A friend of mine, who runs her own lovely blog for Catholic moms, asked me to write a guest column for her blog on World Youth Day. Only, she asked me to do this shortly after I returned from World Youth Day, which was almost a month ago now. I think she was interested in hearing and sharing a Catholic mom's-eye view of World Youth Day, which got me really thinking about how this World Youth Day experience was different for me than my other two, since it was my first as a mom. It also got me thinking about vocation in general, and although this is a month late and at least a few ounces of "I'm a bubbly Catholic mama blogger" short, I'll offer what I have first here in the Coffee Talk forum, and then perhaps to be shared on my friend's blog as well.
My first World Youth Day experience was in Denver, Colorado in 1993 with Pope John Paul II. I was 15 years old, and looking back on that time, I believe that even though I probably can't remember a word that was said in any catechetical session or many specific things that happened at that event (I do remember feeling sick after a solid week of McDonald's food!), I do know that WYD Denver was my first taste of what it really meant to be Catholic (and no, it was not the taste of McDonald's!). In those days, I suddenly saw, heard, and felt, what it meant to be part of something much larger than myself, something much greater, higher, broader, more significant. I knew for the first time what it meant that the Church was truly Universal, or in a word, Catholic. For 15-year-old Leslie, full of youth, hope, and idealism, I think that WYD Denver helped me to form a deeper sense of having a calling in life, and seeing that I was a small but important part of some much bigger plan and design for life and the world.
My next World Youth Day experience was in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 2002. I traveled with a group of international alumni from NET Ministries (National Evangelization Teams), and helped to facilitate the catechetical sessions. This WYD was also especially meaningful to me in terms of my vocation, or calling in life, because I attended just weeks before entering religious life with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee. I felt that perhaps God was calling me to live as a Dominican Sister, and was accepted to live as a postulant (or one who asks the question) with the community. I remember clearly Pope John Paul II's message to the young people at his final WYD, especially to those considering priesthood and religious life, and I felt a deep hope and responsibility in responding to God's call as I heard it, even if it meant leaving behind regular contact with family and friends, a good job, and a graduate degree program that was being entirely paid for by my employer. I was ready to put my hand to the plow and to not look behind, following God wherever he was leading me. Little did I know where this path would take me.
My most recent World Youth Day experience was last month in Madrid, Spain. As I said, it was my first WYD as a mom, so you can probably gather that I did not become a Dominican Sister. After a school year of living with the beautiful community, I returned home, not at all sure why the Lord had called me there if He didn't want me to stay, and completely uncertain as to what path might lie ahead. When my friend recently asked me to share my 'mom's-eye' view of what WYD was like, it reminded me a bit of when I was asked to share my 'vocation story' for a Catholic magazine. The editor who asked me was relatively new to the publication, and so I was certain that she assumed that I was a happily married Catholic wife and mom. Strangely, I'd had a sense that I'd be called upon to share my story, complete with the sad divorce-and-annulment and all, so I told her that I'd be willing to share, but that my story wasn't probably the one she expected. She accepted my offer, and the result was published here. So in those years between WYD Toronto and WYD Spain, I'd experienced a whole lot of life and whole lot of heartache, especially in terms of my vocation. I never expected to attend a World Youth Day again after having children, and especially not after unexpectedly becoming a single mom, so I knew that when I was called upon to lead a group to Madrid, God must have some message for me, as well.
There are SO many things that I could say about my experience at World Youth Day Madrid, and about what I feel like God wanted me to take from the whole experience. I'll try to sum it up in three main themes:
1. Vocation is always rooted in reality, and in the present moment.
2. Vocation is always rooted in love, and in loving again and again.
3. Vocation means being God's, even on the Cross.
I'll offer a few thoughts on each one before I drift off to dream-land.
