The National Catholic Review
A student discerns a call to religious life.
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So you’re probably going to become a nun, right?” my best college girlfriend said casually as we chatted about my post-grad-school plans.

“I don’t know for sure,” I replied, “but it’s a distinct possibility.” The question surprised me both because it was so nonchalant and because it had come from a woman with a fairly comprehensive view of who I am. She has seen the good, the bad and the un-nunly. Yet there was no trace of “Are you sure?” in her voice. Were we really past the point of endless questioning? Was my future as a woman religious more or less settled?

Not quite. A nun friend observed that I would drive myself crazy until I made some decisions. God’s timetable is a little different from mine.

Last spring I knew it was time to give serious consideration to the niggling feeling in my gut. I was in a relationship with someone who had been a dear friend for several years and was, by all standards, a fantastic boyfriend. Ending that relationship was painful, and on several occasions I found myself shaking my fist in God’s general direction. Life suddenly seemed less predictable and a whole lot scarier. “Please help” and “this better be good,” were sometimes the only prayers I could muster.

In spite of this, I felt a sense of purpose for discovering what was in store. Unexpected angels provided tips. A friend from my parish offered to connect me with a young woman who had recently entered religious life. Another told me about a group of Ignatian sisters in Georgia she thought I might like to meet. Old friends responded with support and encouragement.

You will know, say most of the wise women I talk with as I ponder a religious vocation. There will come a point when you have an answer. I’m holding out for that.

The groundwork for my vocational questions was laid early. My parents taught me to value justice and community and to take responsibility for my own life. They instilled in me appreciation for the dignity of all people and taught me about God’s love by offering me their own unconditional love. I grew up learning that we are put on earth to do good, help others and be happy. While my parents support my quest, they have concerns about the possibility that I may join a religious order. I am an only child, and it is an adjustment and a loss for them to imagine a future without grandchildren. More than that, they are disturbed by attitudes and actions in the church that contradict the spirit of humility and transparency the Gospel teaches. They balance support and skepticism, but offer love and respect.

Two Years in Bolivia

Experience also leads me to believe an answer will come. I spent two challenging and invigorating years after college in Bolivia with Jesuit Volunteers International that grew my faith and informed my sense of global community. Right through the orientation process, however, I was consumed with uncertainty as to whether I was truly called to Bolivia.

On a silent retreat, a part of our orientation, I was anxious and uncomfortable, not knowing how I would stay quiet in the company of the 20 amazing people I had just met and dreading the prospect of spending the time alone. What if I discovered something I didn’t want to know? I stocked up on spiritual books from the library, but as I flipped through them I realized that I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I met with one of the spiritual directors, a quiet, funny nun and excellent listener. She gently asked if perhaps I was trying too hard and suggested that I try “wasting time with God.” “Go for a walk, take a nap, pray, just invite God into it.”

Her advice changed the whole experience. It was permission to allow God the space to work, and it reminded me to have some faith. I asked God for guidance and trusted that I would get what I needed.

Eventually, an answer came. Walking in silence one night, I saw a future community-mate seated at a piano, improvising a beautiful song. I listened and something fell into place: I had a breathtaking sense of being loved and provided for and was acutely aware of God’s closeness. Never before and never since have I felt so completely blessed and certain that I was precisely where I was meant to be. I decided to say yes to going to Bolivia. I had fallen in love with God and with the life I was offered. I had no idea what that life would hold, but I was certain I would not be alone.

In Bolivia I worked with Jesuits and an inspiring group of sisters from the Misioneras de Cristo Jesús. They appeared completely alive, and they had a global sense of community. Their faith was constantly evolving, which I found exciting and admirable, particularly among older women. The experience of immersing myself in a new culture was humbling, exciting and deeply spiritual. I imagined what it would be like to live as the Misioneras did.

When I returned home five years ago, dating, work, exploring a new city and friendships occupied my time and energies. I craved spiritual community, found a vibrant parish, became part of a small faith group and began spiritual direction. I continued to meet women religious whom I admired. I coordinated an adolescent mentoring program in Boston and collaborated with other youth advocates to strengthen supports for the young people we worked with. It was powerful work that I found fun, gratifying and full of small miracles.

Steps Toward Discernment

The steps of my current discernment process have included conversations, reading, prayer and visits to religious communities. I have visited two orders and spent two weeks over the summer with a community in Georgia. On that visit, I participated in a weekend discernment retreat and worked alongside a small community of sisters. I marveled at the energy to serve that they drew from prayer and their sense of mission. This spring I am visiting their novitiate and spending time with the women in formation.

I have also sought mentors. Many women and men (vowed religious and lay) have been generous with their time and stories. I have connected with an accomplished, vivacious sister who revealed that she had never wanted to enter religious life as a young woman and had been a “grand failure” as a young nun, only later coming to understand her own path to the convent; with a mother, educator and parish leader who decided to live in a troubled area of Boston and build partnerships to increase community empowerment; with a Nicaraguan priest who has learned that the point of life is to arrive at the end having poured oneself out; and with my father, whose Buddhist practice opens up fresh realms of conversation about prayer and compassion. These conversations have given me a sense of companionship.

Last November I began the Spiritual Exercises in daily life, a retreat over many months aimed to help participants grow closer to God and learn to discern where God calls us.

Drawn to cross-cultural work, I am also looking at orders with international communities that have other young women in formation. I grapple with the role of international aid and mission and my own place in it, but I think there is much richness in learning and sharing across borders. I seek peers who understand this path.

The women religious who have most inspired me balance reverence with brave willingness to question the status quo. They are grounded in humility and a sense of their own humanity; they embrace critical thinking and dialogue about the church and its evolving mission.

