Stopping long enough, I heard God’s call

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Image: The author at the 1995 Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

I’m similar to the character Philippa in Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede. Early in the book, Philippa explains her initial reluctance to listen to a call to be a nun:

“I didn’t want to be bothered. I thought I was very well as I was—a human, balanced person with a reasonable record, with the luck of having money, friends, and love. Only suddenly it wasn’t enough—not nearly enough. Everything seemed—not hollow, but—as if suddenly I could see beyond them, into an emptiness, and all the while there was this strange pull; no one can describe it to someone who hasn’t felt it, and it was doubly strange for me because until then such a thing had never crossed my mind."

Most of Philippa’s friends and colleagues thought she “had it all." Why on earth, at the age of 40, would she give up her career and her life of travel, fine food, and wine to be a nun? But Philippa was a seeker and sensed that life had more to offer than money, power, and prestige. Philippa described her decision to become a nun as “unforgivably slow." I can say the same about mine.

A life of opportunity
By all outward appearances, my life has been one of opportunity and success. Raised the youngest of seven in a Catholic family, I was loved by my parents and siblings. For as long as I can remember, I was encouraged to strive for success and achievement. Whether in school or on the playing field, I worked hard—to read more books, write more perfectly, run faster, and jump farther. I often pitted myself against my older brothers and their friends in whatever was the sport of the day. They didn’t let me score easily on the basketball court, so I learned what I needed to do to play with them—and sometimes beat them—despite my smaller size and lack of experience.

The neighbors heard me bouncing the basketball all year long, often chipping the ice off the driveway so I could play in the dead of the Midwestern winter. A competitive spirit was alive in me, and I challenged myself to work hard in all areas of my life, whether it was meticulously grooming the lawn, lectoring at Mass, or seeing how many books I could read from the bookmobile.

From an early age I had many opportunities for travel, so I developed a spirit of adventure. I sought opportunities to see new places and meet new people, wherever they were. After leaving home for college, my life was one of mobility and a search for self-fulfillment. I earned a graduate degree and carved out a career developing and implementing wellness and health promotion programs. The work was challenging in many respects—I met wonderful people, and learned many good lessons—but I continually asked myself if there were more to life. I moved from job to job in search of something, though not quite sure what.

To offset the emptiness, I competed on a national class level in the sport of triathlon. This gave me ample opportunity to hone my athletic gifts and objectively chart my progress and success. The disciplined, intense lifestyle seemed to fill the emptiness in my life. I followed my coach’s instructions to the letter: 15 to 20 hours a week of physical training and careful scrutiny of how much I ate and drank, how much I weighed, how much I slept, the amount of time I socialized, what I read. In hindsight I see why some people called me a machine in those days.

All this while I lived alone and sought the companionship of family and friends, as long as it did not interfere with training and racing. I met many people in the course of my work and travels around the globe. I got along with most, and people enjoyed my company, ready wit, work ethic, and generosity. I remained faithful to the church, often volunteering to lector or clean the church hall at the local parish, anywhere from Australia to New York City. But I never really stayed in one place long enough to establish a permanent home. I was independent, resourceful, and enjoyed my peripatetic lifestyle.

It wasn’t until I stopped this frantic pace, moving from job to job, place to place, and trying to be the fittest person on the face of the earth, that I realized God was calling me to something I had never dreamed of. I remember exactly where I was when I decided to stop. I was driving alone from Lincoln, Nebraska to Springfield, Illinois to compete in the brutal Springfield Ironhorse Triathlon, where the melting tar on the road sticks to your racing shoes. During that drive I decided I was done with it all. I was weary of the endless training and pursuit of physical goals, but maybe more important, I was reflecting on just how much God had blessed me throughout my life. Maybe it was time for me to serve others in a greater capacity. So I decided to give it all up—stop the racing, put a halt to my professional life, get rid of material possessions—and immerse myself in another culture. I would join the U.S. Peace Corps.

