“Holiness consists simply in doing God’s will,
and being just what God wants us to be.”
I have not forgotten about you all! I have been eager to share with you my journey, there and back again, but it has been quite a lot to process and absorb from beginning to end. Sunday afternoon I came down with a little cold which I am now nursing (and which I am so grateful waited until after my trip and High Mass!!! Little bits of providence.) It’s a cozy sort of feeling, to be sitting here with a mild cold, the diffuser running beside me and the soft strains of Jesus, My Lord, my God, my All whispering from my speakers. The quiet morning routine is in full swing downstairs; my dear big sister just brought me a cup of sweet tea, and I am here at last to share with you all that God has shared with my heart through the tremendous trip that began thirteen days ago.
Where to begin?
My time at Ephesus was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my nineteen years. If I were Anne Shirley I would definitely call it an epoch in my life; but perhaps the best way to describe it all–the journey there and back again and all the time in between–is a Lent packed into one week. As I expressed to my family the other day, I really feel like it should be Easter already! (Don’t worry, though, I haven’t broken into the chocolate. Except for once on Laetare.)
I set out to take the next step I could distinguish on the path that our Lord has traced for me, full of hope, joy, and an eager expectation of many graces (I mean, after all, I’d kind of prayed a lot of novenas and had half the people in the world praying and fasting for me!)
Looking back, I can see now that our Lord answered each of these expectations in an overwhelmingly abundant way, although the answer was not what I expected when I stepped into the airport. Not in the least! Christ truly is the Master Author–it was the perfect plot twist that no one expects but that perfectly fulfills every facet of the story in a breathtaking way. The longer I live, the more firmly I believe that I am a character in the most amazing book ever.
“Praise ye the Lord:
for He is good:
sing ye to His name,
for He is sweet:
whatsoever He pleased, He hath done
in heaven and on earth.”
If you’ve been reading my blog for long, you probably won’t be very surprised by the fact that God has surprised me again. The one thing about vocational discernment I have truly learned is that His plans for my future are beyond my grasp, and will remain so until He is ready to reveal them. Come to think of it, it would be very frustrating as an author to have a character who was constantly trying to guess what I was going to have happen next–begging me to reveal their incredible destiny to them–too restless to get to the future to appreciate the present. What if I wanted to surprise them? (Bear with me being whimsical for a moment!) What if I knew that the sufferings and trials they would have to undergo one day would be too much for their wills to bear in the present? That the joys to follow would not be as meaningful and deep to them now? I would know that they would be unable to live and grow now if they were consumed with a knowledge of their future.
Looking towards my journey, it seemed quite possible to me that I would, at some point in the visit, receive a real sense of Yes! This is the place for me! This is the answer to all my longings and expectations! I knew it was possible something else would happen, but I was ready to receive a certainty of belonging there. After all, there were all those novenas. . .
In the months and weeks leading up to the trip, I was full of anticipation and excitement, trying to keep my family brave and upbeat as they processed emotionally the idea of my radical departure from them. I spent hours looking through old Ephesus newsletters on their site, photo galleries, reading about them, and chattering about them to anyone who would listen. I marked the days off one by one. I prayed the novenas. I practice-packed to make sure I could fit all I needed in carry-on-size-luggage, and then finally packed. Then the day came, and we were off to the airport. (By the way, I absolutely loved flying. Gazing out of the tiny window, I constantly had John Gillespie Magee, Jr.’s High Flight circling through my head: “Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth, And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings. . .”)
Although, as I’d admitted to plenty of people, I really didn’t know much of what to expect, I was full of positive thoughts and emotions on the flight to Kansas City. Dad was already experiencing internally his own Agony in the Garden–but was so brave at concealing it that I couldn’t tell. We landed, got our rental car, and made our way up to St. Joseph, then to Gower, and finally all the way out to the gates of Ephesus.
Full of excitement, we found the Sister I was to meet, who told Dad where he was to stay and whisked us off to the chapel, where None was beginning. It was completely surreal to be finally in that space–to be seeing the faces of nuns I had seen in photos so many times. It was dreamlike, and with the kind help of the friendly aspirant I was to room with all week, I managed to follow some of the office. Then Dad went off to where he was staying, and I joined the community for dinner.
The privilege of being allowed into the cloister, of being able to share in just about every aspect of the Benedictines’ daily lives for a whole week–which had to be at least a little disruptive for them!–is a gift I will ever be humbled by and grateful for. Every one of the nuns that I encountered was absolutely dear and edifying in her own way. What an incredible experience it was, to be allowed to enter into the workings of the heart of the Church for a week. Ephesus, I found, is a house of beauty and simplicity, of holiness and order, of joy and prayer, just as the house of Our Lady should be. Finally, after months of imaginings, conversations, pictures and emails, I was there, and I could taste, smell, touch, see, and hear it all.
