WHAT IS IT about big brothers and teasing? When I was little, my big brother used to scare me with stories of ghosts and monsters. That's how I learned to ask God to surround me in safety while I slept, so the invisible monsters couldn't harm me. Even now, I find comfort in knowing that God is with me when I need to face my daily battles. Reliance on God is a habit that has served me well, especially during my years of searching for my right place in the world.
I grew up in a small town called Camiling in the northern Philippines where at least 90 percent of the people are Roman Catholics. When I was in fifth grade, I remember learning about the Holy Spirit. I can still see the teacher's writing on the chalkboard: "Holy Spirit: sanctifier, comforter," and I'd think at night, "God, what is my mission? Why did you place me here on Earth?" Then I would daydream about the future. I don't think I ever thought about becoming a nun. I imagined I would marry and have kids. I would perform good works and be a devout Catholic just like the women who were active in the church and led prayers in our town. I was curious and fascinated by the Dominican sisters who ran the high school I attended and by the seminarians who led our retreats. However, I never imagined myself ever joining a religious congregation.
Then I moved to Los Angeles at age 17, and I experienced culture shock. I missed the folk Catholicism of the Philippines--the town fiestas for patron saint feast days or the sight of people praying the rosary in public. In Los Angeles religion didn't seem to be a big deal, and no one seemed to express their faith in everyday rituals or symbols.
Later, when I encountered fundamentalist Christians in the U.S., I began to question my own traditions. I was already critical of Catholic practices that didn't make sense to me, and the fundamentalists challenged my beliefs even further. Why are we required to go to church every Sunday? Why do we have to go to a priest for Confession? Do we just go through the motions at Mass, or do the rituals mean something?
I would have stopped going to church altogether, but my brother, my sister, and the music director talked me into joining their choir. And that meant going to Mass every Sunday. At first I joined only because I love to sing, and being in choir allowed me to sing regularly. But as I reflect on those days, I realize now that the choir helped anchor me in my faith. By coming faithfully to weekly rehearsals and Sunday Mass, I became enmeshed in the community. The choir became my extended family.
Moreover, through my music director's instructions, I began to understand the meaning behind liturgical rituals, as well as how liturgical music revolves around the Sunday readings. My disillusionment about church practices slowly turned into an active search for God through Bible study, catechism, and prayer with the church community.
To describe the past six years of my journey I would have to say, "It's been a wild ride with the Holy Spirit." In 1996 I had the opportunity to enroll in an 8-month adult Confirmation program. As a youngster I had been "confirmed" in name only. During a vacation in Manila, my relatives had grabbed my older sister and me to go to the plaza in front of the parish church and get in line to be confirmed. So we signed up, paid our fees, and stood before a man who was garbed in what must have looked like a bishop's garments. A tap on each side of the face and some Latin nonsense and we were off.
Years later in the U.S., I understood that this was not how Confirmation is done in the church. Either we were confirmed by an entirely different sect, or else some con artists fooled us.
As I desired a closer relationship with Jesus, I wanted the real sacrament of Confirmation. It turned out to be the catalyst that moved me to dedicate my life to God and the church. I was working as an accounting clerk at a financial company in Century City, California when I began to feel restless and dissatisfied. I had been a choir member for several years, but now I really wanted to do more. Confirmation class and choir practice became the highlights of my week. A friend encouraged me to keep looking for a ministry and to trust that the Holy Spirit would let me know what was right.
Because I never did stop asking the Lord what mission was in store for me, God must have decided I was finally ready for an answer. I met Father Mike McAndrew, a Redemptorist missionary from Denver who came to my parish with two Mexican lay missionaries. The team was there to conduct a bilingual mission program for two weeks. Father Mike was charming, gladly discussing what the mission was about and what lay missionaries do.
While he was talking, I felt as if bells were ringing inside my head, announcing, "This is it! This is your mission!" My heart was pounding so hard I was sure he could hear it. I asked him how someone could become a missionary on his team. He appeared quite casual at the time, but later he would tell me he was thinking, "Just sign your name on this dotted line . . ."
After my Confirmation in 1997 on Pentecost Sunday, the Holy Spirit gave me the courage to quit my job, pack my bags, and fly to Denver to join the mission team.
After a month of formation, I went with my mission team to different parishes all over the western United States. I would run the children's program and help with the youth and young adult retreats.
As a lay missionary, the author traveled to parishes across the western U.S., running children's programs and helping with young adult retreats.
During this time, friends began to ask me, "Are you going to be a nun now?" I laughed off their question, thinking I wasn't worthy. I liked to party and have fun. Besides, I didn't want my exciting life to end. I imagined that if I became a nun, there would be no more adventures for me.
Nevertheless, at the missions I met several priests and religious men and women who were normal people--fun-loving, adventurous, and who led exciting lives. Also, being around the Redemptorists gave me a glimpse of what community is like. There was a true sense of brotherhood among the confreres (brothers) that I found attractive. I wondered if this sense of community was something I had been looking for.
The desire to find out spurred me to begin sending inquiry postcards to different communities of women. I wanted to know what the different religious congregations were like. Soon my mailbox was crammed with community brochures. Of all the literature I went through, the one from the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart struck me the most. I liked the stories they told to describe their community, the warm relationships that seemed to flourish among them.
One day I poured my heart out to the vocation director in an e-mail. As soon as I punched the "send" button, I panicked, realizing what I had done. But Sister Deborah's reply comforted me, and I began planning to come to a week-long Franciscan living experience to be held at the congregation's Motherhouse in Frankfort, Illinois during the summer of 1998.
After two separate weeks with the sisters, I felt as if my heart were splitting into two. I really loved being a missionary, traveling with the team, working with both English- and Spanish-speaking parishioners. Yet I felt a deep connection with the sisters and yearned for the sense of community that I observed with them. They were always laughing, teasing, and sharing little stories about each other. They were happy and seemed to accept their human weaknesses with a deep sense of humility and joy.
I was impressed by their respect for the idiosyncrasies of people, their appreciation of different cultures, and their ability to celebrate each other's gifts. They made small gestures that impressed me. For instance, when one of the sisters was called away in the middle of the night to care for an ill parent, two sisters jumped in the car without hesitation to go with her. Those who remained made sure that the beds were turned down and a light was left on to welcome them home when they returned.
While I mulled over the possibility of throwing in my lot with these sisters, I stayed with my bilingual mission team for another year waiting for a new volunteer to replace me. I visited other congregations just to make sure there wasn't another community that fit me better. But even Father Mike knew where my heart belonged. With the help of some spiritual direction and discernment I finally made my decision.
My traveling days didn't end with my entrance to the community. Over the course of six years, I have moved from California to Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and back to Illinois. But more important, my formation (the years of preparation before formally entering the community) has been like that of the Israelites as they wandered through the desert for 40 years: a path of self-discovery and intimate journey with God. Like Jesus being driven by the Holy Spirit, I too have spent my 40 days being put to the test, only to emerge for whatever lies ahead.
This has been a time of growth and transformation. Now, as a professed (or "official") sister, I feel a sense of rightness, a fullness of love that I've never felt before. I've never felt closer to God, to the church, to my community, and to my family and friends as I do now.
My world has gotten larger, yet more intimate. I continue to rely on the Holy Spirit to face my daily challenges and joys. And as I look to my future, I recall the words of Saint Francis: "Let us then go forth and begin, for up to now we have done little or nothing."