Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
I’ve been stuck on that line of the Lord’s Prayer for a very long time. It’s easy to rattle off. The whole Lord’s Prayer is — at least if you’re Catholic or, I would suspect, if you belong to any of the mainstream Christian denominations. You learn it when you’re young, repeat it often at worship services, and pretty soon it’s one of those wordstreams so familiar you don’t have to think about it.
But when you start to think about it, you have to swallow twice and do some pretty serious self-assessment. Do I seek to do God’s will in my life or simply seek God’s seal of approval on what I want to do? (Or do I even worry about God, his will for us — me specifically, and the way I live?) At least, that’s been my experience.
I began to ask these questions about the time I sought to enter religious life 13 years ago. The editor of the newspaper for which I worked had assigned me to do a story on a vocations initiative begun by the religious order which ran the local hospital. As I interviewed the vocations director and a couple of the other vowed women in the order, I found myself thinking, “This is it! This is what I’m supposed to be doing at this juncture in my life!”
I finished the interview, wrote the story, went home, and contacted the vocations director by personal email. I can still remember the excitement, the ebullience, the joy. If I’d been a runner, I would have embarked on a marathon that would have taken me across the state and into the next — and South Dakota is a pretty wide state, so that’s saying something. I began to attend vocations retreats and met with the local priest to begin having my marriages annulled.
Only once before had I made a decision that I knew both at the time and with 20/20 hindsight was right — when I decided to pursue an art career. For the most part, I had lived a tumbleweed existence. Growing up, I’d not been encouraged — and sometimes not been allowed — to do what interested me, and had often been forced to do what I did not want to do with no reason beyond “because I told you so,” so decision-making was not one of my personal strengths.
When I left home, I didn’t even know how to buy clothes; Mom had either purchased (as in the case of intimate apparel) or made (as in the rest of my wardrobe) every garment I owned. While I did learn over time to make the small decisions with some degree of ease, I remained baffled by the big ones. I was like the little bird in the children’s book, ARE YOU MY MOTHER? I didn’t know what constituted a healthy relationship or how to choose a career path, and was constantly asking people for guidance. That, I can say unequivocally, is no way to live.
Shortly after I visited the Chicago Institute of Art for the first time, and had an epiphany, I discovered a book while browsing at the now defunct Waldenbooks called DO WHAT YOU LOVE, THE MONEY WILL FOLLOW by Marsha Sinetar. I can’t remember any of her specific points, but I do recall that as a result of reading the book, I was able, for the first time in my life, to choose a course and stay the course. At least, I was able to stay the course for nearly a decade, until that old decision-making handicap reared its ugly head again, and I found myself setting aside my personal dream and all I had worked to achieve to accept a position which I believed would allow me to help others. I was not only unable to help others, but I also crashed and burned rather gloriously.
I was just starting to recover from that heartbreaking setback when I wrote the story about new guidelines for entering formation that the local religious order had adopted. Older women were now being accepted; divorced women were now being accepted if their marriages could be annulled; women with children were now being accepted if their children were grown and supported their decision. Since I had wanted to enter religious life as a child, a longing which had been adamantly opposed by my mother who fully expected me to provide her with grandchildren, this appeared to be one of those mythical second chances which are few and far between in life.
The vocations director wasn’t equally confident that God was calling me. At one point, she accused me of wanting to join the community because it would force them to assume my student loan debt. At another, she gave the impression she believed I just wanted to sit around all day and paint, expecting others to provide for me. Eventually, the spiritual director she chose for me helped me to see that the barriers I’d encountered, which included an inordinately long delay between asking to enter formation and being allowed to do so, indicated the community was trying to gently guide me away from the vowed life.
I withdrew from formation, and then I grieved. For nearly two years, I grieved. And I was more lost than ever. When I was young, I just expected to find my path sooner or later. The decade I’d spent building an art career had been challenging, but satisfying; still, trying to pick up those pieces no longer attracted me. I was lost in a desert, just taking one step at a time.
I began to study Ignatian spirituality for two reasons. First, because the title of a book on the Jesuits caught my attention, CONTEMPLATIVES IN ACTION: THE JESUIT WAY by William Barry, SJ. That’s me, I thought; I’m a deeply prayerful person, but I have to be doing something. I thought Ignatian spirituality might help me find my way again. Second, because I thought Ignatian spirituality might help me find my way again. (Yes, I know I repeated that sentence twice; it was intentional.) St. Ignatius wrote about discernment in his Spiritual Exercises, and contemporary Jesuits have used the Exercises to teach folks about discernment, known elsewhere as decision-making. I hoped that I could learn at this juncture in my life what I’d not learned earlier, how to make good decisions.
Ironically, it’s led me back to painting. One of the premises of Ignatian spirituality, at least as I understand it, is that God wants us to use the gifts he gives us, and painting is undoubtedly a gift he has given me. For a long time, that was a stumbling block for me. Jesus spoke of our obligations to the poor, to those in need of healing, to those who hungered for justice in their lives. How could I paint when the needs around me were many and varied? And then God showed me that he can use the gifts he has given me in ways I could not have imagined. I made a scrapbook for an elderly woman on a whim. She died not long after, and her husband found great comfort in that scrapbook. Who would have guessed?
I can’t honestly say I know at this point how God will use my gift of art in the grander scheme of things, but I’m willing to trust him, to trust that his hand is guiding me in this. At present, it’s enough that painting draws me into a deeper relationship with him and allows me to celebrate with a brush the wondrous way in which he works in this world. That may be all I ever know, but the deep peace which painting provides affirms over and over that he is present in it.
Who would have guessed his will would lie so close to my heart?