The day of the most amazing grace finally arrived! On July 20, 2019, in the presence of pastor, family, friends, and my faith community, I professed my permanent vow of celibacy with a commitment to serve God wherever and however he sends me, to find and serve him in his people. During the time I was preparing for this day and for this step, I didn’t write at all, although I took many notes during times of prayer and meditation that I’m sure will find their way here in the future.
Here and now, my intent is to write about my time of preparation and about some very interesting – and incredibly beautiful – moments along the way. My Father God has an amazing way of using the present moment to get my attention and, if I’ll listen, lead me where he wants me to go.
A couple of weeks ago, with 12 days remaining until the day of my vow of celibacy to my Jesus, and in the midst of a fast-paced life (even in retirement!), I received the grace of spending time a long weekend in a sort of modified retreat, with Consoling the Heart of Jesus by Fr. Michael Gaitley as my retreat guide. I am taking some time now to write down what this retreat has brought me.
Since I began to hear the call to a vow of celibacy late last winter, I have reflected often on the way such a vow will free me into greater service to God. With these reflections has come deeper grace and love than I could have imagined, in the form of new and expanded opportunities for service both within and outside my family. I can still remember thinking, when I first retired, that I didn’t want to be one of those grandparents/great-grandparents whose time was all taken up with caring for the children – I had other plans, and I wasn’t going to be taken advantage of!
What a narrow and blighted view that was. By grace, I find the greatest joy in having the little ones around. I find myself led to offer, rather than waiting to be asked, to take care of them. And I am constantly amazed at the relationships that are growing.
The other calls to service that I am hearing involve volunteering at Mother Teresa House, a Catholic hospice facility, and joining with the Companions of Pauline, a lay apostolate of the Sisters of Christian Charity. Both of these are “works in progress,” and I eagerly await the Holy Spirit’s lead in seeing how they will come to fruition. I feel these calls strongly. I have not been as sure about teaching catechism this coming year; after praying for guidance and light in that regard, I’ve discerned that teaching is definitely a part of how I will serve.
Once I had discerned that God was calling me to a personal vow of celibacy, I began to take steps toward making it a reality. Father Gordon, my pastor, heard my story and agreed that my discernment was proper and complete. He then suggested that there were three areas where I would benefit from focusing as I moved forward: prayer, as a defense against doubt and temptation; community, as a way of maintaining the strength and focus of my commitment; and ministry, as a way of spreading the love that Jesus pours into my life. And to these ends, I have returned to the very simple prayer that I repeated so often in the first days and weeks and months after I returned to the church in 2012: Jesus, by your Holy Spirit, lead me and teach me to do what you want me to do. Somehow, over time, I had mistakenly come to think that my prayer must become more complex and somehow sophisticated. Much comfort and consolation has come from returning to a simple conversation with my Lord and King.
As the month of June began to wind down, and I received Father Gordon’s approval to proceed with my vow, I began to think about preparations. It quickly became apparent that the idea of getting away for a silent retreat was not feasible at this time; still, I felt that a retreat was one of the best and most important ways I could prepare for this important step. That’s when the idea came to me to take the long holiday weekend as an opportunity to use Fr. Gaitley’s book, which I’ve had for four years but barely opened, as my retreat guide. The more I thought about it, the more drawn I was to making this kind of retreat. After all, the purpose of my vow is to make me a “consecrated person” who is pledged to God’s service, forsaking marriage and all that leads to it in favor of the love of Jesus, while living still in the world as a lay person. Making my retreat in my own home, according to the schedule that my life in the world would allow, seemed like a good thing – and it has been. I did not manage to finish the entire book over the long weekend, so I am going to continue spending a couple of hours of each day reading and following and praying with this book as I continue to prepare for my vow.
As I began to think about the retreat itself and how I will live out this vow, I became more and more aware of the work of the Holy Spirit in me – sometimes, in fact, with a layer of humor that vividly caught my attention.
For example, on the Saturday before the long holiday weekend, I had the opportunity to get out for a long walk, and I took along my iPhone with earbuds so I could listen to music. I selected the shuffle function to play from all the music I have collected over the years. And after a couple of classical pieces, which I enjoyed greatly, I started hearing some of the popular vocal selections – and a pattern began to emerge. The random selections I heard were these:
- Bob Seger, Turn the Page
- Bob Seger, Someday, Lady, You’ll Accompany Me
- John Mayer, Am I Livin’ It Right
- ELO, You Shed a Little Light on My Life (and let me see)
- John Mayer, I’m Tired of Being Alone (So hurry up and get here)
Secular music, to be sure – but the Holy Spirit was using it, as He loves to use everyday things, to highlight the call that Jesus was giving me. And the most profound sense of joy and peace came with the realization that he had chosen this way to communicate with me. He uses the things of everyday life to lead me to consecrate my everyday life to him.
