On August 6, 2005 I professed Perpetual Vows as a Sister of Life; fulfilling my deepest desire to give myself totally and forever to the Lord, and to share the Charism of Life with the world – bringing His love and mercy to every person I meet, and saying to them, “You have been willed and loved into this world by Almighty God! Your Life has tremendous meaning! Open yourself up to Him! The world desperately needs to hear that. -Sr. Elizabeth Ann
Growing up in Milwaukee Wisconsin, we had five pools in our neighborhood and about thirty kids who lived in those pools every summer. We were a close-knit group, spending our days constantly scheming up new ways to entertain ourselves. I can still remember the summer we turned my family’s brown paneled station wagon into a vinyl-padded sauna. Pulling out every piece of winter clothing we could find from the closet, we vested over our swimsuits, and climbed into our wagon wearing snowpants, scarves, gloves, wool hats, ski jackets and snow boots. Then rolling up the windows we waited. Sweating. Sweating until the beads rolled down our over-heated faces and Ronnie Sprenger felt like passing out. Then someone screamed, “NOW!” At which point we flung open the doors, peeled off the winter garb in less than five seconds flat (leaving it strewn across our front lawn) and one by one took one large leap into the unheated waters of 60°. Pure joy. Those were the days filled with simple desires and uncomplicated dreams.
When I look back on those funny snapshots of early years, I can’t help but think about the deeper, more profound desire resting and growing in my heart over the years. The desire to do something beautiful with my life, with my love. And the hope to give that love to another and to be loved passionately in return. Whether we realize or not, each of us longs to know we are perfectly, unconditionally loved – with all our faults, all our weaknesses, all our limitations, and for all that is unique and delightful about us too. In short, we each long for God.
That awareness, that thirst for Christ, began opening the door for a more mature relationship with Him as I entered high school and then college. However, it wasn’t until my first job, that I began to ask those deeper questions in life that simply never entered my consciousness at age ten, suspended above the icy blue waters of the pool in the shape of a cannon ball. What were God’s plans for my life? Where was He leading me? Where was the place for my restless heart? Although I asked the questions, I quite frankly was already convinced of the answers. And I was certain God’s plans were the same. My vocation was marriage. This I never doubted. That is, until the day Pope John Paul II’s plane landed at Denver airport in the summer of 1993 for World Youth Day.
The only way I can describe the life-changing experience is to call it a grace that traveled with the speed of light through the T.V set, landing like a bomb on the living room floor, before shattering into a million pieces and piercing my heart. For two days I hardly left that couch. With a few crackers and a can of Coke for survival, I was utterly glued to the scene of 500,000 young people with the Holy Father in the Rocky Mountains proclaiming to the world that Christ was the center of their existence. I prayed and sang with them. I laughed, I cried, I was moved by their boldness and courage and joy. It was a sea of young people celebrating the goodness of life and I felt invited into this beautiful communion of love and solidarity. When it was over, I sat motionless between the fibers of that couch. I was convinced that if I looked into the mirror at that moment, I might not even recognize myself. I had been deeply touched by the Lord’s love and I knew that I was changed, forever.
And then it happened. I heard a voice within whisper those three fateful words, “Will you come?” I instantly knew, without ever considering the thought before, what the Lord was asking, and my heart dropped, landing in my stomach with one loud thud. Fear replaced the joy, and I suddenly felt sick to my stomach.
Now you have to ask yourself why all the drama and dread? I imagine it is the case with any vocation, we often make assumptions and conclusions based on preconceived ideas that are far from reality. Like the notion that in marriage each spouse can completely fulfill the other. Which is of course an impossibility since God alone can fulfill the human heart completely. In my case, I had so much misinformation swimming around in my head regarding religious life and the source and meaning of happiness, sacrifice, joy, and love, that the only proper response was to RUN. The thought of never laughing again, never watching another movie (who comes up with this stuff anyway?), never eating another McDonald’s hamburger (there’s nothing like a year of home cooked meals to cure that one) and then the thought – I’ll never see my family again, was just too much. It’s amazing how the evil one subtly suggests a thought, a lie, that he knows will paralyze us.
