You know how it’s very exciting to be involved in something that is new, and then the novelty wears off (for lack of a better way to put it) and the new becomes the ordinary every-day way things are? It’s less exciting, because it’s been around for awhile, and now you realize that it’s time to simply get down to the work of perfecting the thing and living it.
As I continue my journey toward a vow of celibacy and a life as a consecrated widow, that oddly distorted process has tangled itself around my feet more than once. My desire and commitment remain, and I am praying that the day of this consecration may come soon. And at the same time, the day-to-day work of this life stands in front of me and puts me at risk of letting it rob me of my joy.
Early on, I knew that the Evil One would try to put stumbling blocks in my way and tempt me from my intentions. I think I might have underestimated how subtle those things can be. I think I was expecting a glaring, obvious, obstreperous approach. Instead, I’ve experienced a barrage of “oh, not just now” and “actually I’m doing something else” and “oh, this feels a lot like work and obligation rather than fun.”
The first step in overcoming these attacks was to recognize them as such; the second was to pray for help to ward them off. It has been a long several weeks of struggle, and while I see light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak, I strongly suspect that the battle may continue.
As part of the formation process in my preparation, prayer — regular daily prayer throughout the day — has become increasingly important. It’s important both as a means of formation and as a defense to the attacks that come and will continue to come. I’ve had my own little hourly prayer reminders in place for some months now, and they have been a help in leading me to seek a connection with my Lord throughout the day. At my pastor’s suggestion, I have added to some of these hourly reminders a cue to pray the liturgical hours/divine office. And these are beautiful prayer sequences based largely on the Psalms and the many Canticles that appear in both Old and New Testament writings. They are full of richness and depth. And yet when the alarm would chime, I would suddenly feel a sense of facing an obligation — rather than welcoming the opportunity to pray with the Psalms and other scriptures, it often feels like something that needs to be gotten through just to get done.
Frustrating, and terrifying. And so in my times of free-style prayer, I began to ask for help to strengthen and build my prayer life.
Jesus will not be outdone, and the Holy Spirit stays close just to make sure we know that. Very soon, in the listening time of my prayer, I began to hear that the simple solution is to welcome these times of prayer. Simply stop what I am doing, if at all feasible, and turn to the prayers for the liturgical hour. If that is not feasible — if I’m driving, for example — it’s less important that I pray the Psalms for that hour than it is to connect with Jesus; those become times for freestyle prayer and for listening. If I’m in the midst of an appointment or with other people, I simply look at my prayer reminder and take a brief moment to set my heart on Him and give Him that moment….until later.
Jesus will not be outdone, and so He made sure I became aware of ways to make these times of prayer valuable to our relationship. When I’m by myself, I pray them aloud or use the podcast features of the apps by which I access the Divine Office to pray them interactively. I remind myself that I have nothing but time — there’s no rush to get to the next thing, and there is nothing that is more important or valuable than this time.
Jesus will not be outdone, and so He rejoices and brings joy to my heart when I let myself linger over and reflect on the words in front of me.
And thus my prayer time becomes a source of peace and joy, and just in case that sense of obligation rears its ugly head, it’s a trigger for me to remember that Jesus will not be outdone. He has something far better to offer me in my prayer time than whatever else might be happening around me.
Even as I revel in the sense of peace and joy that come with my times for prayer, there’s an attack from another quarter! It takes the form of a question: Why on earth do you need a vow of celibacy? Just live your life the way you know you should live it. Nothing to be gained by reducing your options, right? Why make a spectacle of yourself? These attacks even go so far as to ask, Who do you think you are?
Oh, my. These thoughts, these questions, do not carry a trace of peace and joy with them. They are at best troubling, and at worst even more terrifying than the difficulties with prayer. Now, if there is one thing I am getting at least marginally better at, it is recognizing doubts and temptations for what they are and for where they come from, and using them as a trigger for prayer. And once again, I learned, as I listened for answers, that Jesus will not be outdone.
As I explored in my heart what is going on with my desire to vow myself to a life of celibacy, I began to hear the Lord’s call with much greater clarity. The first thing I heard was: Relax. Don’t be so busy making this difficult — relax and enjoy the journey. I have good things in store for you. And then: Just relax, and lean into Me. Don’t worry so much about whether you are doing all the right things. Just do all things in the joy of your calling.
When I took these words to heart, I realized that I had been doing the same thing that got me in trouble when I was in the convent years ago; I had fallen into the trap of seeing my prayers and devotions as a series of things to get done and move on from. And they are, truly, so much more! The sense of God’s presence that comes from just sinking into one of the liturgical hours of the Divine Office, from prayerfully and slowly reading the Psalms and Canticles and listening quietly for the Holy Spirit’s promptings — this is a path to peace and joy and richness.
The next thing that I began to think about was the way that grace has led me to the point of a vow of celibacy and to seek a life as a consecrated widow. The Holy Spirit will not be outdone, either. He had the answer to the question, Who do you think you are, anyway — making vows and setting yourself in such a special position?
The answer goes something like this: The person with a charism of celibacy has received a gift — a gift, by definition unearned and even unsought; a gift which enables her to better serve her God and to better serve His people. The person who lives out this charism through a vow of celibacy and a consecration of her life to the service of God in His people is responding to God’s call — to the voice of her Creator, the call of her Redeemer, the urging of her Sanctifier — and responds not for her own sake but out of love and for the glory of God.
The idea that a vow of celibacy is a turning away from the natural order of things is a misnomer. In fact, the idea that celibacy is the giving up of something that is essential to all people is a disservice to the wonderful way that God works in His people. And the concept that vowed celibates cannot understand or counsel those who are called to marriage and family life is a concept that ignores the infinite power of the Spirit and Word of God.
It is true, of course, that God in His infinite wisdom created humanity such that new lives are created through sexual relationships between men and women. And to that end, He fashioned us with the ability and desire to experience these relationships so that—again as God wills—the human race may continue as an expression of God’s love.
God also fashioned us with free will, and by definition this means the freedom to choose among options for goodness as well as to choose sin. What it does not mean is that one way of life is representative of our “needs”—needs which we consider ourselves entitled to fulfill—while another is inherently limiting because the fulfillment of those needs is set aside.
When we put these decisions in such tiny boxes, we seem to limit the power of God.
What if, instead, we saw this range of lifestyles as meaningful responses to the many ways God calls His people to serve Him?
When I consider the whole of my life story and faith journey up to this point, it occurs to me that even my failures to serve Him in the way that I lived previously as a married person serve as a kind of guidebook to this new call. My life has come full circle from those early days when I could not quite grasp the depth of my vocation. Through years of a spiritual struggle that I didn’t really even see was happening, through years of my challenging God with the crooked lines I laid out for Him to write with, He has always been there, waiting patiently, watching out for me, keeping me from doing too much damage, and ultimately writing so very straight with those very crooked lines until I opened my heart to His grace.
Today, I begin anew my journey to a vowed life of celibacy and service. With my Lord’s help, may I turn from each doubt and question to the peace of prayer and grace. With the love of a Lord Who will not be outdone, may I just relax and lean into Him and do all things in the joy of my calling.
Yes. Jesus will not be outdone, and I can live with that.