When I was first introduced to Saint Thérèse as a young adult, I did not like her. She seemed to be enshrined in such a cloud of saccharine sweetness, scattering roses of every shade with each step, that I was positive that she and I would never be friends. I didn’t mind if others wanted to pray her novenas and I rejoiced with friends who received a rose from her but none of that for me, thank you very much. As it turned out, Saint Thérèse had her own ideas about this relationship that I was so opposed to.
During college I took a year off to serve for a year as a missionary to the youth of the United States. Part of a team of young adults that would travel to parishes throughout the country, I got sick a few weeks into our ministry. Not just a cold or a flu, but a virus that promised to knock me flat for months. I continued to travel with the team for a while but wasn’t able to do much more than pray and offer it up for my teammates and for the young people. During those weeks of helplessness and “uselessness,” our Lord convinced me that the teens we were serving needed so much more than a few hours of talks and fellowship. They needed our prayers and our sacrifices, they needed us to offer up our suffering for them. So that is what I did.
Next thing I knew, my supervisor wrote asking, “have you ever heard of Saint Thérèse?” She proceeded to share a quote from Story of a Soul that spoke directly to my situation. Then another friend wrote to me about Saint Thérèse and someone we met in the parish brought her up. Wherever I turned, people were telling me about her. To tell the truth, I felt like she was stalking me! I couldn’t avoid her. Finally, I capitulated and sat down to read Story of a Soul. I must admit, my main intention was to marshal all the reasons she and I would not be friends. Well, long story short, I was ambushed by grace and found one of my truest friends through the pages of her manuscripts. But friendship was only the first step in her relationship with me, she wanted more.
During my senior year of college, I began to seriously discern my vocation. Sometime in November, I told Jesus, “Look, in six months, I am going to graduate and I will need to start making some big decisions. I need to know what you want me to do with my life. If you want me to be a religious, you’ve got six months.”
No joke, I gave God a deadline. Now, I am not the type who asks for signs so I proceeded to discern this question in very practical, concrete, rational ways. I visited several communities, I joined a discernment group at school, I talked to a spiritual director, and I prayed. Over Easter break, I was invited to visit a community of women religious in the Midwest. Pretty sure that I did not have a vocation to their community, I visited anyways thinking that a “no” there might make a “yes” somewhere else clearer.
It took the better part of a day to drive to their Motherhouse and as we drew nearer, it became clear that we were not going to arrive in time to pray evening prayer with the community. Sitting in the front seat of that packed mini-van, watching the minutes on the dashboard clock tick by, wishing I could make the sister behind the wheel drive a little faster, I realized that the one desire of my heart was to be in that Chapel praying the Divine Office in community. It was a moment of grace, a moment when I recognized that being a sister resonated deep in my heart.
During the week I stayed with the sisters, I spent some time talking with their Novice Directress. I now felt sure that I was called to religious life but I was equally certain that it was not to their community. However, I could not explain how I knew, and Sister pressed me to identify what spirituality I felt called to if not to theirs. “Are you Dominican? Franciscan? Carmelite?” Miserable, all I could say was “I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
That evening in the Chapel, I wailed to Jesus in prayer, “I don’t even know what spirituality I am!” As we started the Divine Office, I told Him, “Look, I have never asked you for a sign and I am not asking for one now. I am not even asking you to show me what Community you want me to join. But can you at least tell me what spirituality I am?” The sisters chanted evening prayer around me and all the psalms seemed to echo my confusion and distress.
During a few moments of silence there was a loud noise over in the corner of the chapel and at that moment it was like a wind blew through my soul, sweeping all the turmoil away. Steeped in a sudden deep peace, I knew that I was Carmelite. Later, I went to the Novice Sacristan and asked her about the loud noise in the corner that had preceded the huge grace I had just received. She laughed and pointed to a large picture of Saint Thérèse perched on a little shelf. “The candle in front of Saint Thérèse exploded. Someone must have been praying for a sign.”
Saint Thérèse got her way. More than friends, now we are sisters in Carmel forever. Some people get roses, me, well, I got an exploding candle. Which, if you know me, is a pretty suitable sign.
Art: Photograph of St. Thérèse: Gravure de “Sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus, Histoire d’une âme écrite par elle-même, Lisieux, Office central de Lisieux (Calvados), & Bar-le-Duc, Imprimerie Saint-Paul, 1937, édition 1940.” PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.