One of the things that I love to meditate on are the many paradoxes of our Catholic faith, because they are not what they seem to be at first glance, and if you would understand them you must take the time to look more closely. Understanding paradoxes require a disposition like Our Lady who with patience and openness, “pondered in her heart”. I also like to muse on paradoxes because they speak to me of the complexity, majesty, and ultimately unattainable nature of God; we know Him after all, only because He chose to reveal Himself to us!
One such paradox that has become very special to me in the course of my discernment of religious life comes from Psalm 116:16 “O Lord I am your servant… you have loosed my bonds”. Hmmm, I am your slave, I am free. Huh?! Wow, talk about a paradox that begs for a deeper look!
Today marks three months since I received the Holy Habit, my new religious name, and entered the Novitiate of our order- and what an amazing several months it has been! Since that day I find myself continually being drawn again and again to pray with the psalmist the words of Psalm 116 for so many reasons. In my JOY: “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good He has done for me?”. In GRATEFUL THANKSGIVING: “Gracious is the lord and righteous; yes, our God is merciful”. In UNDERSTANDING: “I was caught by the cords of death; the snares of Sheol had seized me”. In RECOLLECTION: “I was helpless, but He saved me”. In CONTENTMENT: “I love the Lord, who listened to my voice in supplication”. In ANTICIPATION of the future: “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all His people”. And, most of all, with AWE and in AMAZEMENT: “O Lord I am your servant… you have loosed my bonds”.
It seems so strange to say, having already lived many years of my life, and yet I can say that never before have I felt more myself than on the day of my being clothed in the Holy Habit; yet also, (paradoxically!), never have I been so aware that it was “no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). And it wasn’t just the excitement of the day- the impression has remained and deepened each day since. Indeed, my giving over of myself to Christ, for Him to do as He pleases with my life, is the only thing that will really make me happy and fulfill the potential of who I was meant to be. And, it’s not just true for me, but for all of us! (Though, of course, each of our “gifts of self” to God will be as unique as we are!)
So, here I am- I gave up my dream job (as a Park Ranger at a beautiful lake with the best coworkers one could ask for!), a lovely home, regular contact with family and friends (my best friend has recently gotten married, and is now pregnant!), and the sweetest, most loyal and loving dog anyone could ask for (sorry Fergus-you know I love you too now!). Daily, I am giving up the ability to make for myself so many little choices that we in developed countries take for granted; given up even my ability to structure my own day as I see fit… and all this giving up of freedom and choice in order for the Lord to do whatever He will with me has resulted in what? GREATER FREEDOM! How can this be? “O Lord I am your servant… you have loosed my bonds”.
It cannot be explained by logic, but can only be experienced by the one who steps out in faith. “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it” (Luke 9:24). I thought I knew exactly what I wanted in my life, and for a long time I worked very hard to get it… to “save my life”; yet it never brought a lasting or deep sense of peace or happiness. It is only now, as I am beginning to learn how to let go and hand the reins over to God that I am realizing a deep sweetness and contentment, and truly beginning to “find my life”, in Him.
Fr. Wilfred Stinissen explains this much better than I, in his book, Into Your Hands, Father:
“If we do not dare to walk hand in hand with God, whose hand shall we choose? Can God lead us astray? Can we trust more in our own limited vision than in Him who has an overview of the whole journey? Is it not ridiculous to think that certain things could be lacking to us or that someone or something could put obstacles in our way? God knows exactly what we need. Everything He gives is carefully measured to our needs. He is the only one who knows our true needs. When we complain, we usually do it because of our imaginary needs… Most Christians invest a great deal of their energy in resisting God. As soon as we stop struggling, an unbelievable amount of energy is released. We suddenly move at a much quicker pace and are much happier… Those who trust that God is guiding everything can never be frustrated. If they do not get a certain thing, they know they do not need it. If something they have waited for does not happen, they conclude that it is not meant for them. They are not disappointed, because everything is just as it should be; not in itself; far from it, but as the environment they are to live in, a “divine environment”. Those who live in this way are content with God.”
