Sr. Joan Paule- He snuck in the back door
Sr. Joan Paule web2I grew up in a devout Catholic family that lived a sacramental life, but never once did anyone ask me if I wanted to be a sister when I grew up. It was never brought up. I don’t ever remember considering it, even though some sisters taught me during grade school. Since the time I was very small I can remember wanting to get married and having a family. When I was in Kindergarten, our class was asked to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote: “a mommy” and I drew a picture of a mother holding a baby.

When I attended Franciscan University of Steubenville, it was in the atmosphere to consider God’s will for your life and to be open to a vocation to religious life. So, I tried to be open and it lasted about two weeks! It didn’t appeal to me in the least. When I talked to a priest about it, he actually encouraged me to go out and date. I casually dated for years, holding out for Mr. Right.

As I was nearing the age of 30, although I was very fulfilled with my job as a boarding school teacher in Switzerland and my travels, I still had only one goal in my life—to find Mr. Right and get married. But one semester, my life took on a whole new direction from what I had ever imagined. The directress of the school asked if I wanted to go on retreat to Rome for Holy Week. That’s when my life changed.

On that retreat, the priest painted a picture in words of the passion of Christ and the depth of His love poured out for us. It hit me in a very personal way. It was impossible for me to not do something in response. I couldn’t continue on my lukewarm, backsliding Catholic way of living. He challenged us to go before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and, of course, to first thank him for His passion and death, His great love, and His blood outpoured for us. “But you can’t stop at gratitude,” he said. He challenged each of us to ask the Lord, “What is standing in the way of me surrendering myself completely to you?” In obedience, I asked, and to my astonishment, I heard an answer. “Your desire to get married—that’s what’s standing in the way.”

At first, I felt sick. I thought, “What else is there besides marriage?” The idea of consecrated life hit me, and I wanted to cry and I felt a sense of dread. In response, like a spoiled child, I whined, “Do I have to?” Then I heard an inner locution: “I’m not going to make you do it, but will you do it for love of me?” How could I say no? He did everything for love of me and He is asking me for one thing.

But I felt like I had been hit upside the head with a two-by-four! I prayed, “I only have one life to live and I don’t want to be miserable. You’ve got to change my heart. You’ve got your work cut out for you. But I will try to say yes.” I don’t know how He did it, but He took my heart and did a 180. My drive to find a man was turned into zeal to want to work for God’s kingdom and to save souls and help souls come to know Him. Even my students recognized the difference when I came back from the retreat.

Psalm 37:4 kept coming up in prayer at this time: “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” The Lord changed the desires of my heart, and then gave me the desires of my heart. He snuck in the back door! From there, I wanted what He wanted.

He had put those desires in my heart, but I had been misinterpreting them. He showed me how to interpret the desires He had given me. That desire for Mr. Perfect really could only be fulfilled by the perfect God-Man, Jesus. My desire for lots of adopted children would be fulfilled through spiritual motherhood.

I began a 40-day discernment program with a lay apostolate movement. It was a grueling 30 days of spiritual boot camp that ended with a 10-day silent retreat—it was 40 days in the desert. It was life-transforming! At the end of that, I knew I had a vocation to consecrated life and I actually was excited about that.

As far as looking for a community, I had this sense to start in my own backyard. So I began my search here in Steubenville, with the T.O.R. sisters, just five miles from my family’s home. I had to know my other options, so I convent-hopped for a year, but this was the only place where I felt at home. When I was here, I felt that I could be myself. The Franciscan spirituality was natural for me. I was also looking for a contemplative-active community. The more active communities didn’t feel right, but when I experienced more of a contemplative life with the T.O.R. sisters, I felt much more peaceful and more balanced. I didn’t want to have a full-time job and try to fit in my prayers. That seemed stressful, and I just wanted to be able to spend more time with my Beloved. So I just made a leap of faith, following my heart, and this is where I landed.

My parents had been secretly hoping all along that I would end up in this community, but they never told me. They had been friends and benefactors of the community from the beginning. My mom would tell the sisters to pray for me and she would always tell me to come check out the community. When I finally told them my decision, they just beamed—they were so happy.

Since I entered community, I have come to realize that hearts have different shapes, spiritually. Most hearts are shaped to funnel their love to one person, and from that person to God. That is their way to holiness. I knew that that was too small for my heart. My heart is more convex and I have a universal love. I want to embrace everyone and they are my way to Jesus. Once I realized that, then I knew my heart was made for this life.Sr. Joan Paule Portenlanger, T.O.R.

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