Sister Columbkill, our substitute teacher, looked around the room of fourth graders. There I sat, spellbound, listening to her story. “Listen carefully to what is really happening here,” she said as she shared about her experience as a young sister during World War II in Japan. She described the fear and terror that the local community felt as the bombs whistled overhead and detonated with ground-shaking explosions. Her heart was with the children that she was sheltering at the time, yet she felt that God was near despite the shattering consequences of man-made catastrophes. My heart rushed to meet her story and I felt drawn to offer my life to God as well, so that when people were in need, I could be part of the spiritual shelter they would find in the Divine.
True to the desire that took root through this early experience, I entered religious life at 18 becoming a member of a catechetical community transplanted from war-torn Hungary into the United States. My ‘yes’ to God took me into the barrio neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, into the upper-class districts of Orange County, and serving at our year-round retreat camp nestled in the pine forests of Big Bear, California. I served with a full heart for almost 20 years. I was given many leadership opportunities; I contributed zealously to the mission and vision of this small group of women. Yet, in more recent years, I struggled immensely with the tension that existed between how I felt called to serve and what was being asked of me. Not that I wouldn’t be willing to go wherever I was sent – obedience acknowledges that – but the tone of the leadership I was directed to offer, the rigidity with which I was meant to enforce conformity, and the critical lack of trust in who I was becoming verses who I was at a youthful 18…well, it all became too much. I often asked tearfully in prayer if this was, indeed, the way that the seed was meant to die?
When meeting with the Leadership Council of the community in order to be released from my perpetual vows, one of the sisters asked me to whom had I been praying to during this discernment time. I asked myself, what did she mean? Who else would I pray to other than the God who had called me to begin with? When I replied, she answered quickly, “No, that is not possible.” I held my breath – Wait! Are not all things possible for God? “The God I know would never counsel you to break your vows and leave religious life,” she clarified. I gathered my thoughts, as I responded to the sisters of my community; they who knew me so well and had been part of almost 20 years of service and commitment, “Do you mean, Sister,” I proceeded with care, “that you must hear everything that I hear in prayer, first?” “Yes,” she unequivocally replied.
How – why really? – would a dynamic, living God repeat the same messages and insights? If we are waiting to hear the same thing as others hear – no matter how inspiring – we will wait in vain. I don’t mean that essentially the loving message communicated to all of us won’t have some of the same threads woven into it. I mean that we can’t possibly imagine that ‘we’ve got God down’ and figured out and that God won’t ever surprise us by saying something that we have never heard before.
A sense of belonging is something that psychologists say is an intrinsic component of strong mental health. I believe an important part of healthy belonging is the sense that we belong to ourselves. Religious life, and often religious practices, can stress the fact that we do not belong to ourselves, but to God. This is true! Yet, we must know the gift we possess – and own that gift – before we can give it away, otherwise it becomes a strictly intellectual transaction. Conversion takes place in the heart, in the hot and messy territory of our emotions, where our mind exerts less control. God woos us to gain our trust in order to further reveal the dynamic, ever-changing gift of our unique self.
Belonging to self is something that we often must grow into. We not only have to trust God, but we also must trust ourselves. God partners with us in growth, and teases ever so gently, our insecurities away from us in order to love us beyond the limits which we strategically put in place. Listen carefully to what is really happening here, Sister Columbkill encouraged my ten-year old self. This self is a gift that hasn’t yet fully blossomed into her full potential.
The same can honestly be said about you.
- Fostering self-awareness and self-appreciation can be a rich experience as found in this article by Beth Knobbe: To Know, To Love, and To Follow: “This is so YOU!”
- Praying When It’s Hard: Praying When You Feel Like You Are Not Enough by Kathy Powell
- Becky Eldredge writes about how friends can companion us into better understanding ourselves in Opposites Attract | Becky Eldredge
- Pray the ‘Significance Examen’ at a still point in your day, found here on the Pray-As-You-Go website or APP by the British Jesuits Pray as you go (pray-as-you-go.org)
- Second-guessing ourselves can often lead to anxiety. This prayer awareness exercise on Anxiety Pray as you go (pray-as-you-go.org) can be supportive of finding a more peaceful heart while offering yourself a bit of loving perspective.
- Looking to go deeper this Holy Week? Try our OnDemand Prayer Retreat: Praying With Jesus to walk with Jesus from his death to new life.
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on unsplash.com