As I promised the Holy Spirit, I went to the vocations awareness retreat at the local seminary. Right up until the moment I stepped through the seminary door, I was sorely tempted to turn around and go home. I was going on sheer will.
Once I got there, of course, my nerves settled down, and whatever pesky demons of doubt had been tormenting me decided to go and preserve themselves to fight another day. I started meeting lots of wonderful people. Many of the attendees were either in high school or else fresh out of high school. Some were older than me too. All of them were on fire for the faith, and just being around them really uplifted and kindled my spirit!
The retreat really kept me busy. There were many group and individual conferences. Mass and Divine Office. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Meals and socializing. Private reflection times. The little discomforts of living in a dorm. And on top of it all, I was getting ill. Not seriously ill to where I needed to go home. Just a very blah illness that slowed me down and made the physical and spiritual demands of the retreat weigh more heavily on me.
I felt very clearly that the Spirit was testing me, trying me, to see how far I would go. And I intended to show Him.
Probably the most intense thing of all during the retreat was Exposition and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. It was my first real exposure to the practice, and I thought it might crush me. I know that probably sounds dreadful. It wasn’t dreadful, just extremely powerful and penetrating. And you know, it still is that way a lot; I’ve never gotten accustomed to it, and can never prepare myself for it. The phrase I use for the experience is “being torn down to my inmost secrets.” That is how powerful and penetrating the Real Presence of the Lord is to me, even now. You can’t hide anything from Him, you can’t deny anything before Him. All you can do is open yourself up and surrender.
If I still feel that way, perhaps you can imagine how I felt then, when I experienced all of this for the first time, completely unsuspecting of it. I cried and cried. I noticed I wasn’t the only one; even some of the men came out of the chapel blotting their eyes. If I’d had to place a wager, I would have bet that those men were the ones who would become priests someday.
But in my own case, I was slowly being pulled in a different direction. Even during the retreat, beneath the more earth-shattering experiences, some subtle movement of the Spirit was steering me back toward the secular world and the secular lay life. I began to realize that any movement I made toward consecrated life was more an act of running away than running to. And running away can only bring misery.
Not that any of this process happened quickly, of course. It was a very bumpy, very curvy path. It would still be a while before I felt any real certainty. But I gradually became more and more attracted to the Lay Dominican life. I should note here that there was never any doubt which order I would join–I knew the Dominican Order was perfect for me. It was just figuring out which branch of the Order was for me.
In the meantime, I heard of another retreat, this time a parish retreat called Christ Renews His Parish (CRHP, pronounced “chirp”). I thought that another retreat might do me good, and that it could help me get more involved in my parish and feel more at home, more like part of the family.
I don’t wish to disparage the CRHP program in any way, but I will say that it was not for me. I tend to think it’s just that the timing was wrong. It was just 3 months after the vocations retreat, and I was still reeling from that. My soul was burning white-hot and ravening for something enormous and substantial to feed it, and I don’t think CRHP was designed or intended to do that. And honestly, instead of feeling more like part of my parish, I actually felt more isolated. I just wasn’t in the same place as the other women I met, either spiritually or socially. I left the retreat feeling more like a stranger than before.
But it wasn’t all bad. I got to spend some time in Adoration. I also got to talk with one of the priests for a little while. I was able to get some things off my chest regarding my vocational discernment, and also about the grief I was still very much entrenched with. He gave me advice, encouragement, and some of the spiritual nourishment I was fairly starving for.
I also got to talk a lot about religious third orders; I’d mentioned in my introduction that I was considering joining a religious third order, and most of the other women were curious about what that meant. I’d sort of assumed that other lay Catholics were aware of third orders–they’re not. And that’s a huge shame. Because once they do learn of them, many are very interested. “Evangelizing” others about religious third orders did help to solidify my own longing to become a Lay Dominican.
So, although the CRHP retreat wasn’t quite everything I’d needed and hoped for at the time, it wasn’t a loss, by any means. And again, I don’t want to discourage anybody else from attending such a retreat. I’ve known CRHP to work wonderful things in people’s lives, to completely reignite and invigorate people’s religious and spiritual life.
That was October 2006. Throughout that autumn and the following winter and early spring, I continued along the bumpy curving path, usually very slowly, because it wasn’t like my entire life revolved around finding my vocation. In reality, I was struggling with all kinds of things… struggling with my job, struggling with grief, struggling to find my place in the world at large. And through it all, my relationship with God was rarely serene. He was still deconstructing and reconstructing me. Tossing me headlong from the nest in order to teach me to fly. His attitude was often one of “tough love,” and occasionally, that made me irate! And then He would sharply remind me that I had asked, prayed, begged, implored, and pestered Him to take action for me. And I’d be humbled and docile for a while, until I once again reached the point where I felt He was pushing me too hard. And the whole cycle would start over again.
Looking back, I see that I’d made the mistake of thinking that I could satisfy God. I’d foolishly thought that after giving in and pushing myself through the retreats, He would be satisfied and take it easy on me. HA! I don’t know who I thought I was dealing with. Clearly, I still had a lot to learn about God and how He loves us. He’s the fiercest, most relentless, most dedicated, most single-minded, most single-hearted lover. He doesn’t just accept tokens from us like a machine. We can love Him or reject Him, but we cannot be half-hearted.
In searching for my vocation, I was finding my relationship with God. The closer I came to Him, the straighter and more level my path.
To be continued…