In search of the missing piece of myself

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Image: The author visits the hermitage of Saint Francis in Assisi, Italy.

I felt a call to religious life when I was in high school, but quickly dismissed it because I wanted to get married and have children. In fact, I dreamed of having at least six children, just like my parents. In my fantasy one of my brothers would have the same, and then our children could play ice hockey against each other! That desire didn’t come true. What did happen went beyond anything I could ever dream.

In 1993, I went to World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. Again I felt God calling me to religious life. But then I returned home and reentered my life, I dismissed the thought. I attributed it to being with the pope, thinking I got caught up in the moment.

Then a few years later, I felt I was being called to something more in life, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. By this time, I was 27 years old, living on my own in an apartment, and had my own car and everything that could make me happy—I thought. I was active in my parish teaching religious education classes, being a youth minister, and coordinating and participating in a youth folk music group. I thought I had it all. But there was a part of me that wasn’t truly happy. I felt as if something were missing; something remained unfulfilled. My state of unrest was like putting together a puzzle with a missing piece. Without that piece you can’t tell exactly what the picture is. So, I went in search of that missing piece. I began meeting with a spiritual director on a regular basis. He was a priest in the parish I attended. Together, we explored this emptiness.

One evening I had dinner with my parents. My mom, who was a secretary at her parish, showed me a flyer she had received for a weekend vocation retreat. She offered to pay for it if I wanted to go. I decided to go, figuring that, if nothing else, I would get a quiet mini-vacation. I even told my mom before I left that I really didn’t believe that God was calling me to religious life. I found out that I was wrong. During the weekend, I was awakened to my call.

Follow me
The retreat was held in Massachusetts with the Sisters of Divine Providence. I clearly remember meeting with one of the sisters on Saturday afternoon. She really challenged me to explore a call to religious life. She helped me to learn to be open to what God is asking of me.

Then, on Sunday, I received a passage of scripture that I was to meditate on and that followed me throughout my discernment process, and continues to be significant to me today. The passage is from Luke 9:23: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” This verse continued to “pop up” in books I read, in homilies I heard, and even on church bulletin boards and in flyers. It became a comfort to me, as it meant that God was with me during my search.

When I met with my spiritual director after the retreat, I told him I believed I was being called to religious life. He said, “What took you so long?” He’d had a strong feeling that I was being called but was praying that I would come to the conclusion myself. The Lord heard his prayers. I believe that if he had suggested it, I probably would have denied it again. 

My meetings with my spiritual director now took a different route. We discussed religious congregations and community life. He asked me to make a list of what I was looking for in a community. At that point in my life I didn’t know much about religious life. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of the community I eventually joined. But I did realize that I wanted to be part of a community of women who were joyful, who wore a habit, who were devoted to Christ in the Eucharist, who believed in and defended life in all its stages, and who not only followed the church’s teachings but strongly supported the Holy Father and what he teaches. I also wanted a community that followed the spirituality of Saint Francis of Assisi.

When I shared this with my spiritual director, he told me he knew of a community I needed to meet. He had met them at a funeral he concelebrated with another priest. He said he was struck by their habit and by the joy they emanated, but he couldn’t remember their name at the moment. When he returned to his office, he pulled out a letter from the community and read their name: the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist.

I was speechless. He gave me the name and phone number of a sister to contact. It took me three months to get the courage to call her. But once I did, I never turned back. It was the most important phone call I ever made. To this day, I’m grateful to my spiritual director for pointing me toward my community.

Fitting into the puzzle
When I finally met these sisters, I understood what my spiritual director meant. They were happy people, and their habit was extremely striking. It was exciting to learn about the community’s spirituality as I met and worked with the sisters one weekend a month. It seemed that the more I learned, the more I wanted to know. Each meeting left me eager for our next.

My first weekend at the convent I helped dig a water drainage ditch. I never worked so hard physically, but I never had so much fun. I remember thinking as I left that weekend that I couldn’t wait to return. I also wondered what I’d be doing, which always turned out to be a surprise. But no matter what I did, I knew that through the work on the land or with the animals, I learned about each person with whom I worked, about the community, and even about myself.

I felt God truly present in and among these women. I was amazed that a community that was founded only in 1973 could have accomplished as much as they had. They were—and are—involved in outreach that spans many states and even extends to Italy and Israel. I was also able to see how the community has grown in members, not by leaps and bounds, but steadily. That reassured me.

During some of the visits, I was able to meet laypeople who were associated with the sisters. As I spoke to them, I learned more about what the sisters do for the communities in which they live and for the church. Their mission—to work within society and bring Christ to each person they meet—was exactly what I wanted. I had found the piece I needed for my puzzle. I began to feel the hole in me fill up.

I requested to begin the entry process, and my request was granted. Today as I move through “formation”—preparation to become a permanent member—I’m learning more about the community, why and how it was founded, and how I fit into the larger puzzle. It’s an exciting time in my life. I know now that I won’t ever be mother to an ice hockey team, but I’m learning to dream new dreams within this new way of life.
Sister Paul Mary Dreger, a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist, and has been educating children for over 20 years. Currently, she is a second-grade teacher at Queen of Peace in Minnesota.




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