I’ve been neglecting my discernment recently. I’ve just deleted two paragraphs justifying this, but I guess that’s not important. What is important is what I mean by that. My vocation story isn’t one I share often because, well, like most other things in my life – It’s insane.
When I was 15 I remember sitting on a bus going from Billericay back to my home in Basildon. (the details aren’t important, I just like to set the scene.) I was thinking about evangelisation. I had two particular thoughts. I was young, I had a lot of questions, but my first, overwhelming, thought was that I knew I wanted to love and serve the Lord. Secondly, I knew that I wanted other people to know this. At that moment I envisaged myself boarding the bus in a full (grey) habit, wooden rosary beads in hand.
You may think this is the start of a wonderful story of how I lived a prayerful life discerning my vocation from a young age. It is not. I wish it was. All of the time, I wish I had taken these thoughts seriously. I wish I thought it was possible or even plausible. I feel like this may be a problem for a lot of young girls. I ignored this, for a long time. I ignored my faith for a long time, I ignored the things that being a Christian meant in my life. I essentially forgot about the things I had really desired on my bus journey. They just faded out.
Not long after I had turned 18 I met a sister, who was attached to our parish. I’d never met a religious sister before even if she had been in our parish for some time. I’d never really spoken to her. One day I did, I was really curious about her life and what she did. I’d always imagined nuns to be locked away, constantly praying and usually silent. Yet, here she was. Definitely not silent, or locked away. The back bone of our parish, a true woman of valour and a real inspiration. I asked loads of questions, about what she could and couldn’t do. She was so patient with me and I will always thank her for that.
Through all of this my life had it’s complications. I became something of a tear away. I got swept up with the ‘worldlings’ I craved excess in every aspect of my life. My life became a blur, everything was fast, and surrounded by a cloud of smoke. Looking back I was a mess. My skirt was always shorter than the hem of my fur coat, my tights always laddered, I wore last nights eye liner to college and I constantly had a cigarette stub hanging out of the corner of my mouth as I picked at some sort of scab on my hand or arm, scribbled down notes, or did some sketching.
I struggled with depression and a social phobia so I never gave myself much time to think. I played super mario on the bus, spent my breaks smoking, my evenings drinking and my weekends in the arms of my boyfriend. I made so sure that I never had to think that my faith never crossed my mind. Church was just another thing to add to the long list of distractions. I’d never anticipated that my faith might one day save me.
Not long after I turned 18 I became a confirmation catechist. My first trip to Walsingham House didn’t exactly make me fall off my proverbial horse, but it did change me. I was already passionate about my faith, but only in the same way I was passionate about pound a pint night. I enjoyed my weekend, I had fun, I learnt some stuff. I didn’t think it had really affected me at all, but as soon as I left something wasn’t right. I felt just ever so slightly unease about a lot of things. Stuff didn’t feel right any more, didn’t bring me the same satisfaction any more. Slowly they began to destroy my last few teenage years. But that’s a story for another time.
Exactly a year later I returned to Walsingham House with my confirmation group. Again, I didn’t fall off my horse. But, an unstoppable chain reaction began. I’d arrived with great troubles. My entire life had begun to crumble on the foundation of a succession of some monumentally bad decisions. We had a reconciliation session and I knew I had to go to confession. I’ve always disliked confession, I never know what to say or quite how to go about it. Some people make good confessions, I think. Some people are good at it. Me, I’m uncomfortable, edgy, and probably a little suspicious. I had to prepare myself.
I’d never given myself much time to just talk to God. Prayer wasn’t a huge part of my life, unless I genuinely wanted something, or was grateful for something specific. We never just chatted. I found myself alone in the chapel, having the first of my many chats with God. By the time I had finished my prayers, people had come and gone, hours had come and gone. I felt God’s true presence, and though I could never explain it at the time something changed inside me. I was some how glued to the spot, lent against the back wall staring at the tabernacle. I felt like my heart ached for something. Like, when you’re hungry but you don’t know what it is that you fancy. I felt a need, a desire, a want, but I couldn’t think of what it could be for. I felt like I’d been plunged into cold water. I took several deep breaths and began to cry.
They say that most people don’t know the affect they’ve had on your life. Some people know exactly what they’ve done. Michael is one of those people. It’s a story I’ve told many times and perhaps I’ll tell it again one day but not here. To cut a very long and emotional story short, I arrived in Lourdes and that week changed my life. On the steps of the rosary basillica I felt that same pull, and it overwhelmed me, like my heart had stopped.
