There’s a tightness in my chest that is hard to explain. I can’t remember when it first started or on what occasion it became noticeable. In a way, it feels like it has always been there, loosening and tightening over time. Like a band wrapped tightly around my chest, it binds up my heart – not in a painful way but as a steadfast reminder of a presence deeper than myself. In simplest terms, it’s the feeling I get when I find myself deep in prayer. And for good or for ill, it’s also what I’ve come to associate with call.
A friend once told me she’d considered religious life and could see herself becoming a sister except for one small thing: the call. “I can do the apostolic works, the study, the community, but I don’t know if I know what it means to be called.” she said. “Is it a voice or a feeling or what?”
That’s a hard question to answer. God speaks differently to different people. (My friend would also take issue, I’m sure, with what it means to “hear God’s call” on grounds that call is something far beyond a momentary utterance.) For me, though, there’s a deep sense of serenity, a steadfast groundedness that signifies that sense of being called.
For a long time, I didn’t know what to do with that feeling. In prayer, in writing, in service, in reflection, and in conversations, it would surface. It came and went freely, yet it stayed present enough in my muscle memory that I could never forget it. I recall times as I was discerning religious life that I actively ran from that feeling, and yet each time it came I knew I was in the right place.
Sitting across from my formation director a few weeks ago, I panicked: That feeling was missing. It had been for months, and as I looked back at my first year as a professed woman religious, I wondered what might be happening.
At the end of a year heavy in transition, I knew that feeling wasn’t gone, yet in the moment I couldn’t exactly feel it. God has had a firm hold on me, but the tightness I cherish has been intermittent.
“My call has changed,” I stammered out to my director.
What I thought this year might be, it wasn’t. My call to religious life felt different than I thought it would. And to my dismay and delight, I’ve discovered this is a changing call.
And that’s the thing about call: You answer the call awesomely unaware of where it will lead you and all it will drag you through. This almost always guarantees that life and call will feel different than you thought they would. The answer isn’t to run, though, it’s to keep discerning.
My sense of God’s call has shifted. The white hot lightning of initial fervor has cooled, making way for a tempered tension, reliant on prayer, reflection and balance. Passion percolates with nuance in a way that’s become more apparent in the months and years since I first answered the call to religious life. I’ve come to realize that what I feel called to hasn’t changed– how I feel called, though, has.
In time, part of this call has become more apparent: Being called is about recognizing a need and filling it. That need is not just in the world, it’s also in yourself. I need to be here. Not because my religious congregation needs me, but because in order to live the life I am called to – a life dedicated to Jesus – I need to live my life for now as a religious sister. This need is one that has been underscored over time. If I hadn’t met God in a very real and tangible way in my life would I still be here? If this way of life didn’t allow me to foster and focus on that relationship, would I remain? Probably not. I need to be bound up in love, in a tightness that frees me by holding me close in a world of risk, uncertainty and instability.
In the day-to-day, holding firm and staying focused explicitly on call can be difficult. What we are called to is embodied in how we live and who we are. Day-to-day life tempers idealism, draws us into relationship with the world and others, and changes the way we understand call. If call means living, it is the life we live that influences the way we hear the call, melding together the theoretical and the actual in what we hope is harmony.
In that way, we come to realize that the call is not something that is answered once and for all. The call requires living. And such a requirement is sure to be messy. Living the call presents surprising changes to our lives. We are changed in the process of answering. “What you want me to do?” “Who you want me to be?” and “What I actually know” become questions relative to a call that leads ultimately and primarily to Christ.
So, how do I know this call is the same despite its new feel? I know it because I feel it in the same place even if in a different way. Like a foreign touch that produces a familiar sensation, it is a changing call that tightens the heart as an act of constriction, not restriction. Thus the heart beats, bringing life, growth and strength to the body as it is stretched in new ways of listening to and living out the call every day.
Such growth comes from openness to the Spirit. We change in the act of answering the call, becoming, in the process, more authentically who God has called us to be. This process is one of renewal and reawakening. With intention and the Spirit, we come to hear in a new way, live in a new way and love God in new ways.
And I can’t help but think that this changing call is not just on an individual level. As a church, as religious communities and as the People of God, our call is changing too. We are called to love and to live the Gospel. And so, the same question proceeds – not what are we called to do, that’s constant, but – how we are being called to do so.
Recent weeks have brought great cause to consider this everyday question of call. How is our love – God’s love – being felt in the world? As Pope Francis offers his latest encyclical Laudato Si’, how are we living our faith and answering the call of the Gospel in relation to the natural world? As the Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriage, and Ireland offers a “reality check” (in the words of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin) by constitutionally redefining civil marriage, how are we continuing to be called to love in transformative ways for the world and ourselves? And as the Vatican implements a process of accountability for bishops on sexual abuse, how are we working towards healing and justice through accountability and compassion?
These are but a few questions (of many) to ask as we consider our call and the ever evolving nature of our response. As is so often the case, there are many more questions than answers. The process of answering the call though is a gift. We’ll surely be changed in the process – that’s the nature of our faith and of call. It makes us who we are and that process of becoming transforms us as we journey with Christ into who God has meant for us to be.
[Colleen Gibson, SSJ, is a Sister of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]