And it went deeper. The thought of letting go. Letting go of those things that I thought defined me. It’s always surprising to see how these lies can lay tightly entrenched and undetected in your sub-conscious until you are asked to let them go. We live in such a secular world that has convinced millions into believing their value and worth, their very identity lies in what they wear, what they look like, what they do. Now I wish I could say that I was completely unaffected by these false messages in our mixed up world, but that was simply not the case. It seeps in so subtly and affects us all—in a million different ways.
My confusion and fear went even deeper. I thought the Lord knew me. Why would He ask me to offer up so much for a life void of joy and happiness? This unresolved fear convinced me that I needed to ask the Lord for some time. Time, to uncover for Him another plan that might work a little better. And His response in prayer? “Take all the time you want.” His calm, gentle response melted my heart and the anxiety slowly faded. I promised in return I would sign up for Eucharistic Adoration at my parish once a week and spend more time with Him.
Now, there was no question in any of our little kid’s minds in those summer days of long ago, that the most effective way to increase our desire for that pool in 70° weather was to spend some time in that vinyl padded station wagon turned sauna. And I can tell you, there is no better way to increase your love for the Lord and realize your true desires than to spend time with Him in Eucharistic Adoration. The more time I spent, the more the Lord opened my heart to see things with new eyes. He shared with me so much of Himself and revealed to me insights into my own true identity and goodness. I began to really talk to Him heart to heart as never before. And the more I opened myself up, the more I felt confident that He was receiving me completely. No judgments, no agendas. Crying with me. Laughing with me. Delighting in my joys, and grieving with me in my sorrow and regrets. My love for the Lord deepened and filled my world.
And I began noticing that the more faithful I was in my time with the Lord, the more I desired to reach out in love to others – and with that I experienced a real spirit of joy. I started recognizing the different spirits speaking within me too — if only we could know the unseen, but very real, spiritual battle waging for each of our souls! In the midst of a busy day, I would suddenly hear a voice within speak words such as, “Did I not make your heart? Do I not know then what will most fill it? I am with you. I love you and I have beautiful plans for you. Trust me. We will walk together.” They were words so consoling, I knew it must be the Lord. I felt encouraged and strengthened. At other times, a thought would come, seemingly my own, that made me fearful and restless, “You’ll never be happy in that life. Listen to those fears. Think of everything you will be losing, leaving behind. It will be painful. You can’t do it.” And even more subtle and deceptive, “Enjoy yourself. Forget about it. You’re a good person. Isn’t that enough? There’s always tomorrow. Just enjoy yourself today. Always tomorrow.” It was a classic case of the father of lies planting seeds of doubt and discouragement to keep me from the freedom I longed for; leaving me continually vacillating, looking back and lamenting on what I thought would be lost.
However, with temptation and trial, the Lord always provides the grace to overcome it if only we ask! (Why do we not always persist in our asking?) There came that day when, after pleading with Him to give me the grace to want whatever He planned for my life, I suddenly stopped looking back. Moving with my heart, I firmly fixed my eyes on the Lord, broke free from the fear and never turned back again. With this definitive choice, this definitive yes, the Lord opened a new door and I can honestly say, as I stepped inside, I felt reborn.
And today? As I kneel before that same Lord who called me to Himself over sixteen years ago, I am filled with tremendous gratitude. Every promise He made to me has been fulfilled a thousand-fold. When I think of my “Yes” made years ago, I think of those “yeses” He asks of me in less dramatic ways each and every day as a Sister of Life. It’s an opportunity to continually renew and recommit my love to Him, and the vows I have made. When I think of what I left behind? The inescapable reality is that to say “yes” to one good, always means to say “no” to something else. It’s part of life and love. The good news is that it doesn’t end there. There is much more! What I came to realize is that by letting go, with God’s grace, of those attachments that kept me bound, and in choosing to radically commit myself to self-giving love in the vocation the Lord was calling me, I received in return what I thought I had given away in the offering. True freedom. A freedom filled with passion and tremendous purpose. My life suddenly had profound meaning and I was overwhelmed by the gift the Lord was offering me.
You know, the leap into the five-foot swimming pool of my youth is a nice memory to be sure. But the leap into the ocean of God’s love and mercy – I will spend the rest of my days plummeting those depths. And the beautiful truth of this reality? There is room for everyone, whatever their vocation. It just requires a letting go.