Another year later and I’d been accepted to join the Walsingham House team. Not long had I been on the team when something major in my faith journey happened to me. The tiniest of gestures became my biggest moment. I’d returned home for the first time to see my parents. My dad disappeared for a while and when he returned he had in his hand something magical. It was his breviary. He’d had it since he was young, younger than me I suppose. He’d bound it himself in leather and embossed the words “Daily prayer” on the front. It closed with a popper and was filled with all his prayer cards. As a child in mass I remember his matching missal, filled with similar prayer cards. I remember these books being precious, we weren’t allowed to touch them and now they were in my hands. I felt that thing that I’d felt in the chapel and in Lourdes. It was the prayers of others. How many people have sat were I sat, stood where I stood and prayed, praised, glorified, begged, pleaded, bargained. In this book were the prayers of my father, for his intercessions, and soon it would be filled with mine too, and God willing, maybe even my children’s.
In our first month (or so) a quick succession of spectacular things happened to me. One evening we went out for dinner, perhaps the wine had got the better of me, but half way through dinner I proposed this question to the table “Do you think I’d make a good nun?”. I heard the words leave my mouth and I was as shocked as the rest of those who had heard me. Firstly, I’d never actually thought about becoming a nun, it wasn’t something I had felt I wanted to do. I had a boyfriend, who I loved very much. It was almost as if someone else had said it. Thankfully, the replies were in jest and I laughed a long as if I had intended to make the joke.
On another day we were invited to watch a sister of the community of Our Lady of Walsingham profess her vows. The service was simple, and beautiful. I was growing quite frustrated with the fact I no longer seemed in control of my emotions. I couldn’t work out what it was that I was missing, and in my desperation I turned to prayer. Whole heartedly emptying myself before the Lord, handing myself over to him. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was more something I needed. Imagine Esmerelda at the feet of Mary.
Finally we come to the pinnacle of my vocational tale. We took a trip down to Walsingham for a little pilgrimage and informal catechises. In the slipper chapel it hit me. Like the kind of shock you get when you get bad news. When it hits you in the chest. I knew I was being called to something bigger, something greater and something just for me.
I worked to be praised, and that’s what was lacking, a true vocation. My true calling.
“I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing in all thinking.”
― George MacDonald
There was my joy, there was my fullness. In following this path that had been chosen for me I would then be complete. Sounds perfect. But I wasn’t prepared for just how much I would sacrifice, and here’s why abandoned my discernment.
Any wise person will tell you that every good thing comes at a price. J.M. Barrie tells us that we can have whatever we want in life if we are willing to sacrifice everything for it. On the floor of the Chapel at Walsingham house I promised to change my life and standing under several wax limbs in the room of prayer at Apericeda I consecrated my life to Mary. I knew that this meant giving things up, turning wholly away from sin and towards Jesus because, well, you can’t be half a saint. There are days when these sacrifices seem worth while, and you remember why you made them and then there are dark times and you’re not quite sure just why you’ve made these promises and would it be so bad to break them. Of course the toughest sacrifices are the ones you don’t see coming, when we don’t have time to come up with a strategy, to pick a side, or to measure the potential loss. When that happens… when the battle chooses us and not the other way around, that’s when the sacrifice can turn out to be more than we can bare.
Unfortunately life is not a spectator sport. You can’t just make promises in the quiet and in the still and in the peaceful and then be happy and content that you can carry on this way. Life is a game, and there will be plays you never expected. You made a promise and you said a prayer, you spoke to God and he spoke to your heart. You’re off guard. Those are the times to make promises. The messy times, the dark times, the 3 am when you’re chocking on your own tears times, the perched on the edge times.
Tonight a Norbertine priest told me to be myself in a way that I’d never quite considered before. He said you can’t wish to become like someone you’re not. Theres no use wishing to be a Tyburn Benedictine, yessex, it’s just not who you are. You make sacrifices whether you want to or not, some of them you understand and some of them you don’t. You must be you, you must open yourself completely to Christ so that he may fill you with his grace.
I don’t know much about life, or myself for that matter. I know that before I begin to establish who I should be, I should probably figure out who I am. I know that I adore Christ and to be in His service is my greatest desire. I know that, in the words of Edward Sharpe, “reaching for heaven is what I’m on earth to do”. I know I must have trust.
Sometimes it feels that you’re being pulled and you find yourself in a situation that is just too big for you. You can feel too much. Too much sadness, fear, joy or anticipation. You can feel like the pull is taking you to somewhere too great for you to handle. Dr Sues says that there’s no one youer than you. God knows that too. He wants you to be bigger, to be greater. Just trust. I can’t tell you how, just trust.