This quote really epitomizes for me the major lesson I learned during my Postulancy. I thought I trusted God before I arrived here, but it took that first year here in the monastery for me to really get it-deep down in my bones, just how much I can abandon myself to Him! It was as if He spent the whole year uncovering all the little places in my heart that I held back from Him and didn’t trust Him with (and praise God, I’m sure He’ll continue to do so for the rest of my life!). He was challenging me and showing me little by little that being His servant ultimately means being His friend (John 15:15).
How about you? What is the Lord calling you to at this time in your life? Are you resisting Him, or are you surrendering to Him with trust? Even if you’ve already made your vocational commitment, He is always asking something new of us, some way to grow in virtue, some place to be salt and light, some way to give more of ourselves to Him (or perhaps better said- some way to let Him into deeper places in our hearts and lives). The most important thing is to begin with whatever small steps He is asking, in the direction He is leading. He will get us where we need to be, if we but consent to follow Him at each step along the narrow way.
I didn’t have this same level of joy a year ago; indeed, I experienced many doubts and hesitations, and began a lot of grieving over what He was asking me to leave behind. (But so it is for each of us- choosing one particular path necessarily closes the door to every other possibility- more and more so the longer we walk one road until finally we choose to make our permanent commitment.) Yet, amidst my turbulent emotions and many questions I did have the certainty that He was inviting me to explore the possibility of religious life. I had no idea what would come of my “Yes” to the Lord. But I knew that I was at a crossroads, and that if I was going to continue to call myself a Catholic I would indeed have to give Christ my “Yes”, come what may.
I never could have imagined I would feel the way I do now, when I set out then. Being in the Holy Habit, being called Sister Augusta Mary, and spending my days in prayer for the world feels more “right” than I ever could have possibly imagined before having taken this most recent step (discernment is a long process here- there are still many more steps to go!). Indeed, even over this last year living in the monastery I hadn’t experienced the depth of peace, contentment and joy that He is giving me now. It seems to me that somehow it was necessary I take the leap of faith into His arms, even amidst the fear of the sacrifice, before I could experience the joy I have now.
Like me, you may for a time think you don’t like where He is leading (or has already led you!)- it may seem too painful, difficult, boring, or perhaps you just think that you know best yourself… but take it from me (and all those who’ve pronounced their Yes to the Lord before us!). Trust Him. Follow Him. After all, if you “find your delight in the Lord, He will give you your heart’s desire” (Psalm 37: 4). The only trick is that He knows your heart better than you yourself know it (Jeremiah 17: 9-10). What we think we want, and how that desire will actually be fulfilled are so very often two different things! But as Sr. Mary Fidelis called to my mind time and time again throughout my Postulancy, “Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give good things to those who ask Him” (Matthew 7:9-11).
Our Heavenly Father wants for us life to the full, and eternal salvation in His embrace… no matter what our external circumstances may suggest to us- this is the goal He is leading us towards. Yet, we have our part to play. If we want to receive His sublime promises we must follow the path He asks us to tread, knowing it will lead us to encounter the biggest paradox of all- the cross. “…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24).
It is in embracing, with Jesus, the crosses that come to us with trust in our Heavenly Father, that we will encounter God’s power and wisdom to transform our lives and the lives of those around us. The spirit of the world tells us to run from any possibility of suffering, seeking our own unending happiness at any cost. But it doesn’t take long to see that this attitude will cause others much pain, and eventually ourselves as well; we cannot run away indefinitely. Everyone on this earth will encounter the cross in some form or another. What matters is our response. If suffering and sacrifices are embraced in union with Jesus’ sacrifice on Calgary then they have the power to purify us of our egocentricity, thereby giving us a divine ability to love; and in some mysterious way participate in Jesus’ work of saving souls.
