Emptying myself for God

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Image: ERIN McDONALD walks with children at a Congolese refugee camp.

Vacare Deo
—“emptiness for God”
—I said to myself as I stood in the center of a Congolese refugee camp with a world of pain and beauty swirling around me. I was stealing a quick moment to center myself before walking into the unknown. As I stepped forward, the sea of people surrounding me slowly began to part and a quiet set in like the morning fog that rises from the warm earth. Rows of eyes followed my movements as I walked through the narrow gate. In unison we all wondered the outcome of the impending meeting.

The future of the Jesuit Refugee Services’ ministry hung in the balance as we faced off against unfriendly government authorities. On the other side of the gate I ran face first into clarity (no, not the name of someone that I hadn’t seen in a while but rather the dictionary definition: “the quality of being clear”). An understanding of my life washed over me as my eyes slowly adjusted to the dim lighting inside the large mud structure that was housing our meeting. My mind, body, and soul were in alignment. It mattered not who was here with me or what the outcome of the meeting was because in that moment I knew that I was exactly where God called me to be. For the first time in my life I understood in the core of my being what it meant to truly have to trust in God.

erin mcdonald greets children at a Congolese refugee camp.
ERIN McDONALD greets kids at a Congolese refugee camp.
That wasn’t like the warm and fuzzy greeting-card version of “Let go and let God” you read and smile at. That was the kind of trust in God that permeated my being, like a prism of glass hanging in a sunny window. I had no control over this situation. I had nothing left to rely on but God’s love for me, and I prayed for the courage to accept whatever God might ask. This was my time of “holy unknowing”: I had never felt so sure and yet so unsure in the same heartbeat. As I stood there in the heart of Africa, I knew I had just crossed a spiritual milestone. I could stand in the unknowing and find my place of peace.

Fear is no match for faith
In a world so keen on knowing everything and having infinite amounts of information at our fingertips (like how many hair follicles a cat has—100,000 per square inch if you’re wondering—or who invented the toaster—Charles Strite in 1919), we are constantly inundated with answers to questions. Living overseas challenged me to grow more deeply in my experience of faith as a mysterious movement of God’s love within me, something I couldn’t sort out in a Google search, even if I clicked the “I’m feeling lucky” button. My pilgrimage abroad taught me how to truly walk by faith and not by sight, and in my journey I needed to be stripped of modern conveniences to really let go of fear and my need for certainty in order to follow where life would lead.

A girl receives food rations at the Congolese refugee camp where Erin McDonald worked as she considered religious life.
A GIRL RECEIVES food rations at the refugee camp where Erin McDonald worked as she considered religious life.
Vacare Deo: “emptiness for God.” It was a mantra I frequently used while serving as a humanitarian aid worker with the Jesuit Refugee Service from 2010 to 2012. Although my vocation to religious life had accompanied me for many years, I hadn’t felt the courage to fully embrace it until I walked through the spiritual fires of emptiness for God. My pilgrimage overseas became the test I needed. This journey taught me that I do have the personal, emotional, and spiritual strength to weather profound difficulty, disappointments, and failures without losing myself or my inner compass. It has become clear to me that when God calls us to service it isn’t always easy to respond. Despite the fears I might have and how limited I may feel to respond to this call, I must respond. I believe that fear is not the work of God.

A crazy notion gains traction
As these revelations unfolded for me, God’s call to religious life rang through. The moment had arrived for me to take the plunge. To dive headlong into this crazy notion to become a modern-day 30-something religious sister. Despite whatever uncertainties I felt about the future of religious life, whatever fears about my own inadequacies, and whatever concerns I had about how “un-cool” my friends might think me, I knew that God’s love was there in the “unknowing.” There’s no app for that, but I don’t need to have all the answers. I just need to have faith.

The beauty of the Congolese countryside gives little evidence of the harshness of life within a refugee camp.
THE BEAUTY of the Congolese countryside gives little evidence of the harshness of life within a refugee camp.
As I prepared to follow God’s call into vowed religious life, I knew that my heart belonged to the rich charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph. “A Sister of St. Joseph moves always towards profound love of God and love of neighbor without distinction, from whom she does not separate herself.” This quote, from the mission of the Congregation of St. Joseph, encompasses the ways in which my experiences of faith, service, and solidarity with the poor have changed and transformed me. It is how I see and experience the world around me.

I have been so profoundly changed by these experiences that I am choosing to live a life completely rooted in the love of God and love of neighbor as a Sister of St. Joseph. In the midst of my life in central Africa, I completed my application for candidacy with the Congregation of St. Joseph, which in turn was accepted. I returned to the United States in the spring of 2012 and I entered the community on Nov. 10, 2012 at our Wheeling, West Virginia Center.

erin McDonald walks with two girls in a camp for Congolese refugees.
ERIN McDONALD walks with two girls in a camp for Congolese refugees.
If not me, then who?
I feel that our fractured world is crying out for unity and reconciliation. It is crying out for healing, and we, the next generation of keepers, must risk the “yes.” Together, as one human family, we can bring God’s love and healing to our neighbor and to our precious earth. If not me, then who? If not now, then when? I believe in an untamed faith, alive with the fire of the Holy Spirit and a heart filled with the self-emptying love of God. I want to live in relationship with God’s radical call to live counterculturally in service to the gospel. To serve as a light in the dark places in this world. To pay forward the gifts and graces that God has so generously shared with me. Will you also risk the “yes”?

Vacare Deo—“emptiness for God”—rests always in my heart. Although I have returned to the U.S. and I’m enjoying the beauty and comfort of the snowcapped West Virginia hills, I still hold the mantra very dear to me. Emptiness for God, I remind myself, keeps me centered on my desire to live God’s call for me, each day. It reminds me always to have the courage to follow God’s call wherever it leads me. It is in the uncertainty of life that I have found my compass. God’s love guides me like ancient sailors who traversed the dark seas but kept their course by the light of the North Star. As a Sister of St. Joseph in service to my brothers and sisters in Christ, God’s love will carry me through my times of “holy unknowing.”

Erin McDonaldErin McDonald is regional director for Catholic Charities W.V. and a candidate with the Congregation of St. Joseph.




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