Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our fifth round of bloggers: Katie Delaney is a Good Shepherd Volunteer with the Fundación Madre Josefa (Mother Joseph Foundation) in Santiago, Chile, and Lauren Magee is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at Hands of Hope, an income-generating project that provides dignified employment for villagers living with HIV/AIDS in Nong Khai, Thailand. This is Katie's final blog post.
As I write this, my final Notes from the Field blog with GSR, I am in my last week as a Good Shepherd Volunteer in Chile; by the time it is published, I will have been back in the United States for almost a full week. In the days leading up to our departure, my fellow GSVs and I were busy with trip preparations, year-end reflections, and many despedidas to say goodbye to students, friends, and all those who supported us this year in Chile.
Throughout this transition, an idea kept coming back to me that I'd heard in a few conversations with various mentors, most recently with my spiritual director, Sister Thomas. We were discussing my hopes and fears for my return to the United States when she said: "Returning will be difficult because you're a different person than you were before this experience."
The thing was — I didn't feel that different. Yes, I had grown during my time in Chile. But I didn't think it was an earth-shattering, mind-blowing, see-the-world-with-new-eyes type of growth. Wasn't that the change one was supposed to have after a year of international service?
Upon further reflection, I realized that Sister Thomas did have some authority when it came to this question. As my spiritual director from January to July, she had guided me on a journey that led to a subtle yet profound change in one aspect of my life that impacted all the rest: my relationship with God.
In the past, I approached faith primarily as a problem-solving tool. I would come to God with certain struggles or questions, and God would provide some sort of comfort or resolution. I brought the same intention to spiritual direction with Sister Thomas. I hoped we could answer the question that inspired me to pursue a year of international service in the first place: "What am I called to do with my life?"
But Sister Thomas' approach was different. Rather than focusing on figuring out my life's purpose, she invited me to meet God face to face, explaining, "It's all based in personal relationship. From this, everything else flows."
For the first time, I really considered: Who is God to me? And how do I engage with my God in a way that is authentic, meaningful and intimate?
Prayer served as a primary means for me to cultivate this relationship. In our first session together, Sister Thomas and I began the process of personalizing my prayer. We talked about how I prayed and moments when I felt closest to God. With this foundation and Sister Thomas' formation in Ignatian spirituality, we then adapted the popular St. Ignatian Examen for a daily routine I could try:
- Imagine sitting in God's loving gaze. In the past, I felt most spiritually connected in guided meditations that involved visualizing God: sometimes in the form of Jesus and other times, a more feminine being. Calling upon the safe, accepting, stable presence that I found in these moments helped me begin prayer from a place of peace.
- Ask for God's grace to open you up to this time of prayer. This allowed me to take some pressure off myself and reminded me that prayer wasn't just up to me — God really was there with me in the process. As they say, it takes two to tango!
- Reflecting on the last day, consider: For what am I most grateful? And when did I most feel the presence of God? At first, I had a hard time distinguishing between these questions, and at times, my responses still overlap. But I learned that prayer can be a source of joy and that God sometimes showed up in surprising ways.
- Listen for God's response. When I shared that I'd appreciated prayers in the past with some conversation, Sister Thomas encouraged me to run with it: "Don't be afraid to talk to God, and ask God to talk back like an actual person!"
At first, this seemed like a roundabout way to get back to my question, "What's my life purpose?" Sister Thomas was sure to explain that this style of prayer didn't mean avoiding my struggles or doubts that I was so used to bringing to God. It just created a way for me to enter into that conversation from a place of trust and connection rather than fear and separation.
As I got to know God more and more, I realized why this change in our relationship hadn't stood out more to me at first. Approaching God less as a tool to use and more as a friend to have didn't feel so much different as much as it felt right. The truth was, I had experienced moments of this connection before — I had just let stress and uncertainty take up more time and energy in our relationship. Through my journey with Sister Thomas, I realized that seeking a specific answer from God might yield a finite, immediate solution. But being in relationship with God offered an infinite process — a constant resolution.
The beauty of this discovery was just what Sister had said: from a personal relationship with God, everything else did flow. Relationship provided the foundation for my experience in Chile. I saw God in all the people who helped make this year possible: supporters who contributed to my fundraising campaign, the GSV, Fundación Madre Josefa, GSR staff, the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, and many who provided emotional support from afar. I saw God in all those in whom I found community: friends, mentors, co-workers, and students who became family. I saw God in the way Sister Thomas guided me: how in all of our conversations, I felt more accompanied and witnessed rather than actually directed.
In my year as a GSV in Chile, I had experienced the heart of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd's mission firsthand. While the logistics and plans I had worried so much about were important, they weren't everything. It's how I found myself in relationships — to God, others, the world, and myself — that brought real purpose and meaning to my life. So while my transition back to life in the United States will surely have its challenges, I am grateful that I return a changed person. Because meeting God face to face always feels like coming home.
Upon completing her year as a Good Shepherd Volunteer, Katie is looking forward to growing, learning and working with Catholic sisters starting in August as the new program director for Catholic Volunteer Network's From Service to Sisterhood initiative.
[Katie Delaney was a Good Shepherd Volunteer in Santiago, Chile, from August 2016 to July 2017.]