I have wanted to be holy since I was a child.
I would kneel before the statue of Our Blessed Mother and dream of being chosen for a Marian apparition like Bernadette at Lourdes or the children at Fatima. Had I known that being chosen by God brought challenges and burdens, I might not have prayed so fervently. But I was a child, and not knowing any better, wanted Mary to give me a special message with a sign — preferably one with beautiful colors like Our Lady of Guadalupe gave Juan Diego.
Adolescence followed childhood and those dreams faded — from lack of encouragement as much as anything. I wanted to go to a Catholic boarding school and enter religious life. My mom wanted grandchildren. I was concerned with sins of the flesh, having read a biography of St. Maria Goretti more than once. My mother encouraged me to spend time alone in the dark with a boy, hoping — I would guess — temptations of the flesh would overcome my reticence. I wonder if she ever knew we spent those hours she so carefully manufactured talking.
Her death tore my dream world apart. Suddenly, I hungered for love, thirsted for love, and craved love — or some reasonable facsimile — more than I had ever wanted to be holy. Desperation like that destroys more than it ever creates and so it was in my life. A violent relationship was better than no relationship. A drunken encounter was better than agonizing loneliness. Death was more attractive than life, which is how I found myself waking up in an emergency room one December night.
Oddly enough, God does not abandon us when we choose paths that are far from holiness. I lived with a man and wrote songs based on the psalms. I avoided church, having lost faith in organized religion, and God told me that my children were a sign of his faith in me. I struggled to find a way to understand and express my innate call to the spiritual life, and God led me back into a Church community. Always, he accompanied me, guiding me with gentleness, recognizing in my sinfulness the wounds which must be healed.
Eventually, my life of faith took on a more familiar shape — regular church attendance, ministries which used the gifts God gave me, and the joyful intimacy of a rich prayer life. I began to experience a sense of being chosen — not for a special message, but to be part of his family, his body, the church. I began to learn what it meant to trust him and I experienced the deep peace which comes from knowing his love in my life. Bliss. Contentedness. Joy.
But God is never satisfied to leave well enough alone. He has to stir things up. That fall, that blessed and holy fall, I attended a retreat and — I don’t know. I honestly do not know. I was praying before the Blessed Sacrament, not with words but with the deep stillness which can come with centering prayer, when something happened. I call it an anointing of the Holy Spirit because I was filled and emptied at the same time. I felt as though I were encased in light, although no one around me seemed to notice anything special. I surrendered completely to God, murmuring over and over, “Anything, Lord, anything. Anything, Lord, anything.”
When I shared the experience with my spiritual director — a no-nonsense ranch wife who happened to be married to a deacon — she told me I needed to come off that mountain and get a job. I was unemployed, but felt God had given me a special gift that I needed to prayerfully discern before jumping into work that might not be his will for my life.
For me, that moment of grace came after seven difficult years. A decade before, I had felt called to religious life. The vocations director of the congregation I sought to join didn’t see me as a good candidate and had told me she didn’t think I was called to serve. Now, I would argue with her that a good reporter does serve, that a good reporter builds community and reflects God into the world in the way a story is covered. Then, I accepted her judgment and eventually, feeling unwelcome, withdrew from formation.
Then, I set out to prove she was wrong. I quit a job I loved and accepted a position for which I was ill-suited, running a nonprofit that advocates for abused and neglected children. I was fired 16 months later, and went through three more jobs in the following five years before attending the pivotal retreat. During that time, I went through what St. John of the Cross called a dark night of the soul. I blamed the poor decision I had made in leaving the job I loved for the spiritual hardship that followed. I did not, after being touched by God, want to make the same mistake again. I did not want to simply get a job without discerning God’s will for my life.
Now, I can see that my spiritual director was right and chuckle about my resistance. The night of my spiritual epiphany — for lack of a better word — I sat outside on an Adirondack chair and wrote down words and thoughts as they came to me. Later, when I reread those pages, two words jumped out at me — obedience and humility. I didn’t begin to understand either in the context of my life. But in the years that have elapsed since then, I have come to understand that God was telling me something very simple and fundamental — embrace reality.
In his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin, S.J., explains that obedience as a spiritual discipline involves embracing reality, accepting the experiences and events in our lives as God’s will for us. In her book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily, Sr. Joan Chittister explains that humility in Benedictine spirituality involves embracing reality, accepting the experiences and events in our lives as God’s will for us. That night, when I surrendered to God, he gave me the keys to living that surrender, though I am still learning how to live it on a daily basis.
I do know, though, it means using the gifts he has given me in the ways that are presented to me. I know that it means I need to accept both open doors and closed doors, trusting that his hand is leading me. I am learning to understand the inner movements that are his little nudges to do this or that. But, most of all, I know that his will for my life can only be found by embracing the reality of each and every day.