God had a few surprises in store

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Standing before me is a porcelain doll named Savanna. She has perfect skin, sparkly eyes, and a Sandra Dee ponytail. Her arms are crossed over her chest, hugging her sixth-grade schoolbooks. She leans over and says, “Miss Stewart, I need to speak to you.”

Surrounded by her compatriots, she speaks in hushed tones, as though she were sharing a secret with a best friend. “Um, I need to show you how to fill out a demerit card.” It’s my third week of school and I’ve only given out one demerit.

Savanna continues, “Well, it’s just that you’re not doing it right and all the kids are saying you’re not giving out real demerits because you’re not filling out the card properly.” She pulls out her yellow card and proceeds to instruct me on the finer points of giving “real” demerits. I smile and nod, “Thank you, Savanna. This is a big help. I really appreciate it.” Inside, I’m thinking, “Oh Lord, I’m not even faking this being-a-teacher-thing, am I?”

Yes. I’m a first-year religion teacher and my sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders know it. This time last year, I was a spiritual director, staff instructor, and resident-bottle-washer at a retreat house in Colorado Springs. The year before that, I was an office manager and permissions editor for a Washington, D.C. book publisher. This year, I’m teaching religion to 70 middle school students in Kansas. What will I be doing next year? I hope to be a novice with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ.

I don’t know which I find more astounding: that I am teaching children religion or that I entered the convent. I wasn’t supposed to do either. I was supposed to get married and have kids. I was supposed to be somebody’s wife and somebody’s mother. Now it looks like I’ll be everybody’s sister.

Saint Paul and the New Ager
My story is about the God of Surprises. Ten years ago, I was, by my own reasoning, a happy little New Ager. I had my crystals and a psychic. I was learning to trans-channel. Shirley McLaine was my hero. My best friend was a practicing witch. Another guy I knew said he had seen the mothership and was being possessed by a 700-year-old alien from planet X. Judging by his glassy stare, he might just have been telling the truth.

In 1992, I had a Saint Paul-kind of conversion experience. Within a matter of days, I threw out my crystals and joined a charismatic, Episcopalian prayer group. After about nine months, our prayer leader told me I needed to go back to Mass. I told her I saw no reason to go back to being Catholic. I had been away for 20 years and I was perfectly happy there with her. I wanted to convert. Would she help me?

“No,” she said. “You have to go back. You don’t know what you believe yet. The church has changed a lot in the last 30 years. How do you know you’re not Catholic?” She said I had to join a parish. Don’t just show up on Sunday, she said, find a bible study, do some faith sharing, and if after one year, I really didn’t believe I was Catholic, then she would help me convert. I was not a happy camper, but I trusted her, and so out of some sort of obedience, I did as I was told.

At the end of that first year, I’d found a beautiful parish and a wonderful priest who, in my mind, was the essence of hospitality and mercy. I had fallen hopelessly in love with Jesus in the Eucharist. I became involved in ReMembering Church, a program for fallen-away Catholics who want to return to the church. I was studying to become a spiritual companion—a person who accompanies others on their faith journeys. I had found real friends. Compassion. Understanding. Acceptance. Hope. Joy. Love.

The wise old monk
About a year after I that I went on my first retreat to a Trappist Monastery in Berryville, Virginia. I signed up to speak to one of the monks who would come down to the guesthouse to talk to the residents. As soon as he heard I was single, he asked me if I had ever considered religious life.

It’s not nice to laugh in people’s faces, but essentially, that’s what I did. I was still settling into the idea of being a Catholic. I told him there were skid marks in the parking lot as proof of my resistance to the whole idea of even being there. He apologized and said, “Bear with me. I’m just an old monk. I don’t get out much. I ask everyone that question who is eligible.” Old monk, my eye. That wonderful, old monk knew exactly what he was doing.

I went back to my room talking to myself. Why would he ask me a dumb thing like that? This was absurd. Ludicrous. Laughable. But somewhere inside, I wasn’t laughing. There was a stillness that I found myself trying to talk over.

I spent two years trying to ignore that still, patient whisper. I spent a third year explaining to God what a dumb idea it was. I simply was not nun material. To prove the point, I intended to tell people. They would laugh, God would finally hear me.

The first 14 people I told all gave me the same response: “Of course, you would be thinking about it.” Two of them were seminarians who literally shed tears of joy. I decided to call Father Kelly, another kind, gracious soul whom Jesus had put square in my path. Deep down, I guess I knew what Father Kelly would say. His face was gentle. His words were tender. He pulled out a 50-year old catalog of women’s communities and pointed out his favorite habits. He glowed. I shook. We talked for two hours that day, and God bless him he cleared the way for the Spirit to run free.

He said it was easy to see a vocation in me since he had spent so much time considering his own. He told me I was too active in the parish to be just another parishioner. He said he saw me doing things that most people do when they are afraid of God’s call: retreats, graduate school, ministry, workshops, anything to fill the void that God had placed in my heart. It’s a void that only Jesus and true purpose could fill.

I asked him “But how do you know?” It was so disheartening to hear so many people tell me they knew when they were 4 years old they were going to be a sister, brother, or priest. When I was 4, all I knew was Smokey Bear, Romper Room, and my Kenner Easy Bake Oven.

He smiled at me and said, “You don’t know. All you know is that you have been invited.” Some people don’t know until they take final vows, he told me. Some people don’t know they made the right life choice until they are on their deathbeds. You’re not necessarily supposed to know. Too many people try to be absolutely certain before they even make the first phone call. It just doesn’t work that way.

A firefighter and her friends
Over the next three years, I visited over a dozen communities. It was frustrating. People kept telling me I’d know it when I saw it, but I couldn’t find my niche. I had all but given up when, while in Colorado Springs, I met two Adorers of the Blood of Christ, Sister Diana Rawlings, the vocation director and Sister Barb Smith, the candidate director. They were prayerful. They looked happy. They loved their lives. They laughed. Their community supported them in their heart’s desire for ministry. I was fascinated that Sister Barb was a firefighter on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Most important, they didn’t look desperate.

I spent my 40th birthday eating pizza with Barb and Diana. Their enthusiasm was contagious. They invited me to visit different sisters from their community. There was a prayer weekend in San Antonio, could I come? It was there, in the company of 90 other seekers and sisters, that I agreed to begin the application process. People were right. I knew it when I saw it. I had given up my search for an answer and was blessedly content with recognizing the next right step.

The new me
As I write this article, I am now teaching religion at a Catholic school, a ministry I chose for my “candidacy year,” a year of ministry and discernment which is the first step in joining the Adorers. Not long ago, a parent wrote a parish newsletter article about me titled, “What is she doing in that classroom?” I am a teacher. I am a spiritual director. And I am trusting the will of the God of surprises.
Sheila StewartPlease note that at the time this article was published, Sheila Stewart was a novice with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. She was also a teacher and spiritual director. 




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