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God speaks to each of us in the silence and depths of our hearts. As I reflect on my own vocation journey, the greatest struggle in my initial searching was that of being able to open my heart to listen to God's voice. After I was willing to be in that position of vulnerability, and with the help of God's grace, the seed of my vocation was then able to sprout and grow. With each step on my journey, God gave me the courage I needed to move in the direction He was beckoning, as long as I was willing to follow.
I am grateful to have grown up in a Catholic family, and my faith has always been an important part of my life. After I graduated from college, I joined a year-long volunteer program as a response to a strong desire I had to serve the homeless. My decision took me to Philadelphia, where I lived in a community with three other volunteers, who also worked with the poor. We lived simply and shared common prayer and meals. It was during this year of service that I came to know how much happiness I experienced when I was serving others, living in community, sharing in a life of prayer, and growing ever deeper in my relationship with God. I came to see that these were values that I could not imagine living without. It was also during this time that I became connected to a spiritual director.
Retreats during that year provided that essential time to reflect on where God was in my life. I was able to become more aware of God's presence in every day situations, particularly through my relationships with the women who were residents at the homeless shelter where I served. Many of the residents had such a deep and transforming faith amid such pain, poverty, and mental illness. I found that just being together in each others' presence and helping in small ways brought a deep joy to my heart.
Upon completion of my year, I decided to stay in the city and serve formerly homeless mentally ill women in a paid position at a residential home. I continued to grow in my prayer life and in my relationship with God. On my walks home from work, I would often stop at my parish church for daily Mass and Eucharistic Adoration. I continued to feel a nudge toward exploring the possibility of religious life. It was persistence deep inside that for several years I had tried to ignore, with a secret hope that it would disappear. I craved a deeper relationship with God. Yet at the same time, I was trying very hard to ignore what He was saying to me because I had a fear that if I listened, then I would hear Him invite me to consider religious life. And if God was asking that of me, would I have the courage to respond with a "Yes"? This was something I did not want to face, and so, I lived in this state of wanting to know God, but closing off a part of my heart so as to feel that I was not turning down God's offer if I did not hear it.
This obviously was a huge barrier to growing in my relationship with God. The turning point was when my spiritual director suggested that I go on a 5-day silent retreat. It was during that time of quiet that I was finally able to open my heart to hear God's voice. "Be not afraid!" These words sang in my heart ceaselessly for two days during the retreat and I knew for certain that God was inviting me to consider religious life. This experience was extremely powerful and it gave me the courage I needed to take concrete steps to see where God was calling me. I joined the women's discernment group at my parish and I began to visit various religious communities. As I met and talked with women religious who shared their stories, I felt that what they were saying about giving their lives completely to God echoed in my heart.
As I visited religious communities, I wondered how I would find the right fit. Several people told me that when I found the community where God wanted me to be, then I would just know that I belonged there. I could not imagine how it would work out, but indeed, it did. God's ways are mysterious!
I treasured my work serving the poor and I thought that perhaps I would be drawn to a community that had an active apostolate. Up to that point, I had very little exposure with contemplative religious orders. As I was discerning, I wanted to at look more carefully at the life that an enclosed nun leads, so as to then be able to say to God, "See, at least I looked." I assumed that after having looked, I would be confirmed in my sense that such a place was not where I belonged. However, God had other plans!
I became aware of the community of Mt. St. Mary's Abbey from a friend who was also discerning religious life. At the very same time I had been reading Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, which had just been recommended to me by an acquaintance. I also saw a small intriguing ad for the Cistercians in Vision, a religious vocational magazine. I had no knowledge of this particular order prior to these three seemingly unconnected events that occurred within a two-week span. I contacted the Vocation Director at Mt. St. Mary's and decided to attend a Monastic Weekend Experience. With God's grace, I was able to keep my heart open and each visit to the monastery drew me closer to my desire, which, I was learning, was for God alone. After several, progressively longer visits, I knew in my heart that I needed to enter the monastery.
On one of the last days at work, one of the residents came and stood in the doorway of my little office. She spoke after a brief moment. "I hear you're going to live with Jesus," she said. It was such a beautiful and touching moment, and her words expressed what my heart truly desired. Each day in the monastery brings its own joys and blessings, as well as ways to be stretched and to grow. I am thankful for my vocation: for this life of silence and prayer, of community and love, for the grace to continue to grow into the person that God has created me to become, and to serve the countless needs of the world in prayer.
May you always have the courage to listen to God speaking to your heart. Be not afraid! Many blessings as you continue on your journey.