Then, one morning during the week as I was heading out for Mass, a hymn popped into my head. The tune was almost all there, but I couldn’t remember all of the words. As I awaited the beginning of Mass, I picked up the hymnal, initially thinking to be ready when the gathering hymn was announced. (Any other day, I wouldn’t reach for it until I heard the lector’s “Good morning!” from the back of the church.) That day, I picked up the hymnal and (randomly, I thought) opened it. And there in front of me was the hymn that had been running through my head earlier. I know a sign when I see one (I think!), so I quickly scanned the refrain: Lead me, guide me, along the way; for if you lead me, I cannot stray.
OK, Jesus, I think I’m beginning to see where you are going with this.
On Sunday, June 30, I had the opportunity to spend time with the Lectio Divina provided in the Magnificat publication for that day’s readings, and once more I found beautiful guidance. In reflecting on the words of Luke’s gospel (9:57-62) regarding those who professed a desire to follow Jesus but put obstacles in their own paths, these points stood out for me:
- Where will Jesus lead us? The first man in this story sees Jesus as a means to recognition, fame, sainthood – whatever he thinks his destination might be; but Jesus is telling us that he himself is our destination, our place.
- Jesus tells us to stop living in the past – dwelling on our history of sin, failure, and problems and continually trying to “bury” them as the second man wanted to bury his father. Jesus wants us to see that we have no need to bury our past, that “he is the one who raises our dead past to life” (Magnificat, June 2019, p. 445).
- The third man sought to take leave of his connections to family and friends in order to follow Jesus. Jesus assures us that our life in this world and our human experiences and joys are not to be set aside by our relationship with him, but rather made better and stronger by his love. When we are united to others by only our own strength, the bond is tenuous at best; when we are united to others through Jesus, the bond is stronger than we can ever imagine.
So, from all of this, I learned (again, in a new way) that Jesus wants to be the center of everything for me. And then, on page 454 of the same issue of Magnificat, I found great consolation in the words of St. Claude La Colombière: “…God has loved me too well for me to spare myself henceforth in his service….I am ashamed at the mere thought of depriving him of anything.” St. Claude goes on to say that “in order to do much for God one must be completely his….in this state one maintains a lively faith and a firm hope, one asks God confidently and one obtains infallibly.”
A tall order? Absolutely. Why did it give me such consolation? Because I am sure this is what God calls me to, and with his call he includes the grace to hear and answer. “I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phillippians 4:13).
At the beginning of my retreat, it occurred to me that it feels like everything in faith is about change. I saw great irony in this insight: The eternal God constantly calls on his people to change – to go against what they are used to, to leave behind what is comforting and comfortable, and to change. And because change is all about risk and growth, that call really should not surprise us. It started with creation itself – God changed the universe from the emptiness that he alone filled, to the fullness of his creations, and he declared it good.
When I talk to people about faith, I like to say that the questions we bring are so very complex, but faith itself is very, very simple. And that’s a mystery in itself. But as Fr. Gaitley says, in Consoling the Heart of Jesus, the meaning of mystery is not that nobody can understand it, but rather that we can never exhaust the meaning of it. And so I find myself daily contemplating the idea of faith, both as the gift of the Holy Spirit and as a response to God’s call, and I never get to the end. I never get to the end, and I never run out of beauty and grace in the contemplation of it.
So, if faith is a crutch, as many people believe, then please Lord, let me be a cripple.
And as my retreat and preparation time continued, I was struck by these words of St. Anthony Zachariah: “Let us run like fools not only to God, but also to our neighbor, who is the intermediary to whom we give what we cannot give to God. And this, from my own rambling thoughts: when we deal in forgiveness, we must ask ourselves how the forgiven must participate. That seems to me to be the missing link when we compare God’s forgiveness to our own forgiveness. When God forgives us, he offers us the grace to participate in it – to accept it and build it into our lives. It’s up to us how we accept that gift. When we forgive others, extending that same offer is necessary; and sometimes, the person we forgive will choose not to participate in the grace that comes with forgiveness. That’s when we turn to prayer. Another insight on forgiveness, from a homily based on the readings for July 7: Jesus, in sending out the 72 disciples, told them (and us), that there will be situations and people we cannot resolve or fix, and when that happens we have to walk away. He doesn’t tell us we are to keep hammering away at people until we change them. We must forgive, yes; but that does not necessarily change the other side of the equation.
Shortly after these insights, I read a section in Consoling the Heart of Jesus that opened my soul and my heart like nothing else has done. Fr. Gaitley writes (p.89):
Go to Jesus as you are. Open your heart to him as it is (not as you wish it to be) And know that Jesus loves sincerity, that he loves it when we’re completely open with him. Why does he love this? Because the more open we are with him, the more deeply he can heal us—and this especially applies to his being able to heal us of our attachments.
And then Fr. Gaitley says: “What hurts Jesus most is the sin of lack of trust in him. The greatest consolation we can offer him is to trust him completely.” Living this kind of trust daily means accepting everything that happens with praise and thanksgiving – living in a state of joyful, trustful acceptance. Fr. Gaitley goes on to suggest that instead of trying to choose our own crosses, we will benefit from accepting well the crosses that God chooses for us, which in his wisdom and compassion he will assure are not too heavy…and not too light.
