Tidying up with the Holy Spirit

The St. Angela Merici window in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. (Tim Speight)

I struggle with clutter in nearly every aspect of my life — in my environment, mind and heart. So it was fitting that I was first introduced to the idea of becoming an associate of the Mount St. Joseph (Kentucky) Ursulines while helping with a garage sale at their convent in Roeland Park, Kansas.

This sale was an effort to clear a bit of space and simplify their home. And through the formation process of getting ready to join the Ursuline Associates, I have begun the lifelong task of quieting my own ego and allowing God to use me for a purpose greater than myself.

A common theme keeps jumping out at me in my reading, prayer and reflection: In order to be God's instrument, we must allow space for God's Spirit to reside. One of my favorite aspects of the Ursuline spirit is the focus on individual relationship with Jesus and inner guidance from the Holy Spirit, rather than so much emphasis on obedience to a specific set of rules. But these words from the Rule of St. Angela have stuck with me: "Above all, obey the counsels and inspirations which the Holy Spirit sends into your heart."

I longed for an inner peace but didn't know how to "declutter" a part of my mind and heart for God, so I just kept praying for help, beginning every morning by asking God to make me aware of the needs of those around me.

Just a few weeks ago, I discovered that God is listening!

As a high school campus minister at my alma mater, one of my jobs is planning and chaperoning a yearly pilgrimage to the March for Life. This was my 15th year in a row attending the Vigil Mass for Life at the National Basilica in Washington, D.C.

Every year, we arrive six to nine hours early for Mass, to get seats. After doing the same thing year after year, I had become disenchanted and believed I'd already "seen it all" — not so far-fetched a delusion, considering all those endless hours with nothing to do but look around.

This year, I was idly flipping through the guidebook when I came to the page listing saints. With my newfound interest in all things Ursuline, I skimmed the index for St. Angela or St. Ursula. I found "Angela Merici, OSU: SW-Nave Clerestory Nave." Still somewhat arrogant about my knowledge, I thought surely this is a small obscure window in a side chapel that was easy for me to miss.

But I began my quest to find St. Angela. I scoured the chapels for at least an hour in the southwest parts of the Basilica, both upstairs and in the crypt. Because the phrase "Clerestory Nave" was not in my vocabulary, I sought help from the information desk volunteers. They didn't know either. One of the women — taking a guess that the word might be related to "celestial" — suggested that it might be somewhere up near the ceiling. I thanked them for trying. Having no cell service, I stepped outside to look up "clerestory."

Google for the win: clere·sto·ry: noun: the upper part of the nave, choir, and transepts of a large church, containing a series of windows. Bingo! I headed back upstairs to the main church. I knew exactly where it should be. I followed the map in the guidebook to the spot where I suspected I would find St. Angela.

Before I had the chance to look up, I heard someone behind me say, "Excuse me, could you please help me?"

I turned around to see the worried face of a teenage boy. He asked if I was a chaperone; I admitted it and told him where I was from. He asked if I had seen anyone from his diocesan group. I knew that this group had left hours ago. He didn't have a phone, a backpack or even a scrap of paper with any information about his group.

After I asked him a few questions, it was apparent he struggled with communication, and appeared to have some cognitive impairment. I mention this only to point out that he was in an unfamiliar place and was left without any tools to get himself out of this situation. He was completely dependent on a stranger and he easily could have ended up in a dangerous situation.

He had been pacing back and forth, searching for someone he recognized. He kept insisting they wouldn't have left him because he was "number 33," and the group wouldn't leave unless every number was there. It broke my heart that he trusted this group so completely and it seemed they had forgotten him.

Eventually, I learned that he lived with his mom, and he knew her number by heart. He used my cellphone to call her to see if she had any contact numbers. After trying many of the numbers she gave us, we finally reached an adult from his group. They had indeed left on the bus without him, without even noticing he was gone. We tracked them down to a nearby shrine and walked with him to find his group.

I returned to the basilica and the pew my group had been saving, and I suddenly remembered — the St. Angela window! Throughout that whole ordeal, I had never looked up. I immediately jumped up and walked to the back of the church, to the spot where I had just been with that young man, and looked up. There it was!

It certainly wasn't the small, obscure window that I had imagined. In fact, it was a series of three windows, each more than 28 feet tall, a focal point and a light source for the main church. And not only does it depict St. Angela Merici, but the surrounding panes feature Ursulines important in North American history.

Seeking out something that was close to my heart brought me to be there (to a spot I had been overlooking for 15 years) at exactly the right time to help that young man — and it was more beautiful and majestic than I could have imagined.

I love this line in a book written by Ursuline Mother Charles McGrath: "In hindsight, I can see that it must have been the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that finger of God that daily traces pathways in our lives, pathways we only see in hindsight."

I've been praying that little prayer, asking God to open my eyes and heart, and it is only in hindsight that I can appreciate the beauty of the answer to my prayer.

By God's grace, I have begun to tune into that Spirit. Making even a small effort to "clear some space" can let God do great things.

[Renee Schultz is campus minister and director of student service at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, Kansas. She is currently completing her formation program to become an associate of the Mount St. Joseph (Kentucky) Ursulines.]

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