The great peace and joy I have now at being right where God wants me is not without the cross! I miss all of my loved ones more than I can say. Some days what I wouldn’t give to be back at my job, visit all my favorite haunts, have a long conversation with my best friends, spend a lazy Sunday at my old Parish with my Friends in Christ, snuggle my dog on the couch, or join my family for Friday night pizza and movie! Yet, every vocation will demand sacrifices if it is to be lived out faithfully. Every parent knows this to be true. Indeed, we could go so far as to say this is one of the essential reasons for our vocations! Why? God Himself is an eternal exchange of love, and His desire for us is to share in that exchange with Him forever (CCC #221). This is why we all have an ache to experience a deeper love than we’ve ever known. We rightly yearn for this unending love and fulfillment, which we intuit to be ours at the deepest recesses of our being. But, because of the fall most of our “loving”, whether we mean to or not, most often tends in only one direction- selfishly directed inwards! Yet, true love is an exchange!
Hollywood has led us so far astray from the real meaning of true love! True love is the cross. The cross isn’t masochistic self-harm, letting people walk all over you, or resigning yourself to unnecessary misery. Instead, the cross gives us the freedom to truly love- the freedom to choose the highest good for another despite the cost to ourselves. In this we find the ultimate meaning of our psalm. When we offer ourselves as God’s servants to do His will we discover that the bonds He begins to loosen are those of our small, constricted, egotistic, selfish, and hard-hearted selves that keep us from really being able to freely love another, or to receive properly another’s love as a free gift- neither putting demands upon it, nor shying away from it.
In this life we will never know the fullness of joy that we all yearn for- that experience is reserved for Heaven alone. Instead we’re meant to prepare for Heaven by letting God teach us how to truly love and to let ourselves be loved through our unique vocations. But if we don’t know where we’re headed we’ll desperately try now to use finite things to fill the void in us that only infinity can fill- with disastrous results! Of course, we cannot learn this on our own. “God is love” (1 John 4:16), God teaches us to love, God dwells in us and loves. The saints show us this perfectly. They continued to ‘decrease, while He continued to increase’ in them until all that was left was love, was God. It isn’t our strength, but the supernatural work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit living in us that accomplishes this task. But we must ask Him for it and cooperate with the graces He gives!
Very often in our vocations God gives us supreme joy, perhaps even more so in the beginning to help us start along the right path. But He also asks that we, with Him, bear the pain that comes in the midst of our journey, staying true to what we have started for love of Him and those others in our lives. Sadly, in our culture today we’re urged to either avoid making a commitment of self at all, to make one based only on what we can receive without a thought of what we have to give, or if a commitment has already been made we are encouraged to throw in the towel at the first sign of difficulty so we can ‘start over again’. If we give in to these lies we will never come to know the supreme delight of the cross- of offering ourselves totally as gift to another- which is truly the only way we will ever fully find ourselves (Gaudium Et Spes). This “sincere gift” of self is imaged for us by Jesus Christ in a multitude of ways at every point in His life, culminating most profoundly in the sacrifice of His life on Calvary for our Salvation.
And of course we know how that story ends! For Jesus, and for us, if we want to experience the glory of the resurrection, we must surrender to the saving action of the cross. He himself said shortly before his passion, “My soul is troubled now, yet what should I say- Father, save me from this hour? But it was for this that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” (John 12:27-28). We can say the same when we encounter difficulties along the paths God is leading us. In this way, we can allow the Holy Spirit to school us in the divine way of loving in order to glorify our God. St. Paul knew this attitude well- “I wish to know Christ and the power flowing from His resurrection; likewise to know how to share in His sufferings by being formed into the pattern of His death. Thus do I hope that I may arrive at resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).
And so, on this, my “three-month anniversary” help celebrate with me by making your own faithful response to the Lord- whatever stage of the journey you’re on. Whatever He’s asking of you now, whatever crosses you’re encountering- with the Virgin Mary, let us give our own Fiat, let us stand open-hearted and trusting at the foot of the cross- knowing that we are in our loving Father’s gentle hands. Then, having been “good and faithful servants”, we might all with joy proclaim, “O Lord I am your servant…you have loosed my bonds”!