On Divine Mercy Sunday, in the throes of my final semester of my undergraduate years, I asked a priest friend if he could hear my confession. We met on the grounds of my university’s cemetery — where else? — and, after receiving absolution, began to talk more about all that was coming to a close and the sorrow I found those endings bringing with them.
This sadness had caught me by surprise. After nearly two years of discernment — spiritual direction and retreats, long visits and lengthy applications — I was accepted and preparing to enter postulancy with a community of sisters whom I love. On my visits and in my prayer, I’ve found a life that delighted every corner of my heart, sisters with whom I am so excited to live and love. I will never stop thanking God for the marvel that he would permit — and want — me to live totally for him in the consecrated life. Moreover, I had liked college, sure, but for much of it I had been waiting for what I prayed lay beyond it. Now, more sure than ever of my next step, why was I so sad to be graduating?
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In a unique design of God’s providence, a statistically improbable number of my best friends are also preparing to enter religious life. We dream of our rainbow of habits and of meeting each other when clothed in them. We’ve delighted with each other in our deepening desires and next steps: they were among the first I told when I received an application, and we’ve celebrated acceptances together. It is in and through the love of these friends that I have learned what it means to be a sister.
I told Father about a moment in prayer from a few days earlier. It was ordination weekend for the religious who founded and serve my university, and we piled into the festivities, praying the liturgy of the hours with the congregation and attending their ordination Mass. It was a common, if not daily, experience to fill a pew with these friends, singing the hours or praying at Mass. But I found myself, packed into our pew as the deacons lay prostrate during the ordination Mass, overwhelmed with tears. I wept because, as vividly as I saw these ordinandi laying their lives before the altar, I saw in prayer my friends making their offering. I did not know if our religious lives would permit us to be at one another’s professions or their ordinations, should God bring us to that day. I saw weddings, the birth of children, birthdays, funerals and those most precious mundane days that, upon entrance, I will surrender to the Lord. It seems impossible, I cried, to imagine my friends absent from the most ordinary days of my life, let alone missing the most important ones.
“The Lord in his providence,” Father replied that day in the cemetery, “is going to let this be an offering.” What I was experiencing — that deepening awareness of just how good the life he had given me was — wasn’t unfortunate timing or spiritual attack. My awareness was an opportunity to give more fully precisely because I was giving what I knew to be precious. He was letting it be an offering. As my spiritual director once prodded: “What kind of gift would you be making if you thought what you were giving up was trash?”
Thomas Merton writes in his book “No Man is an Island”: “Nothing that we consider evil can be offered to God in sacrifice. Therefore, to renounce life in disgust is no sacrifice. We give him the best we have, in order to declare that he is infinitely better. We give him all that we prize, in order to assure him that he is more to us than our all. One of the chief tasks of Christian asceticism is to make our life and our body valuable enough to be offered to God in sacrifice.”
The experience of that ordination Mass, of the community that has prepared me and my friends for this “yes,” is not just a pang of a sorrowing heart — though it is, has been and will be that! It is also, I pray, a fruit of making our lives “valuable enough to be offered to God in sacrifice.” With each new adventure and beautiful goodbye, my vision sharpens: I see more and more clearly how prize-worthy life is; I watch God make it yet more so. Perhaps my increased tearfulness comes from a more careful inventory of just what my “all” is. That inventory does not send me running from the offering. Rather, it permits me to make it yet more freely: to offer it as a true sacrifice.
And, this is not limited to those whom the Lord calls to consecration. Every vocation is a total “yes,” a call, as Merton says in the same text, “to sacrifice and to joy.” Those called to marriage will miss holidays or birthdays at home because the family will also need to spend time with their in-laws. Parents sacrifice innumerable things for their children’s flourishing. In pregnancy, a woman’s offering is embodied in an extraordinary way: she gives of herself, her womb, to nurture and nourish her baby! No matter where and how, we are able to “give him all that we prize, in order to assure him that he is more to us than our all.”
Moreover, we cannot know what the Lord will make of our offering. Father Jacques Philippe, in another constant companion to my pre-entrance summer, “Searching for and Maintaining Peace,” titles one section: “God asks for everything, but he doesn’t necessarily take everything.” It would be easy to despair melodramatically about any one of my “lasts.” Having said goodbye to many of my best friends, am I to resign myself to never seeing them again? Far from it! Cautioning against such despair, he says: “Very frequently, on the contrary, the Lord asks only an attitude of detachment at the level of the heart, a disposition to give him everything. But he doesn’t necessarily ‘take’ everything. He leaves us in peaceful possession of many things, when they are not bad in themselves and can serve his designs … and we must firmly believe that if God requires effective detachment of us, relative to this or that reality, he will have us clearly understand this in good time. He will give us the necessary strength.”
Perhaps he will ask me, in obedience, to forgo attending the ordination or wedding of a friend. Perhaps he will surprise me with the opportunity to go! Regardless, he will give me the necessary strength. In surrendering what he first gave, I am able to receive it anew, to participate in an endless economy of gratitude. And always, he is more to me than my all. So let this be an offering, as we pray with the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. All I own and all I have, You gave to me, to you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours, dispose of it according to your will. Give me your love and grace, this is enough for me.”