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Set Apart for Love of Christ: A Vocation Story

September 12, AD2017

Have you ever stopped to consider the sacred vessels used by the priest at Mass, the vessels in which the Lord of Heaven and earth comes to humbly dwell so that He may physically be present with us? Think of the chalice into which the priest places the wine mingled with water. Following the words of consecration, the chalice holds the very blood of God, the blood which poured forth on Golgotha. In function, the chalice simply a goblet, capable of holding any number of liquids; a chalice can just as easily contain water, wine, or soda.

There is something special about a chalice, though, which makes it feel wrong to pour into it a can of root beer even though it could physically contain the liquid. A chalice was created by a craftsman with the purpose that the object would one day hold the Precious Blood. Thus, most chalices are plated in fine metals and decorated with stones and sacred imagery in preparation for the sacred duty the object will one day perform. Once the chalice is consecrated, it is set apart for use solely for the worship of God in the liturgy. The chalice is now used to bring God’s Real Presence to us and is itself a symbol of that presence, reminding us of what occurs at Mass.

Likewise, I think, are our vocations. God designed our souls to love Him in a particular way, through a particular vocation. Just as the chalice is most fittingly to be used for holding the Precious Blood, so too our hearts are meant to love God through a particular spouse or through priesthood in a particular diocese or order, or through religious life in a particular order. When one finds that vocation, one feels “at home” because it seems like that is where one is meant to be.

Background Preparations

Vocation stories seem to focus on the singular moments of one’s spiritual life. While I had some these types of moments during my discernment journey, it is easy to miss how God works through the repetitive experiences of our life to help shape us. Much as a craftsman shapes the metal of a chalice through repeated strokes of a hammer, God carefully formed my heart and mind to desire Him completely through three important ways as I was growing up.

First, I had an unexplainable attraction to Mary. Perhaps due to the fact my home parish was dedicated to Mary, we were taught the Rosary at a very early age in our parish grade school and I recall praying the Rosary to sleep every night as a child though I don’t recall anyone particularly suggesting or encouraging it. Over time, she really became a mother to me.

Second, the Eucharist was hugely important to me. I distinctly recall my first Communion and knowing without a doubt Who it was I was receiving. It was an impressionable enough experience that I recall composing a simple twelve measure piano tune in commemoration of the occasion a few months later. Discovering Adoration through youth group in high school led me from simply reciting rote prayers to having a conversational relationship with Christ. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, particularly during college, helped keep me safe from much of the usual college craziness and helped me come to a greater understanding of who God made me to be.

Third, I was blessed to come into frequent contact with the priests at my parish church. The example of these holy priests led me to know and love God more. Through them and in them, I first encountered Jesus, primarily through the Eucharist and secondarily in their very lives by their example of self-sacrifice and service.  They fostered my interest in the Mass and patiently answered my questions about the faith. Many holy priests that I have been blessed to get to know have shown me God’s merciful love in tangible ways, encouraged me to seek the Lord with all my heart, and saw the possibility of a religious vocation in me.

Hearing the Call of a Religious Vocation

The very first time anyone suggested to me the idea of religious life was when I was thirteen when I was serving at Mass. A visiting priest was giving the homily that day on vocations when the associate pastor who was sitting next to me leaned over and told me that I should think about becoming a religious sister because I would make a good one.  I was totally flabbergasted.  Even if I would have been able to come up with some response, surely the sanctuary in the middle of a homily was not the time to have this discussion!  At the time it didn’t seem to make much impact, but that moment stuck in my mind.

It was only many years later that I really started to discern a vocation to the religious life. Again I was at Sunday Mass at my home parish. The Gospel reading was from Matthew where Jesus says, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” (Matthew 9:37-38) I had grown up Catholic and had heard that Scripture passage countless times. Yet, the Holy Spirit struck me that particular Sunday. I had the clear conviction that Jesus was speaking to me, that He was calling me to be His laborer in the form of religious life.