Have you ever known someone who was always 'discerning' their vocation? Don't get me wrong -- discernment is not a bad thing, but I think that sometimes we confuse discerning with fanciful daydreaming. And these daydreams don't necessarily have to take the form of something glamorous, for even the dream of suffering or martyrdom can be heroic in the mind's eye. Take my own situation -- sure, I can consider and pray about what the Lord might like me to do in the future. Would He like me to be married, to be a missionary, to enter religious life after my children are grown? But ultimately, the most important aspect of my vocation is rooted in my present reality -- I know that I am called to be the best mom I can be to my 3 and 5-year-old daughters, and to be a single person living a holy life in the midst of the world. And I should keep dedicating my life fully to those tasks at hand until such a time as the Lord presents something else to me, puts something or someone clearly in my path and asks me to take a different direction. Until that time, there is no use spending countless hours (or even minutes!) thinking about what could be or what might have been. Vocation is reality, plain and simple, and often that involves our lives being very different than we might have wished them to be. So be it.
Whenever I think of vocation, I think of little St. Therese of Lisieux, whose feast we will soon celebrate on October 1. St. Therese, a young cloistered Carmelite nun, desired to do everything. She described it here:
To be your Spouse, O Jesus, to be a Carmelite, by my union with you to be the mother of souls, should content me... yet it does not... Without doubt, these three privileges are indeed my vocation: Carmelite, spouse, and mother. And yet I feel in myself other vocations—I feel myself called to be a soldier, priest, apostle, doctor of the church, martyr. Finally, I feel the need, the desire to perform all the most heroic deeds for you, Jesus... I feel in my soul the courage of a crusader, of a soldier for the Church, and I wish to die on the field of battle in defense of the Church...And as she continued to search in the depths of her heart and her soul for her vocation, she finally had this culminating moment in her prayer:
Then in the excess of my delirious joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation, my vocation is Love!... Yes, I have found my place in the Church, and it is you, O my God, who have given me this place... in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be Love!.... Thus I shall be all things: thus my dream shall be realized!!!”Now, some think Therese to have been a syrup-y sweet little saint who always had life easy, and so her joy and happiness must have come to her with ease, as well. I can assure you that this was not the case, nor is it the case with any sincere disciple of Christ. No, my friends, we are asked to choose love and to live love again and again. And I think that even though perhaps the habit of loving makes it easier, the act of loving in the face of hatred, persecution, malignment, and every form of human suffering is a discipline that is possible not by human effort alone, but by grace. And then we are called to love again. And again. And again. To be willing to take the risk of loving not just once, not twice, but an infinite number of times. I suspect that this is part of what the Psalmist is referring to when he says, "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts." Do you hear God's voice, even in the midst of your pain and suffering? Open your heart to the possibility of loving again, to hurting again, to being healed again, and then once again to loving.
This is a hard one, especially for someone like me. I like to always have an identity in something I'm doing, or in being someone impressive. I'd like to say that it's not true, but it is. So since that last WYD to this recent one, I was many things: student, graduate, discerning, postulant, bride, wife, mother, divorced, annulled. I felt that God had led me down a number of different paths, and that while I'd followed in all sincerity, none of them took me to the place I thought I'd end up. And I realized, at World Youth Day in Madrid, that I was among many young people who had endured a great deal of suffering for their faith. I realized that there were many other faithful young Catholics besides myself who are also now divorced and annulled. I know that there were young mothers and fathers there, who have lost children or spouses to death. And I know that there were many people there for whom the gathering at World Youth Day was a rare opportunity to practice their faith openly without fear of intense persecution or legal penalty. I realized that ultimately, the Christian vocation means following Christ even unto death, and that means accepting the Cross. And that even in the face of uncertainty, embarrassment, disillusionment, pain, and suffering we are always God's, and God is always present. Always. And that 'Being God's' is the one vocation that never ends. For both in life and death we belong to God, and we know that the story of the Cross is one of unimaginable and senseless suffering bearing the greatest fruit of redemption that the world has ever known.
I'll close with a beautiful quote from a little card that I carry in my wallet:
Your life is His affair; it is produced by His steady attraction. It consists in being drawn, at His pace, and in His way, to the place where He wants you to be, which is often not the place you fancied for yourself. It is trying to see things, persons, and choices from the angle of eternity, and accepting them as a part of the material in which the Holy Spirit works. ~ Sister Rose Marie Masserano, O.P.Peace and all good,