On Wednesday, we had an evening reflection entitled “Praying with our Experience”, facilitated by Sr. Margaret Kane, CSJ. As the first in a series of special community sessions for the Year of Consecrated Life, Sr. Margaret led us through a reflection on Mary Ward’s gift to the IBVM and to the world.
We were given a series of images of Mary Ward (posted below) to meditate on and questions to guide our reflection. It struck me as the sisters were sharing their reflections, how much they love Mary Ward, how she continues to inspire them, and how she has influenced their lives.
Many of the sisters talked about her courage, her determination, her resolve to follow God’s will no matter the opposition or obstacles she faced. The images show Mary Ward as a woman of vision, a woman who is grounded in the person of Jesus, a woman who was free to always move forward.
Sr. Margaret then talked about one of Mary Ward’s gifts to the IBVM community: the freedom to refer all to God. Much like St. Ignatius of Loyola, Mary was able to find God in all things – in her apostolic work as much as her contemplative prayer life. Her sense of freedom extended to her relationship with God, whom she called Parent of Parents and Friend of Friends. For Mary, God was at the centre of life.
Sr. Margaret encouraged us to be like Mary Ward and to pray using our daily experiences. Through the daily Examen prayer, we can look upon our day through God’s eyes, moved by the Holy Spirit to see God working in the stuff of our daily lives, and find the freedom to give all that we have to God.
Tomorrow we celebrate the Feast of Mary Ward (we have been celebrating Mary Ward week this week, beginning with Wednesday’s reflection, and school Masses on Friday, and culminating tomorrow). We will have a special Mass and community gathering to remember Mary Ward and reflect upon her life. I feel very happy to be here for this celebration and to witness the impact Mary Ward has had on the women I live with and the larger community in Toronto.
So then I began the application process to become a candidate with the Lorettos and I did all kinds of brave things. For one, I told my parents! And then I told other family and friends and it wasn’t so scary. I told people at work. By and large, the response has been very positive and I have been supported by so many people.
The application process required more paperwork than I had anticipated. Aside from the application form, I had to provide copies of my baptismal and confirmation certificates and university transcripts (I had to search for long forgotten student id numbers!), undergo a medical examination, and write an autobiography. The autobiography was perhaps the most challenging component of the application process. I had never written one before. I didn’t know which elements of my life should be included or how I should write about my spiritual life. In the end, it was a worthwhile experience to struggle through. It provided me with a good opportunity to reflect on the path I have taken through life and how it has prepared me for religious life.
When I received the invitation to join the community, I had a lot of work to do: I had to find a new home for dog (which was a very painful part of preparing to move), try to find a way to continue my job from Toronto or perhaps transfer to a job that was based in Toronto, and vacate my house and rent it out for a period of a year or longer. It took a number of months for it all to come together, and I admit, at times it caused me a lot of anxiety and worry and I wondered whether it was worth it. But, it all did come together, by the grace of God, and here I am.
Although I didn’t feel particularly drawn to marriage and family life, it seemed like the normal thing to do, much better than becoming a nun. Instead of truly discerning religious life, I started to worry about why I didn’t want to be married. “What’s wrong with me?” I would ask myself. “Who cares if I have a longing within me for something “more” that I can’t explain? I should really just focus on more important things like getting married and developing my career.” So for a number of years I did just that. I muddled around, not really sure of what I wanted. I also got very involved in my parish. I found that I felt most alive and happy when I was active in the parish doing things to serve other people. I figured that eventually those feelings would spread to the rest of my life.
For a long time I pushed away the thought of religious life, even though it was always there in the back of my mind. Then in 2012, my parish made a study of the Catholicism DVD series by Fr. Robert Barron and as I watched the different episodes, the ache in my heart grew. I saw how beautiful and diverse the Catholic church is and my longing to be part of it, to be part of something greater than myself, took over. At the end of the series I knew I had to do something about it.
At this point I recognized that I couldn’t figure it out on my own. Left to my own devices, I would freak out or try to avoid discerning again. I knew I needed to seek the advice of a sage. So I went to see the associate pastor of my parish, who is known for being gentle but also very firm when it comes to discerning God’s will. He encouraged me to explore different communities and to listen to what God was telling me in my heart.
I went back to the internet. I didn’t know where else to go.
Again, I researched different communities, mostly Franciscan at first. Eventually, I came upon the website for the Loretto Sisters (also known as the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary) and I really liked what I found. I learned about their foundress Mary Ward, their adoption of Ignatian spirituality (although I wasn’t sure which St. Ignatius this meant – I figured probably Ignatius of Antioch because he’s always mentioned in the Litany of the Saints prayer (nope!)), and the international dimension of the community with their focus on social justice.
I decided to take the plunge and meet with the vocations director (even though I didn’t have a picture to go by this time!). A few months later, I went to visit the community in Toronto. Over the course of two years, I ended up visiting several times, and I noticed that I felt at home with them. I felt like I could be myself with them and that I belonged.
