I am in the woods on Mount Subasio above Assisi, Italy, at a sacred place of prayer called La Carceri. It’s July 20, 2014. I am on a pilgrimage, thrilled to be praying in this holy place where St. Francis and the early friars spent much time in contemplation.
I too am in contemplation on this holy ground. I am pondering what I just heard preached during the Mass, where our Franciscan pilgrimage group gathered around a stone altar underneath some tall trees.
I was reminded that the path to holiness is a journey of struggle. Even though we’re living a religious life, we’re just as human as everyone else. And, when we’re real with ourselves, we can admit that much of our life is spent wrestling with the reality of our own frailty, our own sinfulness. St. Francis spent more than 200 days in hermitage each year, even while admitting that prayer was a struggle for him, because it forced him to confront his weaknesses.
For, I am told, when we go off to pray in silence, we first must encounter ourselves. And, indeed, when we’re closer to the Light, the more we see the darkness in ourselves.
I am leaning against a tree on the edge of a path in these woods, gazing up the hillside, at the rays of sunlight streaming through the tall trees. And, just like it was promised, I am encountering myself. I’m only on hermitage for a couple of hours, yet I am struggling with myself, with my restlessness. I jot this prayer in my journal:
As the Insects
I am as the insects, who dart
between the rays of Light falling
through the trees. I am poor & little
& lost & distracted. I am perpetually
in motion & overexcited. I am insignificant
& yet eager to absorb all the beauty
of Your Light and Love. I am too fast
& buzzing with desire. I hope
I may land & know true Stillness,
& the wrapping of Your Rays who
hug & heal, protect & console,
for I am in need & You provide all.
Now, over six months later, the memory of that image and that experience in prayer reemerges for me as I ponder why and how I seem to be well suited for living a vowed religious life. Why do I continue to feel drawn to commit to God through the vows of obedience, poverty and consecrated celibacy?
Specifically, what is it about the vow of obedience that sustains me? Each time I wonder, the answer quickly comes through the thought of an image. I am as the insects, fluttering around in those rays of light. I am a free spirit who loves adventure. I can get very excited about new experiences. Left to my own devices, I probably would never settle down and commit to anything, but would be a lost wanderer eagerly trying out as many new things as possible. Even with all those personality traits, God somehow still drew me to this life of vowed sisterhood.
The more I live it, the more convinced I become that God made me for this life because the vow of obedience offers just the right container for my free spirit. In the container of community life, I experience the stability my free spirit needs in order to be vibrant. After all, those insects would have been invisible to me without just the right light to illuminate them.
Like the other vows, the vow of obedience is truly about relationship. It enables me to live a life of health, holiness and happiness. The whole point of this communal life is to be in close relationship with God and my sisters. Our life is not our own and, in fact, our will isn’t to be our own, either. We listen to God and to one another in order to hear wisdom about who we truly are and where we’re meant to be. It’s not about taking orders, it’s about conversation and remaining rooted in the fact that, individually, our vision is very limited. Only through God and others can we gain any insight into the big picture and understand how we best have a part in building the common good.
It’s interesting to me how frequently I’ve heard some of my secular friends say, “I could never live the vow of obedience.” The vows of poverty and celibacy probably would be difficult, they acknowledge, but the real turn-off for them even to ponder religious life is the vow of obedience. It’s understandable. In a society that celebrates self-sufficiency and independence, the vow of obedience is totally countercultural. From a young age, we’re told that it’s important that we can make it on our own. This vow admits that we don’t actually believe we can.
I keep thinking about those insects, though, and how much I am like them. The vow of obedience and life with my community actually helps me to have the freedom I need to explore the goodness of God’s rays of light. They help me focus and keep my desires directed toward the right things. As I have gotten to know God and myself more, I am aware that my sinful nature could tempt my curious self to explore other things, things that wouldn’t bring me closer to God. At that Mass at La Carceri we were told how St. Francis trusted God more than he trusted himself. It’s the same dynamic for a free spirit like me, trying to live the vow of obedience. I am reminded who deserves my trust, my focus: my God and my sisters.
Since returning to my busy life of ministry after pilgrimage last summer, I have been offered another animal image to help me understand who I am in God. My gentle and good-humored spiritual director was listening to me ramble, for like the thousandth time, about how it feels so awkward to me that I am living this religious life – that I am living the vows even with my free spirit. Then, in her gentle and provocative sort of way she asked me if I have ever seen swans when they are out of water. They are extremely awkward and toppling on land, she told me. As they move toward the water, they practically look like they are going to tumble over. But then, when they are in the water – in their element – they are the epitome of beauty and grace.
Nowadays, I am awkwardly toppling through my questions and struggles about taking final vows. I will likely always be as the insects are, flitting around, eager to enjoy all of God’s goodness and light. And, as my hope to make final vows increases, I trust in God and I trust in the vows. I believe that my element is the container that this life offers my free spirit. Living them fully and forever might even help my complex and free spirit reveal the epitome of God’s goodness and grace.
[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]