholic upbringing. I had belonged to a parish that wasn’t terribly affirming, spiritually. I had “fire and brimstone” Sunday school teachers, and was convinced that God was not as cruel and unforgiving as that church made Him seem. I had difficulty reconciling what I saw as a loving God, who asked us to love ourselves and our neighbors, with the stern and cold God I grew up with.
I needed a break from the Church, and I remember sitting down very intentionally one evening and having a rather serious heart-to-heart with God. In my church, you either believed unquestioningly in what you were taught, or you were in a state of perilous sin – discouraged from taking the Eucharist until you got back on the “right” path. I told God that I needed to be free to explore my spiritual journey away from the Church for a while. I hoped he would understand that I had to find out on my own what I thought was important. I had no intention of it being permanent, but I needed to find a place where I belonged.
The next several years were spiritually empty as I struggled during college to find spiritual meaning and community. Being particularly shy at the time, I never had the courage to explore other faiths. So accustomed to the bowing, kneeling, sitting and standing of the Catholic tradition – to say nothing of the prayers – I was afraid to walk blindly into another church without knowing what to expect. I would occasionally return to a Catholic church for a Sunday mass, but more often than not – with a few exceptions – it felt more like going through the motions than a practice that was spiritually nourishing.
Some years later, in graduate school – and having built up a bit more of a backbone – I started attending a Quaker meeting in the metropolitan city where I still currently reside. It was beautiful simplicity. An hour of quiet meditation with a group of others all turning their minds and attentions to God. Nobody saying “You MUST believe this.” Rather, the Quakers believe that if God is trying to speak and guide us, we needed to make the time in our lives to be quiet and listen, and that while we can come together and support each other in this work, we are all on our own unique spiritual journeys. The Religious Society of Friends – the Quakers – helped me to realize the value of a spiritual community in a way I’d never had the privilege to experience before. Yet, as much as I took away from the experience, it never fully felt like home.
Then, a few years ago, a friend of mine convinced me to go to the Basilica in town for their Good Friday Tenebrae service. “It’s supposed to be awesome,” she said. A fellow lapsed Catholic, we went for the promised spectacle more than anything. And it delivered. In that evening, I experienced for the first time the power of strong liturgy. As Tenebrae is coming up again soon, I’ll save the details of the liturgy for another post, but suffice it to say, it was incredibly moving. A Rabbi was welcomed to discuss the role of ecumenism today, and the growth the church had gone through since the days when the Church publicly blamed the Jewish people for the crucifixion of Christ. In this darkest time of the Church’s calendar – the time between the commemoration of the crucifixion and the resurrection on Easter – the priest spoke on what it means to be a community of faith in times of uncertainty and distress.
I committed at that moment to be bold and make an appointment with the priest. Not necessarily intending to come back to the folds of the Church at that time, I just wanted to have the opportunity to explain my situation to a priest. I felt that finally, after 8 years, I could have that conversation without anger or sadness, but a sincere longing to reconcile my belief that God was love – in it’s purest sense, and that every commandment stemmed from a love of one’s self, of one’s neighbor, and of God’s gifts to us – with sometimes vitriolic messages from Church pastors and leaders that certainly did not seem to come from a place of love and compassion.
Somewhat unsure of what the subject of the meeting was about, I met the priest in his office in the church rectory. We talked for a solid hour about my background and my concerns, and he responded with the kind of rational understanding and compassion I had missed from the Catholic church growing up. Ultimately the body of the Church is made of the people who join together and support it. We’re imperfect at times, and we’re not always on the same message. Unsurprisingly from my upbringing, I had fallen into the trap of seeing the Church in black and white – with us or against us, right or wrong. Faith is never that easy.
Ultimately, the good priest gave me the permission I had been unconsciously trying to give myself – to see the Church not as a monolith, but as a living organism. It isn’t perfect, but in many ways – at least for me – it can be the best resource for connecting back to God.
I also mentioned I had stopped taking Communion – with the exception of the funeral mass for John Paul II and the Liturgy for the Election of Benedict XVI – since I was 18, out of respect for the Church. Nobody can tell you not to take Communion, the priest told me. The only time someone shouldn’t, is when they’ve broken completely from God – and in that situation, you wouldn’t want to take Communion anyway. Desiring to take Communion was a clear sign that I hadn’t broken from God, and that I should feel free to return to Mass if that’s what I wanted.
It’s hard to fully articulate everything that happened in that hour meeting, or the impact it had on me. It ended with the sacrament of Reconciliation and I began actively volunteering at the church as an acoloyte and on parish committees starting that summer. I’ve made some of the best friends of my life through this ministry. The more active I am in the Church, the more time I spend in prayer, and the more space I open up in my life to be with God, the happier I am and the healthier the choices I make.
Now in my late 20s and wrapping up a graduate degree in the humanities, I’m wondering if God is calling me to an even deeper spiritual life. A few months into my discernment process, I felt fairly confident I wasn’t being called to diocesan priesthood, but I was feeling pulled towards religious life.
Since then, as I will explain in future articles, I’ve visited two Benedictine monasteries, one of which I have visited twice as a vocations visitor. I still have questions, and am not 100% certain what’s next, but I am doing what I can to be open to God’s gentle nudgings, whatever they may be.
Along with the other content in this blog, I’m hoping this will be a venue to work out my thoughts, joys and concerns relating to my discernment process. Thank you for reading, and feel free to share your thoughts if you have any. And, if I may ask of you dear reader, please pray for me.