Emptying myself for God
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 kids at a Congolese refugee camp.
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 refugee camp where Erin McDonald worked as she considered religious life.
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.
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.
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.”
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