At the age of twenty, I began the process of discerning a vocation as a contemplative religious, specifically as a Poor Clare nun.
My parents were as dead-set against this idea as they had always been about any scenario that didn’t end with me either giving them grandchildren or embracing a noble and caretaking spinsterhood that could assist them in their dotage. As a nun, I could serve neither of those ends, so—as much as they might have respected St. Francis and Jesus—it was ixnay on this ride-bay of ist-kray. “Over our dead bodies” kept escalating, until I feared entire cities were at risk, were I to take the veil.
In the meantime, the opportunity arose for me to return to New York, where I had been born—a glamorous-seeming opportunity to work and finish school and get to know cousins who had, up until then, been nothing but names on Christmas cards.
Mere days after I had arrived, one of those cousins invited me to a “going away” party for another cousin, who was about to become a Capuchin friar.
Hours before the party, holding an encouraging letter from the Abbess with whom I had been corresponding, my ears ringing with yet another parental promise of international doom if I dared their wrath, I knelt before the Blessed Sacrament and delivered a daringly prayerful harangue, born of utter trust. “You have to do this,” I told Christ. “If you want me in the cloister, you’ve got to make that happen, because I’m getting nowhere! If you have something else out here for me, then you’d better show me what it is, because you’re supposed to love me, not leave me hanging!”
As I said the words, I felt a shift, and was overcome with a strange and wonderful stillness. I’d heard the scriptural phrase “peace beyond understanding” (see Phil. 4:7), but this was my first taste of it. In that moment, I knew that I did not have to give this issue another thought, and that everything would soon be apparent and unambiguous.
That afternoon, I met my enormous tribe of cousins for the first time, and soon the guest of honor arrived—a tall, strapping, handsome and fair fellow—and with him was a shorter, olive-skinned young man who was completely surrounded by what I can only describe as a fizzy nimbus of white, glowing light.
Completely dazzled, I approached a great-aunt I had met previously, and asked her who that fellow was, laughing with my cousin.
“Oh, that’s his best friend,” she replied, gesturing with a cigarette while pouring herself either her second or third vodka and tonic. “They’re always together.”
I moved closer and lowered my voice, asking, “Is he going to be a priest, too?”
“Oh no, not him,” Auntie said, laughing. “He’s going to be an engineer or an astronaut or something.”
“I’m going to marry him,” I told her.
“Well, that makes sense,” she said as she toasted me and toddled off. “We were wondering amongst ourselves what could possibly bring you back to New York; this place is becoming a hell-hole.”
He and I have been together—neither cloistered, nor hell-holed—ever since, Amen. And the challenges of almost forty years of marriage and child-raising (and the words of a cloistered nun I know who once told me that “living in community is like being married to twenty-five people”), have taught me that I’d have bombed out big time as a religious.
For this Valentine’s Day, though, I am hoping the one who loves me will be offering me pink carnations. He, likely, will be hoping for a favorite meal. Both are relatively easy things to deliver. The trappings of love generally are. Hearts and flowers, candy and pot roast, smooches and a companionable night watching a favorite old movie—it’s all easy, comfortable stuff, especially when the relationship is riding a fairly even keel.
Ah, there is the rub, the condition that makes the most pleasant parts of love seem so easy—that even keel, those smooth waters. If only every relationship could enjoy bright skies and calm waters in perpetuity.
But we all know that relationships don’t work that way, that even the best relationships, rooted in true mutual admiration or shared adoration, will occasionally strike a reef and struggle.
St. James has something to say about perseverance in the first reading of today’s Mass. He is writing about sticking with the life of faith when things become rocky, as they always do, but I think his words apply equally well to the inevitable challenges that come to any committed relationship, be it a marriage, a religious or clerical vocation or our own relationship to Christ Jesus. After all, they’re all love stories, are they not?
Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters,
when you encounter various trials,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
And let perseverance be perfect,
so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
But if any of you lacks wisdom,
he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly,
and he will be given it.James 1:2-5
The words may sound cavalier to some, but they are not. James advises us to make our pleas to heaven without entertaining doubts, because doubt tends to withhold, and supplication—which always involves a Gethsemane of true surrender—must hold nothing back, must involve an act of real self-giving. Rather like love, itself. Even then, the answer that comes in such prayer may end up being very different from what we want; it may instead be what we need.
This Valentine’s Day, as we think of hearts and flowers, let’s acknowledge that love is lovely, but that committed love can sometimes be hard work too. Sometimes our hearts are broken, and our hopes trampled like flower petals cast underfoot. And then let’s offer up a prayer for those whose relationships (spousal, vocational, with the institutional Church or even with the Lord—who sometimes permits times of trial and dryness that leave us feeling bereft) are in a place of struggle and shadows. Particularly if today is a happy one for you, in your relationship, offer up a prayer for those who are struggling with the hard, terrible beauty that is love.
Back in the day, when a young nun would make her first vows, her Abbess would respond, “God grant you perseverance, my child.” I’ve often thought a priest presiding at a wedding might do well to say the same thing, that the bridal couple and the whole assembly of witnesses might affirm that small prayer with a resounding, “Amen!”
St. Valentine, martyr and patron of couples, marriages and love, pray for us.