It was beautiful. And, I will be perfectly honest, it was the most difficult week of my whole life.
To start with, the silence was almost startling–not because I didn’t expect it, but because I didn’t know how to really conceive of it until I was in it. It was a whole silence–not just of the tongue, but of the hands, the eyes, the whole countenance. I didn’t really talk with any of the Benedictines for a couple of days, when we were allowed to join the Novitiate for recreation–so much fun–and didn’t have a real conversation about my visit and discernment and everything until Wednesday, when I sat down with Sister Scholastica and talked for a while. I don’t know what I was expecting, going to a place where silence was kept, but it wasn’t that!
After dinner on Friday I was directed to the kitchen, where the first thing I did was help one of the novices and my fellow aspirant (without whose bright spirits and friendliness I don’t think I would have survived!) cut mold off of heads of cauliflower. Then I helped peel and cut up carrots. Then I sorted through lettuce and spinach and picked out the icky parts–though nothing was thrown away, just given to the chickens or the compost pile.
As we worked in silence–and it was a very revealing silence–everything began to catch up to me. Exhaustion from travel, the letdown of anticipation and the nervousness that came from not knowing what to expect, anxiety over not knowing if Dad was settled all right and when I would get to see him and call the rest of the family. As I picked through spinach, tears began to seep through, and the thought came to me suddenly that, if I were to decide then and there that I just had to go back home, I could be sure that Dad would take me right back and not think twice about having come all the way to Missouri for nothing. Then I really started to cry–though silently, of course.
Finally some time came when I was free and I went to sit on the front porch and called home. It was cold, and windier than I had expected–the wind and I got used to each other over that week–and I was trembling and fighting tears from my voice as I talked to Mom and my siblings. They were encouraging and loving as we chatted, and I tried to be brave. Soon afterwards came Compline and then, to avoid breaking Grand Silence, Dad took me outside the chapel to say goodbye.
I can’t effectively describe the ways in which moments like that one throughout this journey have made me grow in love, respect, and confidence in my father, just as I have grown in a realization of how much I rely on and need my mother and how much my siblings mean to me–and how insignificant any friction with them always is.
Standing just outside the chapel in the freezing wind, Dad and I hugged each other and then let go. (Yes, Dad, I’m tearing up just thinking about it!) I was crying, although it was the last thing I wanted to do because I knew–or thought I knew–how hard this was for him. I couldn’t help it. I tried to reassure him that I was fine and would be fine until they came to get me, what seemed like an eternal week from then, though I wasn’t so sure of that myself. He smiled, held my hands in his, and reminded me of how God had brought me here and would take care of me. He told me I was safe and that I could do it. And then he told me that he would come and get me sooner than a week if I needed him to.
Finally, I was beginning to emotionally process what my family had already been processing yet for some reason I had been unable to until then–the pain of separation–the cost. Of course this was healthy and natural, but it was very painful. We said goodbye, and I went to bed with the shivers and cried and prayed until I fell asleep.
Looking back now, the days really blend together in my memory, homogenizations of psalms, work, meals, Masses, recreations, struggles, and finally joy and peace. There was a beautiful but bewildering sense of timelessness–which makes sense, because one is stepping into what Ven. Maria Teresa Quevedo called “the vestibule of Heaven”.
The first few days I struggled hard with my anxiety–the kind that clutches your chest and refuses to be shaken off completely. My mind would not stop running–I was constantly analyzing, processing, trying to understand why I felt the way I did and what I actually thought about things there and when my anxiety would go away so I could feel more like myself. Although I could see the beauty of the life, although everyone was kind, I was upset and I just wanted to be home! I was utterly homesick, not just for my family, but for everything–my house, the foothills and trees I love, my friends, my schedule, my parish, anything familiar. My missal was a friend with its simple familiarity, but it made me long to be back at my church, between my siblings in our pew. High Mass on Sunday made me want to cry because I knew how much Mary would love it. I felt completely uprooted and dropped in the middle of nowhere, far from everyone I knew–though, as my brother reminded me during one teary phone conversation–Jesus was there. Jesus was there, Deo gratias. Otherwise, I would not have been, and could not have lasted the week.
But on a deeper plane than simple homesickness, those first few days saw my own battle, the same one that Dad had been fighting on the plane ride and as we said goodbye–the battle of Abraham, although I was Isaac. What if God really did ask this of me? Could I really let go of everything–would I really give Him my family and everything that I had ever known, apart from Him?
Although it was anything but pleasant, I consider this battle one of the most important of my life so far, because in the midst of it, I was bereft of pretty much everything except God, and learned how to rely on grace when I had nothing. Yes, Lord. I’m afraid, Lord, but take away my fear! Thy will be done, became my prayer.