I decided to learn more about St. Ignatius (of Loyola, I found out! – at the time I couldn’t have even told you that he was Spanish) so I read a lot of books about him and his spirituality, and I fell in love. Soul mate alert! I felt like I had found someone who “gets” me. Last summer, I made my first 8-day Ignatian silent retreat in Guelph, and without being too dramatic about it, it changed my life. I experienced a totally new way of prayer – Ignatian contemplation. I met God, came face-to-face with Jesus as I prayed. Whereas before I prayed to a sort of Jesus void – a Jesus who was somehow all around me – I was now praying to a Jesus who was in front of me, or sitting beside me. I could reach out and touch him. It was like nothing I had experienced before.
While I didn’t come to a decision about a religious vocation on the retreat, I knew that I wanted to continue with the Ignatian prayer. I found a Jesuit in Ottawa who was able to lead me through the Spiritual Exercises towards making a decision about religious life. From last October until this past February, I went through the exercises and learned so much about myself – my fears, insecurities, attachments, my hopes and dreams, my deepest desires. And I learned about my relationship with God and experienced the deep love God has for me. When I made the decision for religious life, it was completely liberating. I felt like I was made into a whole person, not someone who feels constantly torn.
But annoyingly, the idea of religious life wouldn’t go away.
Eventually I got a bit fed up and went online and did some research about nuns. Mostly I looked at pictures of vocation directors. When I found one who looked happy and friendly and safe, I contacted her. But I was terrified. I remember thinking to myself What have I done? Eventually, I mustered up enough courage to meet with her and, in time, other members of the community. To my amazement, I really liked them. They seemed so normal.
However, any time they broached the idea of further discernment, I froze. I wasn’t convinced that God had called me. I was waiting for some kind of neon sign from heaven that would tell me what to do.
Surely, God couldn’t be calling me to religious life. God doesn’t call the wimpy! He doesn’t call people who are too scared to tell their family that they sometimes go to Mass on a weekday for fear of seeming too religious. He calls the bold and the mighty. I was anything but. I was full of questions and fear, and totally confused.
This is a question that has a long answer. The short answer is most definitely: God has called me here. But how do I know that God has called me here? How does anyone know what God is calling them to do? Well, I can’t answer for everyone, but I can answer for myself. It has taken a long time to get to this place (hence, this story will be covered over the course a few posts – prepare yourself!). In fact, it has taken me 9 years to reach this point.
Although I have been a practicing Catholic all of my life, I would never have classified myself as particularly religious. Growing up in Calgary, I attended Mass with my family, went to Catholic schools, and volunteered at my parish here and there, but my faith was not something I advertised or made public. I always felt slightly self-conscious about it. I certainly never would have considered a vocation to religious life – I didn’t even know any nuns! However, in 2003, my mom passed away after a long illness. Faced with questions, doubt, and grief, I turned to God for answers and comfort. It was at that point that my relationship with God matured and I began to pray with greater intent and purpose, seeking direction in my life – what should I do? What kind of career should I have? Where should I live?
After a year of feeling lost and confused, I felt God leading me to Ottawa in 2004 to pursue graduate studies. I felt right at home in Ottawa and quickly found a wonderful community of friends. I joined my neighbourhood parish and was welcomed immediately. My faith life was nourished there and unexpected things began to happen!
I first felt God’s nudge towards religious life in 2005, when I was watching the funeral of St. John Paul II on television. At one point there was shot of St. Peter’s square and I saw all of the men and women religious gathered there. I felt this longing in my heart and I thought to myself, I wonder if I could do that. Of course at the time, I didn’t recognize this a call from God. I just thought I was getting a bit emotional. It was only months later when a friend and I were talking, and she asked me if I had ever thought about religious life. I said, “No. Well, maybe.” I told her about what had happened but that I didn’t think that was how God called people. It felt far too subtle. Don’t most people become nuns or priests after some major supernatural event? Don’t the heavens open up and there are visions of angels and flashes of lightning?
However, my small experience seemed to be good enough for my friend. She pushed me to check out religious communities in Ottawa. I thought, No way. I’m in the middle of a masters degree. When I’m done I’m getting a job with the government. I’m pretty sure God wants me to have a stable job, a good pension, and probably one day to become a Deputy Minister. I pushed the thought away.
Good question. What am I doing in Toronto with a group of women I barely know, navigating my way through a new city, when it seemed like I had everything I wanted in Ottawa?
Well, the short answer is: I am here because I was called here. (Much more on that later.) By asking to become a candidate with the Loretto Sisters, I have asked to deepen my understanding of religious life by spending a year living with the community. In essence, I am testing it out, seeing whether it is right for me. This next year will be a year of further discernment (reflection, decision-making) of the path I feel God has asked me to take.
I will find out what it means to live my life as a religious sister, to figure out if this is what God is actually calling me to do, and whether this community of sisters, the Loretto Sisters, are the community for me.
It’s a year of unknowns. While some things are the same (I continue to do the same job – albeit from a different location, still have access to my own car and resources, am free to pursue my interests, see friends and family, etc.), other things are very different. I packed up my house in Ottawa, and have gone from having a huge amount of personal space to having my own bedroom. It’s kind of like being in university residence again (although my floor mates are much tidier!), which is an odd place to be in after so many years on my own. I am also living with a group of women who are far older than I am. Many of them have been in religious life for 50, 60, or more years. I am not among my peer group, which I am sure will present its own challenges as time goes on.
But for now, I am savouring the adventure! It’s a chance to be different, to be open to newness, and to see the world from a different perspective.