Currently, I take care of an old rectory at St. Mary of the Angels parish, study social work at Boston College, work as an intern at two nonprofits, mentor a group of undergraduate students, continue my Spiritual Exercises retreat and spend time with friends and family. Living at the parish has been a gift. I moved in to save money and because I thought it would be an adventure. Lovingly referred to as a little United Nations, the parish is diverse and has a proud history of community involvement. During Advent, I was struck by how tangible the idea of community had become for me since moving to St. Mary’s. My own vocational discernment becomes most clear among a group of people who worship, argue and work together, a group that welcomes newcomers and strives to respond faithfully and lovingly to God’s call.

I graduate in May; the unknown thereafter is both exciting and daunting. I will have loans to pay off, so I may not be able to enter any order for several more years. Yet my vocation is already underway, even in this time of uncertainty.

Reflecting on the last five years, I feel my heart swell at how God has revealed Godself to me over and over through relationships, readings, conversations and prayer. Patience and trust seem like small things to ask. Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit author, notes that “grateful people are happy people.” I agree. As I grow into an understanding of my vocation, I try to make daily use of his formula.

Catherine Kirwan-Avila is a graduate student at the School of Social Work at Boston College and a resident of Roxbury, Mass.

Comments

Theresa Sullivan | 5/21/2012 - 10:23am

Catherine,
Thanks for sharing your story.   It is always inspiring to hear how God works uniquely with each person as they discover their Call.   I like how you are open to the many ways that God is leading you.  Although each call is unique, there are some common ways God leads us.  You pointed out the important ones.  Isn’t it amazing how God can speak to us through some of the most unlikely candidates.   Like you, I have found that as I reach out to those who are poor I hear the voice of God speaking back to me through them.  Keep listening.   This is a helpful story I can share with discerners.   Blessings as you continue to follow. 

Nicholas Collura | 5/2/2012 - 11:14pm
Dear Catherine,
I just saw your article on the BC Agora page. Thank you so much for sharing these reflections with us. Whatever you end up discerning, it is beautiful to see someone with a very great love of God and humanity, seeking her vocation in such a generous and truthful way. It inspires me to try my best to do the same...so thank you for that.

Congratulations on your graduation, and best wishes in your discernment. Know that the prayers of many who are reading this are with you. 

~ Nicholas (a fellow FJV....ruined for life!)
Beryl Nyamunda | 4/28/2012 - 10:48pm
I felt so proud to see this story and your picture in the Boston College website today. Thank you for sharing such an honest and thought provoking story. It makes me think about my spiritual jurney and encourages me as a freshman to keep discovering myself and my part in this world. I think in life people always rush to make choices in their lives as if there is not enough time. But  the most important decisions take a lot of time. You might not know what you will do next, but take your time and know that God is with you every step of the way:) no matter what you decide, I am sure you will succeed because I have seen you succeed before. I will keep you in my prayers.
8284836 | 4/24/2012 - 9:32am

No doubt about it Catherine you are on a journey.  Sounds like you have many arround you as guides to the future. Your various ministerial experiences will certainly add to your discernment.  May peace be with you and may the Holy Spirit continue to guide you in this Easter Season in your discernment.  Your Dominican Sister on the journey from Adrian.

MTSTMARY'S | 4/13/2012 - 3:59pm
Catherine, Thank you for your deeply honest reflection on your experience of discerning your vocation, that is, whether it is to religious life or not, and if so, to where. Your questions and feelings reminded me of my own explorations of religious life over 30 years ago. Take your time, go gently, and trust God. Look up Mary Anne Hinsdale, IHM on BC's campus. The best thing you can do is talk with others who are also exploring the same question, talk with nuns you know and like, talk with a good spiritual director (lots in Boston), and listen to God. I will be praying for you.
5765578 | 4/11/2012 - 10:25pm
Catherine, your story conveys the courage that I believe is God's gift to those called to religious life today. Just take the first step. And in those fist-shaking moments when you say "This better be worth it!", may you know that it is!
Susan Francois, CSJP | 4/11/2012 - 1:25pm
Catherine - Thanks so much for sharing what I know is a very personal and seemingly insane journey! I took the plunge into religious life myself seven years ago.  The wise advice that "you will know" is very true, but still not that helpful in the midst of our noisy post-modern world. It can be hard to hear that still quiet voice that knows.  If you or others are interested, I've been documenting my own journey into religious life on my blog, Musings of a Discerning Woman.  You can check out the archives to see my discernment journey from inquiry, to candidacy, novitiate, temporary vows and now as a perpetually professed Sister.  Religious Life is so very counter-cultural, it is helpful to have folks like yourself share the reality that God is still calling!  Blessings of Peace & Joy.
Doai Dang | 4/10/2012 - 10:03am
Catherine, thank you for sharing your discernment story. Surely choosing a vocation is a long process. However, I truly believe that you are about to recognize God's call clearly when you put your hands in his hands. God bless you always!
Mary Ann Hinsdale | 4/9/2012 - 3:17pm
Catherine, thanks for sharing!  Our paths haven't crossed at BC-but you may be interested to know there is a small, inter-congregational group of faculty/staff on campus who are women religious (we call ourselves "Nunz in the 'hood"!).  We get together about once a semester for pot-luck and prayer.  Shoot me an email (I'm in the BC directory) and I'll keep you posted about our next gathering if you'd care to join us.  We should have one more before the semester ends.  In the meantime, I'll keep your discernment in prayer.
Fran Ferder | 4/9/2012 - 12:26pm
Catherine, thank you for sharing your journey thus far. It is honest, touching, and real. I could relate to many things you said, though I entered my community in 1962. Times have changed! You have much wisdom and good friends as companions and guides. May your continued discovery be gently blessed!
Eileen McCann | 4/9/2012 - 10:55am

You are a very insightful young woman. Please know of my prayers as you continue your journey of discernment.


 

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