THE AUTHOR with her Peace Corps “mama,"
THE AUTHOR with her Peace Corps “mama,"
Martha Hlatshwayo.
Surprises in store
I didn’t care where they sent me, only that it would be somewhere hot. The next day I slept past my alarm clock, the first time I had ever done that on the morning of a race. Upon returning home, I began the tedious process of applying to the Peace Corps. I made sure they knew I was serious and ready to go. Here began my first real test in patience and waiting for an answer.

Finally, six months later, I received a Peace Corps assignment in South Africa. I gave notice at my job, gave away most of my possessions, and left for South Africa the next month. Surely this endeavor would bring me the fulfillment I sought. Little did I know what was really in store.

During my service I learned many things about myself. I began to recognize fears and weaknesses I had been too busy to notice. I realized I could stand to be a bit more patient and tolerant of others, especially while living dormitory-style with the other volunteers in the middle of a South African summer. I found I enjoyed meeting the priests and nuns who visited the Catholic mission where I lived. I sometimes traveled with the missionary priests, lectoring in Zulu at Mass, and once I spent an afternoon with a community of Benedictine nuns. I laughed when they said they wanted me to join them.

All that contact had an impact, however, and I decided that upon my return to America, I would work for the church, maybe even get a degree in theology or religious studies. I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but I knew I was attracted to life in and around the church, and I didn’t want to go back to what I had been doing.

When I returned, I found myself overwhelmed with noise, confusion, and overstimulation. Was this the place I left? Is this where I had been comfortable before? Uncertain about my next step, I decided to start driving across the country with my tent, maps, and bicycle. Other than Mt. Rushmore, I had no real destination in mind, only plans to eventually return to the Midwest. So much for plans.

At peace
Five weeks and 5,500 miles later, I ended up in Mt. Angel, Oregon. I discovered in this little rural town a Catholic seminary that offered graduate degrees in theology. As I drove into town, I liked it immediately. It was small and I could walk to church. There were ample country roads for running and cycling, and there was even an annual Oktoberfest. So far so good. It was time to find a place to live.

I had stashed a copy of the Response volunteer magazine in my car, thinking that I might do volunteer work during my travels. As I reached for the magazine, I found it already opened to the page listing the Benedictine Sisters of Mt. Angel, Oregon and their volunteer program. So I showed up at the front door of the monastery and inquired about potential opportunities. In about one week’s time, I was welcomed to join the sisters as a volunteer switchboard operator, and I was also accepted to study at the seminary.

At Queen of Angels Monastery I began living with a community of nuns, all significantly older than I, and studying theology as a full-time student at Mt. Angel Seminary. Something was different about this experience. I felt at peace. The sisters were friendly and hospitable, and my studies intrigued me. The sisters and my coursework introduced me to many new concepts and practices, such as discernment, liturgy of the hours, spiritual direction, lectio divina, the Rule of St. Benedict, and feast days.

I wasn’t quite sure how I got to living in a community of 58 women, ages 46 to 97, after 12 years of living alone, but living there just seemed to fit. Plus I was being drawn to the chapel to pray. I could not ignore the fact that God had plopped me down out of nowhere at Queen of Angels Monastery. There must be some reason for it. I had done about everything else: I’d had opportunities for education and travel, I had succeeded in athletics and my career, I had never lacked materially. But all of that paled to insignificance after being at the monastery.

I had a different sense about the monastery: I didn’t want to go anywhere. One day, at the encouragement of an elderly sister, I climbed the 130-foot giant sequoia in the front yard. When I reached the top, I looked around and said to myself, “I think I could live here for the rest of my life."

I began meeting with the vocation director and listening to hints from the sisters that maybe I belonged with them. That was five years ago, and today I am no longer a volunteer at the switchboard but a junior sister in the community.

Perhaps many would say I “had it all" before I landed at Queen of Angels Monastery. Yet, like the fictional Dame Philippa, I needed something more. It is in this way of life that I, with my Benedictine sisters, can progress toward everlasting life. And in the end, that’s the only place where we really have it all.
Sister Sara Feick, O.S.B. earned a master’s degree in theology from Mt. Angel Seminary. She serves the Benedictine Sisters of Mt. Angel, Oregon as liturgy coordinator, retreat leader, and spiritual director.




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