That little victory–just being able, over and over, to repeat that surrender–took away my fears. Christ showed me that His grace is sufficient and perfected His power in my weakness. Finally I truly joined my family in their act of offering Isaac. (By the way, if you’ve never listened to Danielle Rose’s Abraham’s Offering, this is one of the most beautiful songs ever!)
All this was interior, and there were battles to be fought at the same time with adjusting to a completely different sleep schedule (4:45 am – 8:45 pm) and eating schedule, and the work. It was mostly simple work (for which I was very grateful!), but when one is tired in body and spirit, peeling garlic for four hours or removing dead bean vines from wire fencing in the cold can be downright difficult. However, I did feel as though I was earning my keep, and came away with a whole new appreciation for how much one can get done in a day! I began to sleep better because I was so tired. Then of course there was the prayer–the Office became easier to follow along with over time and practically reading the entire book of Psalms over the course of my stay was one of my favorite parts of the trip. There is so much expression of the spiritual life–and of Christ’s life–in the psalms, sometimes startlingly so. I loved discovering the psalms in a new way, and they upheld me in some of the most difficult struggles.
There were very real joys even in the most difficult days–bright smiles from passing novices or postulants–a bit of beautiful snow–conversations with my family–tiny pieces of Providence seen in finding time to shower, to rest, or text home now and then–the particularly apt Psalms when I was low–the friendship of the other aspirants–good food (I ate more there than I was at home!)–and many other little encouragements and consolations that kept me going and reassured me that I was truly being well taken care of by my Heavenly Father. I began to rely more upon Him, knowing that I had cast myself upon His care in a way I never had before, trusting Him for my needs, great and small. And the Eucharist was there each day–my lifeline! I relied very heavily on Our Lady and St. Joseph and my patron saints, and they certainly did not let me down! As my dad encouraged me to do on the phone, I began to contemplate that there is no sorrow we encounter that Our Lord or Our Lady have not already undergone. I grew closer to Our Lady in her sorrows, especially in the Flight into Egypt and the Loss of the Child Jesus. How consoling that was!
After the first few days, I felt myself beginning to emotionally relax (although there were still teary moments. . . melancholic to the end!) and get more used to the schedule. I knew that I was growing–that I had been broken down and was being put together into something rather new–but, paradoxically, I felt at the same time that I finally understood my age. Does that make sense? To put it simply, I realized that I am still more a girl than a woman.
I’ve always wanted to give God my youth, abhorring the idea of delaying my vocation indefinitely so I can “live a little first”, whatever that means. Knowing myself, I can easily see that zeal has never been my problem so much as impatience. I’ve never lacked in eagerness to embark on my vocation, but I have often been lacking in contentment with what I have in the present (which you could probably glean from skimming through a few of my earlier posts!)
It’s easy to see where most of the time this longing of mine has been pure impatience, and looking back to the time leading up to my trip, I smile to remember how I dreaded the possibility of Sister Scholastica sending me home with a, “Give it a year or two and see if you feel the same way.”
To end your suspense, that’s exactly the conclusion she and I came to. And I’m the happiest person alive!
I finally understand my state in life for the present; and, to quote St. Therese again, Holiness consists simply in doing God’s will, and being just what He wants us to be. Finally, finally, I understand that I am simply doing His will by being content to be a young woman at home. I am still with Christ in His Hidden Life in Nazareth, meant to grow in wisdom and age and grace here, now! He is not in a hurry to take me from the bosom of my family–just like with Abraham, He asked only the willingness, and He gave us back to each other. What a loving Lord I have!
The thing is, it’s always easier to be holy in the future than in the present. It’s so easy for me to imagine my vocation as the key to suddenly reaching new heights of virtue and sanctity, the moment the ring is on my finger or the veil is on my head–and it’s true that, for most of us, our vocation is the path to Sainthood (the exception being very young Saints). But virtue can only exist in the present–as a matter of fact, we can only exist in the present. We can only grow into Saints one moment at a time. (These simple things boggle my mind sometimes!) My Heavenly Father knows, and has finally gotten it through my thick skull, that I still need my childhood. That chapter of the story is not yet complete–my maidenhood–there are still parts of me that must grow and mature in ways I can’t understand yet. But that’s fine with me. Finally, I am content just to bloom where I have been planted until my Divine Gardner is ready to transplant me elsewhere. Contentment! I am so happy to be home–so happy–there is so much here that I had taken for granted!
This was the great and unexpected gift I received at Ephesus–the clarity of understanding how I am to serve and please God with my life now. I think that has been a cause of restlessness for my soul since long before I started this blog. What a gift!
As I said before, the retreat truly broke me down and put me back together, and beyond this clarity I feel I don’t know anything for certain, certainly not about my future. But I’m at peace–I know He will lead–so I’m leaving the future up to the Author and getting busy with the present!
“My dear Sam, you cannot always be torn in two. . .
You have so much to enjoy, and to be, and to do. . .”
“Well, I’m back,” he said.