Recently, I was reminded of the line from a Mary Oliver poem, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" Back then I had no idea, and even less of a plan.
What I did have long ago was a clear ambition for education, job, house, definitely money. The energy of the country was about being good, better, best. Aim for number one!
After I'd achieved a degree of financial comfort, I remember the shock when I first encountered children in a "poorer" area of the country who couldn't afford shoes, even meals. I'd thought my family had its challenges during my childhood, but it was a life of plenty compared to this — poverty I'd never seen, in a successful country. That may have been the first stirrings of the God-seed (but whoever knows with God?)
Fast forward to my present, in another country. As higgledy-piggledy as it has been, this life of vocation has been a life I never anticipated; but of a richness and life-lived-fully for which I marvel, and am ever grateful. I heard a call, but for various reasons, the channel was not as a canonically-vowed religious.
I feel deep gratitude however, that someone, and a group of "someones" (in my case religious women), discerned the heart as the ancients did, looked past a rough-hewn person, saw as Jesus saw, and still gave the invitation, "Come, follow me." So to the great women who received, held/hold me in the fold, God is praised.
So, what is this vocation? Until recently, a term I used was "associate." It never fit. I was thrilled a few years ago to hear that some American sisters had begun reusing the term "agrégées," which describes the level of relationship for which I am keen.
The term "companion in ministry" was suggested to me, which was music to my ears. Whatever term and specifics attach to this non-nun status, it is as Christian as belonging to a particular charism (in my case that of the contemplative-practical Australian pioneer St. Mary of the Cross Mackillop) and connected to the ecclesial community.
Some questions I am asked include: Are you a sister? (No.) Do you pay your own way? (Yes.) How do you earn money? (How and where I can.) Can you have a boyfriend? (No, because I am guided by a similar version of the three vows). Do you own a house? (Sigh.) People ask other personal questions as well, but I'm always happy to engage, if there is a sincere desire to know.
I have come from a background where material success is a yardstick of one's place in society. As the years have unfolded, economic rationalization and risk management are part of the reality and challenge. I understand that world, but its goalposts keep shifting and the aspirations of mortgage, husband and children, and career did not fulfil me. The aspect that has been enduring over the years is learning what it means to have found the treasure in the field, and what I am willing to pay for a pearl of great price.
Sensible folk keep reminding me I am getting old, and money is important. While it first grated on me, because it suggested something that a pragmatist with my background did not already know that, now I simply agree and admit the paradox of feeling completely incapable of living anything else. It dawned on me that the questioners cannot help themselves: they may not have had the experience of having a great debt forgiven, to be seen as God sees, new life promised and delivered. I now minister with those who seek, wish to speak and share that same love.
It has been almost twenty years since this particular way opened up for me. Exploration and discernment led to commitment, and now renewals of commitment which I make periodically. Make no mistake, it often feels like skidding at high altitude, or like the nearby ocean, surfing and getting dumped in rolling waves.
For one who was societally raised on the concept of worldly achievement, this uncharted path — to be open to God through others — continues to be an exercise in humility. But like the sea-struck also know, there's nothing like it, a gift too compelling to refuse.
I wish for you: if the insistent calls, your charism finds you, and if you are blessed with "someones" to receive it, then give it a go. An ever-new wild and precious life, well-lived.
[Tina Khan is a Companion in Ministry with a religious sister of the Australian congregation, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. She lives in a northern suburb in Perth, Western Australia. Theirs is a contemplative-active ministry in the areas of practical-pastoral support, education, relationality including in cross-cultural, multi-faith contexts, as well as formation in theology-spirituality in the everyday. Tina is also journeying toward a Masters in Theology and Leadership.]