Like most people would be, I was dumbfounded. Me? You really mean me, Lord? I didn’t even know there were people entering religious life. Surely I must have misunderstood. I’d never had that experience before and spent the rest of the homily trying to forget it happened. After Mass, the priest came up and mentioned that I should think about religious life, echoing the words of the priest when I was thirteen, and many other priests along the way.  I tried to push the experience out of my mind.  The more I tried, however, the more God repeated the motif; every time I went to Mass, something in the reading, homily, or prayers would be calling me to consider religious life. Finally, I spoke to one of the parish priests about it. He encouraged me to pray, asking for the grace of interior indifference, and to talk to him again if the idea of religious life persisted. It did.

Allowing God to Work

I spent more time in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and visiting various religious communities. At first, I probably spent more time trying to fight off the idea of a religious vocation. I was in law school, preparing for a legal career. There was no way, I thought, that God would want me. No way could I be happy as a religious sister.

As time passed, I learned to surrender my desires and vision for my life to God. I realized that God knew me better than I knew myself; He had created me for a particular purpose and He knew what would bring me joy and lead me to holiness. Once I was able to surrender to God, prayer took on a different nature for it was no longer a battle but more joy in discovering what God was trying to reveal to me about myself. In a way, discernment became less something I had to “do” and rather something I was allowing to unfold for God, of course, was the one really doing the work all along.

Over time, I became convicted that I had a vocation to religious life. I felt that God was calling me to live in an intense relationship with Him in both the world of silent prayer and of loving service of other people. I believed that Jesus is calling me to live in an intense, spousal relationship with Him, that He has made my heart for that particular purpose. I desired to answer His call through a radical gift of self by living my life totally for Him. In becoming Jesus’ spouse, this love carries with it an uncontainable nature, a fruitfulness through spiritual motherhood. I believed that Jesus has put it on my heart to be a spiritual mother to all people.

Finding “Home”

I finally met the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan after Archbishop Robert J. Carlson was invited to open a house in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Ironically, however, I managed to avoid any meaningful contact them for about six years after they arrived. In fact, the rector of the Cathedral where I was a parishioner spent years inviting me to talk with the Sisters who were also parishioners. I kept avoiding it. Indeed, when I started working for the Respect Life Apostolate for the Archdiocese, two of the Sisters worked on my very floor in offices nearly adjacent to mine. Still, somehow I managed to avoid any conversations with them other than basic formalities.

It was only shortly after the rector passed away on June 2015 that a nagging started in my heart that perhaps I ought to heed his advice and talk to these Sisters that were at my workplace and my parish. I recall very discreetly trying to learn more about the community over lunch with one of the Sisters, asking how she met the community and her vocation story. After more nagging from the Holy Spirit, I finally emailed one of the Sisters, who happened to also be the director of the Office of Consecrated Life, asking to speak to her “but not about work stuff.” She shared with me some of her vocation story and encouraged me to just go on a come and see retreat at the Motherhouse.

I did and was just overwhelmed by the peace I felt while I was there, particularly while I was praying with the Sisters. I went back for an extended visit and had that peace confirmed.

God’s Work

As I prepare to enter, I can see how good God’s grace has been in slowly forming me to the person I am through countless encounters with God in prayer and through the people I have met. I can see how God prepared my heart to be able to say “yes” to Him and to be set apart for Him like the consecrated chalice is. Each experience happened for a reason and helped me to reach this moment where I’m able to freely and joyfully respond to the Lord’s call to the vocation of religious life.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Stephanie To has worked for the Archdiocese of St. Louis's Respect Life Apostolate since 2014. Previously, she was a litigation attorney in a mid-sized law firm in St. Louis for nearly six years. She holds a B.A. in psychology from Washington University in St. Louis, a M.A. in bioethics and health policy from Loyola University in Chicago, and a J.D. with certificates in health law and health care ethics from Saint Louis University. In her spare time, Stephanie enjoys playing the violin and singing in her parish choir.

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