“Know that the Lord is God! It is He that made us, and we are His; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture” (Ps 100:3). In many ways, this short verse sums up my – and every – vocation story. Whenever I consider how it is that I wound up entering the Franciscan Sisters, T.O.R. of Penance of the Sorrowful Mother, the answer is always the same: God made me for Himself, and has spent my whole life drawing me back to Him. Looking back at my life, I see His design traced through the whole of it. When I first began to see this, I asked the Lord what I could possibly do to show my gratitude, and He asked me if I would be set apart just for Him.
Well, that’s the abridged edition, anyway – God’s call on my life has not always seemed so straightforward. Raised Lutheran, my parents taught me about Jesus when I was young and I inherited from them a great love for the faith and for Christ, as well as a desire to do His will in my life. When I was 14, I followed my Mom and brother into the Catholic Church, but shortly after that point I plunged into academic work and my relationship with God cooled as I stopped making time for prayer.
In my sophomore year of college, a friend’s chance remark sparked a turnaround in my life. I had been running regularly with a classmate who would sometimes say she didn’t have time to run because she “had to pray.” I thought that was a terrible excuse, so she said to me, “Emily, when you start making a daily holy hour, then you can tell me that there is always time for prayer and running.”
That suggestion shocked me. Nobody I had ever known prayed for an hour a day. So I decided to take her up on that offer. I spent an hour a day with Christ. I would read Scripture, tell Him about my life, sit in the silence, and whisper to Him my deepest needs. And in that time, God graciously restored to me the first love of my childhood.
By the end of that year, I stopped focusing so much on what I wanted to do with my life and started seriously asking God what He might want me to do. I began to desire what he desired as He began to reveal His great love for me – a love far greater, stronger, and wiser than the love I had for myself.
In this way, God primed my heart for his first prompting toward religious life, which came through a study group about St. Catherine of Siena, run by the inimitable Sr. Mary Michael, O.P. Through Sister’s witness and our study of St. Catherine, Christ began to heal some of my wounds of cynicism and distrust. At the same time, I found myself drawn to Sister’s life – she was so free to be Christ’s at every moment. I worked up the courage one day to ask her, “what one might do if one were interested in visiting her community” (the Nashville Dominicans), to which she responded (to my shock) by giving me the cell phone number of her vocations director!
My week in Nashville was filled with beauty. I was totally swept off my feet by the whole experience, but something held me back from giving any solid commitment to that place. I returned home intoxicated by the beauty of their life and the Church that facilitated it and wondering what the heck I was supposed to do!
The summer following that week was one of the most painful times in my life. It was my first experience of the desert – of isolation and aloneness. I was struggling on a personal level, prayer was dry, and I wasn’t totally sure that Christ really desired me to be His. I felt inadequate and unworthy – I am vain, proud, harsh, and blunt – certainly there are better candidates out there!
So I struggled. At the halfway point of the summer, I got to go see some friends for the weekend. As I drove home, all of my frustration with the way things were going came to a head. I was just so tired – tired of feeling alone in my struggle, tired of being unsure about what Christ wanted for me – so I told Jesus all my hurts. When I was through, I said, “look, Lord – I can’t do this any more. I’m done with discerning, done with this whole lifestyle… unless You make it clear that You want me to continue. I need some sort of encouragement.”
The encouragement came. The next day at Mass the reading was from Hosea: “So I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart…” The priest spoke in his homily about how God brings us into the desert to show us that He was the source of all the earthly joys we had experienced, to draw us into His heart. He ended by saying, “all you have to do is say, ‘Lord, I know how much you love me. Here, take my life.'” I feel that homily was Christ’s proposal to me. I have tried since to be “espoused to Him forever: espoused in justice, in love and in mercy and in fidelity,” as Hosea says.
But still there was the question of what that meant, when that meant, and where that meant. While at Nashville, I remember the vocations director asked me if I was planning on visiting other orders, and I mentioned the T.O.R.’s reflexively, though I hadn’t actually thought about visiting them before. I decided to try their vocations retreat. I first met with Sr. Thérèse Marie, the vocations director. I had the weirdest feeling going out to the monastery – like I was going somewhere I knew. I was very excited for the retreat.
When the day finally came, I knew that things would be different in my heart from then on. Everything about the sisters’ life resonated with me. And it was strange, because I never expected that. I expected that the sisters would be somewhat alien to me. After all, I was an intellectual, a cynic, a scholar. And yet being with the sisters was like surfacing after being under water for too long. It was like coming home after an exhausting trip. It was like breaking fast with a warm meal. I drank in the whole ethos of the place. But then I had to leave.
I spent that semester getting to know the sisters. So I went to another Lord’s Day… and another. And a “mailing party.” And dinner and recreation – and I couldn’t get enough. I was deeply happy in the rest of my life, but I would have spent every weekend at the convent if I could have. After my plans to go on a “come and see” over Christmas break fell through, Sr. Thérèse Marie leant me a copy of the Constitutions of the community. I read it nearly short of breath with excitement; it was like reading my own heart. Many things were written into the Constitutions that had become a part of my life in the past year or two that I had never guessed were also part of the T.O.R. way of life!
My first come and see fell on a snow day. This would have been fine, except the roads were closed and my visit was postponed six hours or so. I thought those six hours were going to kill me, I was so antsy! Finally I took to the roads and went out to Toronto.
Driving out to Our Lady of Sorrows was, against all odds, like going home, and I still have that feeling every time I drive up our road. Working, praying, playing, and just being with the sisters was freeing and enlivening. I felt like the time I spent in the convent made me more myself. I remember realizing that I didn’t feel like a guest, and experiencing a profound peace that has not left me since that time.
By the end of that visit, I was certain that I wanted to apply to the community, that Our Lady of Sorrows was made for me, to be my home. Actually, I didn’t want to leave…and now, I don’t have to! I entered candidacy on August 21, 2010. Please pray for me as I continue my walk with Christ and Our Lady. Peace and all good! Remember – the Lord will never be outdone in generosity!