In reading these sections and reflecting on them, I realized that my trust in Jesus had a big gap. I have, for a long time, found my trust in him to be tempered by a fear that he would test me beyond what I thought was my endurance, perhaps by taking Mary or Claire from me in this world. This gap in my trust would have me praying for God’s will to be done in my life – but don’t do this, or that, or some other thing to me that I think would be too hard.
As I read and reflected, I found that I needed to return to praying the Litany of Trust regularly, and I needed to pray for an increase in my trust, so that I would live in a state of complete trust. I saw that this kind of trust is rooted in God’s mercy, love, compassion, and forgiveness – that instead of expecting God to treat me as my sins surely deserve, I was being called to expect him to treat me like one of his beloved and redeemed children. This journey to trust will be a lifelong journey, one with daily renewals, and I am filled with gratitude for these insights.
During the time of my retreat, and often throughout the preceding weeks, I found myself in a state of a kind of discontent. I wasn’t getting a lot of consolation through prayer and meditation, and even my attendance at daily Mass was feeling fraught with effort rather than feelings of peace and serenity and joy. It occurred to me that I was having difficulty making Jesus seem real to me, and I came to understand that perhaps I needed to slow down a bit and simply put myself in his presence without all the busy-ness I seemed to want to put in the process. And, as he often does, the Holy Spirit handed me an answer: another homily, this time on the feast day of St. Thomas the Apostle. Fr. Jerry said that he thinks St. Thomas gets a bad rap when we refer to him as “Doubting Thomas.” He pointed out that Thomas was not really doubting, but questioning, in the way that we all do with the rational minds that God gave us, and that his questioning (not doubting) gave Jesus opportunities to make himself real to Thomas.
As the day of my vow approached, I sat in prayer one day before Mass, and I felt like I was being distracted by thoughts of exactly how the ceremony might go. I sort of shook myself, mentally, and prayed for grace to come closer to Jesus and hear him. That’s when he asked me a crucial question: Once you take this vow, how are you going to live our life together?
This seems to me to have been the most important moment of all my preparations. After all the plans to pray regularly, to seek community, and to find ministry in my daily life, after writing my vow and planning its profession as a witness to others, wasn’t that really the heart of it all?
“How are you going to live our life together?” When I wrote my vow, I included the statement that I desire to be changed – profoundly, at the core of my being – and then poured out in love. If I truly mean that statement, and if my vow is truly intended as a seal binding my soul most intimately to Jesus, then how I live my life must change, now and every day hereafter. And as if to underscore this fact, God led me to witness a sight so unusual that this truth is written on my heart forever.
Friday evening, the night before my vow, my sweet granddaughter Claire and I were watching the rain from the back door. Claire told me she wanted to go out on the deck and stand in the rain, and get some rain in her mouth. So we opened the door, and stepped out. I looked back at my Mary Garden, and saw that the huge magnolia tree there was in bloom – for the second time this season! This is a tree that blooms in late April or early May, before the leaves come out – and here it was in a second bloom just when I was pledging my life to a new way of living for Jesus!
On Saturday, July 20, I went with a happy heart and a joyful soul to make this offering of myself at the 9:00 Mass in our parish’s Cana chapel. Fr. Gordon conducted the small ceremony and blessed for me the ring I will wear forever as an outward sign of my vow, and I’d like to think my voice was strong and true as I recited my vow. Family and friends were there with their love and support, and Mary put together the most wonderful brunch as we celebrated afterward. I was surprised to receive gifts – a lovely little plaque and a gift card from one friend, and a beautiful shooting star hydrangea for my Mary Garden from another; I treasure the cards and the sentiments they carried; and I loved getting both a card and an email from Sr. Mary Ann, SCC, to congratulate me and assure me of prayers.
And going back to the question Jesus asked, “How are you going to live our life together?” One of the first things I did was to recreate the hourly prayer reminders on my phone, which had been lost when I had to reset the phone a few weeks ago. These already have helped me with a renewed focus on my life’s true purpose.
I want to continue by focusing on regular formal prayer as well as “ad lib” prayer and meditation and also to focus on spiritual reading. Beginning studies with the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan will give me the frequent immersion in spiritual study that is essential. I hope soon to be installed in the Companions of Pauline, the lay apostolate of the Sisters of Christian Charity, and to begin working at Mother Teresa House; and I have plans for a ministry of knitting that is meant to put warmth and love in the way of those in need, by making hats, scarves, and mittens to donate to shelters and charities. And above all, I am focused on listening for God, for the voice of Jesus in my heart, not just on busying myself with all kinds of formalities.
The beautiful part of all this is that I sensed, very clearly and very joyfully, a profound shift in my soul upon pronouncing and professing my vow. There is no way to describe it other than to say I feel the difference, and it is a good difference.
Yes. I can live with that.
Leave a Reply