In 2015, I received a text message from a friend, who is currently a Franciscan novice, promoting a retreat for young women. I was attracted by the fact that it was specifically catered for women and that it would help my discernment process, so, I signed up.
When I met the Sisters during the retreat, I was struck by the solid formation that they had. They had no qualms about speaking the truth to a group of strangers. Topics that others would normally try to avoid or sugar-coat – such as modesty, our everyday habits, dispositions, attitudes and behaviors that were expected of a Catholic – were all firmly yet lovingly touched upon. We were pushed to question and think about what influenced our behaviors, our thoughts, the morals and values that we held, etc. To find religious speaking of the same things, and in retreats, greatly attracted me.
During the retreat, I have to admit that I felt uncomfortable being around the Sisters. I was afraid they would see through me and would know that deep down inside, I really did not know much about myself or what I was doing in my life, and that I was searching.
On the one hand, I was attracted by the truth they spoke of, but on the other hand, I was afraid to go closer to God. The disposition of my heart was obvious to the Sisters. I recall cringing at the message they wrote for me before I left, “Open your heart wider than ever so that you may be the hands and feet of Jesus, and that your mind and heart are the same as His. Our Lady will help you!”
I worked as a research assistant for teachers at a University, and I was doing very well. I was also very active serving in a charismatic parish group and within the diocese with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. I did not realize that the desire to travel to Spain to live with the Sisters was growing in me. There were many times when I found myself thinking about the Sisters and about going to Spain, but I never acted on it. My job was too important. My plans were too important. Yet the desire to spend some time discovering what God wanted for me grew and I felt the Lord asking me to leave both my parish group and my job.
I booked my tickets to Spain three weeks before I left and was supposed to stay for 24 days in November. I had the intention to stay for three months but dismissed it as a crazy idea – I did not know the Sisters and they did not know me either! I also did not know how to explain to my parents my absence from home for such a long time. I feared their opposition. When I left for Spain, I told them that I was going for a retreat and was going to stay with some nuns.
During my initial days, I was quite overwhelmed; I felt out of place. I was also very caught off guard with the constant change that was characteristic in their way of life. Being someone who detests change and likes to be well-prepared, this was the most difficult for me to overcome. I felt like I was functioning on hyper drive, trying to grab on to something to find security, trying to control something so that I would not feel so lost! The way of praying was different, I had to follow an unfamiliar schedule. Mass was in a totally different language – I could not even remember all the prayers during Mass! Thank goodness the consecration of the Eucharist and the Our Father were familiar to me. Things were even more challenging with the language barrier. I had to depend on the Sisters and the candidates for translations. Even though I had a smile on my face, I was very lost and closed.
It was obvious that the Lord wanted to take total control of my stay there. He kept nudging me to open up my heart and take the plunge, to go out into the deep. It did not help that in almost all of Fr. Rafael’s homilies and talks, I was struck by the invitation to forget about myself.
Re-learning everything was challenging – how to set the table, how to serve the food, what cutleries to use, what kind of plates to use, how to cut ingredients and prepare them for cooking, how to sort the food that comes in. How do I identify a potato that is rotten? Which peppers are we to use for cooking? How do we cut the right number of holes in a plastic sheet so that the plants would be neatly in a row? How should we wash dishes? Etc…
Yet at the same time, it was also a very humbling experience. The more I forced myself to speak Spanish, and forget about how stupid I might sound or what others would think of me, and the more I practiced phrases, verbs and grammar that I had learned, the more my Spanish (kind of) improved and the more I found myself learning to be less serious. I found that I had to make a daily and conscious effort to come out of myself. Noticing the efforts that the Sisters and girls made to speak to me in English, to get to know me, to include me in conversations, also encouraged me to come out of myself.
As I learned to be less serious, I began to open up and joke around with the candidates and Sisters. I also learned that making mistakes was quite harmless.
I found that the more I learned to let go of my desire to control, I was better able to concentrate and was able to be more present in the moment. I was more relaxed and was able to see God in the activities that I did. Suddenly every day became very enjoyable for me!
Being able to live with the Sisters and the candidates really brought a lot of healing for me. I could be myself. I did not feel judged for my shortcomings, my mistakes, my pride, my impatience or my immaturity. I was always made to feel at home and was always encouraged to strive for holiness – a vocation that the Lord is calling everyone to.
I found that what was important to me, might not always be important to someone else. This made me question what exactly was important.
After my time in Spain, I find myself very joyfully taking the initiative to wash the dishes for the whole family. When the helper at home insists to wash, I do it together with her. Sometimes I schedule her to wash for lunch and I take the dinner schedule. What moved me greatly was when my sister began to wash dishes with me! I was greatly surprised at this, but also deeply appreciative of God’s gift to me – that my fidelity to God would bring about such a change in my sister. I would never have imagined that.
I would never have imagined the great joy and freedom that obedience to God would bring about as well. However, life is not always a bed of roses. There are times when my imperfections cause me to fail miserably at being patient, charitable and generous, but the great mercy of God keeps me encouraged to press on and not to give up. God’s faithfulness is my joy!