In September 2016, my community called me to take a sabbatical to examine and refocus my life. Now, I freely admit that while I had going on a sabbatical on my bucket list, I felt I was two or three years away from being in a place where it would fit my schedule.
God and my congregation had other plans. "We are not doing right by you, Julianna," the sister in charge of our health care said. "I am saying to you with an abundance of love, go on sabbatical now."
An abundance of love — oh, my! I didn't realize that my congregation loved me. I mean, my head might have suspected it, I'm sure, but I don't think my heart truly believed it. I figured that, at best, they just tolerated me.
I went to the Mercy Center in Colorado Springs and joined 15 other religious in a "time away." Our group included priests, brothers and sisters from nine countries and ministering on four continents. All of us were in transition — from former ministry to new ministry, from active to retired, off a leadership team and back to parish life, and on and on.
Fr. Bill Jarema and his team led us gently through our individual transitions according to their mission: "The Mercy Center for Healing the Whole Person is committed to discovering personal growth and healing through the mutual reverence of our body, mind and spirit."
In our daily classes, we explored such topics as "Healing the Father Wound"; "Healing the Mother Wound"; "When My Body Speaks"; "Healing the Whole Person"; "Personality and Prayer"; "Healing Compulsions — Unearthing Potential"; "Healing Emotions"; and "Resolving Anger, Fear, Anxiety, Shame and Guilt."
There were opportunities for spiritual direction, counseling, massage, art lessons, plus ample time for silence and reflection, for exercise and healthy eating.
We drew mandala after mandala to get a sense of what we really felt about what we were discussing. We made a retreat with John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. We explored the meaning of our dreams. We learned and shared about conscious celibacy and we journeyed through the labyrinth and considered our transitions, especially as we prepared to return to our communities.
During those three months at the foot of Pikes Peak, that mountain became my Mount Tabor.
One of the things I realized while on sabbatical was that I had lost my identity, my true, in-my-core sense of self. I had been using all of my past job descriptions and traumas as my identity. When I was asked who I was, I would answer Oh, I'm a singer, or I'm a caregiver, or I'm an abuse victim.
I had forgotten entirely that, first and foremost, my identity is I'm a beloved daughter of God.
In one of our sessions, we were asked to draw a life wheel. We divided the circle into four parts and illustrated our far past, our recent past, our present and our future.
In the first quadrant, I drew a heart obliterated by scribbles in four colors. I had identified myself by what had been done to me or by my ministry.
This color was for the janitor who molested me in grade school. This color was for when no one knew who I was if I wasn't pushing Mom's wheelchair. This color was for the times all those teachers told me I was worthless or stupid. This color was for when I lost my voice for six whole months and felt that no one had patience with me when I had to write out what I needed to say.
That first quadrant represented a lot of pain.
In the second quadrant, I drew a scroll labeled "Decree" with a small heart showing that abundance of love from my congregation that had sent me to sabbatical. I also included a "cha-ching" checkmark showing my acceptance of this call.
In the third quadrant, I drew another heart like the first image, but all of those scribbled lines were being rolled up onto four spools.
This color represents when I recognized that one of my young students was being abused, and I got her help. This color was when I shared my own story of abuse with a sister who had been molested by a parishioner. This sharing gave her the courage she needed to report it to the pastor.
I came to realize that, all along, I had been using the lessons learned from the traumatic experiences I had experienced to help others in similar situations. That realization was such a transforming moment of grace!
In the last quadrant, I drew another heart. This one was cracked open and a butterfly was emerging. At that time, I did not know what the future held for me but I did know that I was now a new creation. I was ready to face the world as the person I truly am.
So, let me introduce myself. I am Sr. Julianna Francis Marie Vagnozzi, a beloved daughter of God who no longer identifies herself by her past traumas but now uses those lessons to help others in similar situations.
Who are you?
Note: I shared a piece of my mental health story today in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more here.
[Sr. Julianna Francis Marie Vagnozzi is a Felician sister based in California. She is currently serving in her own high school in Pomona, California, in the office for development/alumni outreach, as editor of the alumni newsletter, and as the regional Felician associate coordinator.]