The joy of giving it all
"Señor, toma mi vida nueva, antes de que la espera, desgaste años en mí. Estoy dispuesta a lo que quieras; no importa lo que sea. ¡Tu llámame a servir!"
These are the first few lines of "Alma Misionera," a song I learned while volunteering in Ecuador after college. The title means "missionary soul," and when I heard it for the first time, I was discovering that I had one.
The verse above goes like this: "Lord, take my new life, before waiting wears my years away. I am ready and willing for whatever you want, no matter what it is. Call me to serve!"
As my friends from the church youth choir plucked the song out on their guitars, my stomach fluttered, too. A few months into my volunteer experience, I had recently begun discerning a surprising call to religious life. The words of each verse echoed deeply in me. It gave language to a love song that my heart had somehow begun singing to God but that still terrified me. I sang "Alma Misionera" often throughout the next few years as I sifted through my longings and gathered the courage to say yes.
Nine years later, the song still stirs up mystery in my missionary soul.
In May, I found myself on a beach in Ecuador with an afternoon all to myself, and the song came back to me. I had returned to the country to lead a retreat for the current volunteers of the same program I had done, Rostro de Cristo. On Sunday after the volunteers departed, I rushed from the seaside retreat center to the Pacific Ocean below.
The gloriously clear sky and gentle breeze had beckoned people of all ages to the shore. I was elated to be among them, unable to restrain my smile as little ones bobbled around in their tiny swimsuits and groups of friends dove into the waves. Although I walked alone, I felt connected to the pulse of life and overcome with the joy of it all.
I walked and walked down the beautiful beach, smiling wider each time the invigorating ocean water encircled my ankles. Sometimes I even skipped, kicking the waves into the air around me, as free and relaxed as I'd felt in months.
At some point, I realized that I was near to the beach where I first had the inkling as a volunteer in 2008 to explore religious life. In fact, this was the closest geographically that I had been since, only 20 miles up the coast.
My mind floated back to that day and season of my life. Memories began to flood in. I felt transported into the emotions of early discernment: bewilderment, fear, resistance, anxiety, sadness, curiosity, confusion, and only occasionally, openness, courage and peace. I remembered conversations with friends and family over online chat and with fellow volunteers in our community home. I remembered apprehensive but honest prayer and journaling that helped me work through the questions.
Involuntarily, I began to hum the tunes of Spanish church songs that both comforted and urged me during my time as a volunteer. "Alma Misionera" danced onto my lips. I had forgotten about the song for several years, but I was delighted to find that I recalled most of the words. It felt different to sing the song now. For a long time, even though I would sing the lyrics in church, my heart couldn't quite say, "Whatever you want, Lord, no matter what it is." And yet, mysteriously, here I was, a vowed Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. I squinted into the blue sky filled with sun's rays, and awe spread through me like their warmth.
I had been walking for a while now, and I became aware that the voices and shrieks of laughter of the beach crowds were fading. Looking ahead, I could only make out the shapes of people in the distance, and behind me, there was not a soul for hundreds of feet. I could hardly believe my luck. I actually twirled around like Maria in "The Sound of Music" when I realized I had this slice of beach to myself.
There aren't too many places where a singer can just let loose. This was my chance. I waded in to my knees, and I sang into the waves with all my heart. I felt the freedom of the gliding seagulls in my soul. Suddenly, my song became a deep, deep prayer. I lifted my face to the sun, and I raised my hands, apart and high above my head, in a gesture of surrender. Nine years ago, I had sat cross-legged and anxious as I searched for God's call. Now, I stood tall, grateful for how truly I could say, "Take my life, God. Call me to serve!" My song felt like a re-declaration of my commitment, like a renewal of my vows, like a re-dedication of my whole life.
I knew as it was happening that God didn't need me to sing those words. Instead, this moment was a gift from God for me to see how far I had come. It was a precious chance to sense my own inner faithfulness, courage and passion. It was a sacred opportunity to bask in the freedom that comes from living one's God-given vocation.
Then, the most beautiful thing happened. As I stood there, arms lifted in total commitment, I became overwhelmed with an experience of God's commitment to me. The sky above was expansive and infinite, pure azure filled with buoyant birds and a few happy clouds. The sand below me was soft, yet sturdy, rooting me. And the ocean — wow. It was infinite, too, extending out as far as the eye could see, waves crashing and dancing in the breeze. The sun shone upon me, my skin tingling and heart pulsing.
Suddenly, I felt all of it enveloping me. The deep, refreshing waters gushed toward me and around me; the sun bathed me and filled me with light. I sensed God saying to me, "I rejoice in your commitment, my daughter. And I want to you know how deeply I am committed to you." I became aware of how small I was compared to the expanse of glorious creation around me, and as such I realized how small my faithfulness is in the ocean of God's faithfulness. Not small in the sense of insignificant; I didn't feel belittled, but empowered. I felt taken up in the force of God's love. If this one small commitment feels like such a powerful fire inside of me, and God's commitment to me is infinitely more, what should I ever fear?
I also knew deeply at that moment that God's faithfulness to me was not "in return." It was not a response to my faithfulness. It had always been there, since the beginning of time, since before I was born. It had nurtured me in my mother's womb and accompanied me as I grew up, and it enveloped me just as intensely now as on the day God first nudged me to look at religious life, a few miles down the beach.
I had always loved the image of covenant, and today, it took on new meaning. Our covenant with God is not two equal parts. God's faithfulness to us is the ocean, the sky, and the sand, all of them infinite, rooting us, rushing toward us, warming us; it is bigger and deeper than our human hearts could ever grasp. It cannot be earned. It flows forth from the extravagant heart of our God, who is love. There is great inner freedom that comes with saying yes to this God. There is joy in giving it all away.
Yesterday morning, I sat at the bedside of our 101-year-old Sister Annina who is nearing death. Born in 1916, she took a train from Albuquerque at age 17 to enter the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati. She has lived her vocation for close to 85 years. She has been ready to "go Home" for a long time, and now more than ever. In a weak voice arising from a dry throat, she asked me to pray with her that the Lord would come to take her, soon. I saw in her eyes the joy of having given it all to God over her long life. I gazed at the ring on her finger, reflecting on the thousands of people who have been touched through her decades of commitment. She closed her eyes peacefully and even smiled gently as I prayed. There was a profound sense of Presence in and around her; I sensed that her whole being was wrapped in the faithfulness of God.
During my own discernment of religious life, mentors shared with me the Ignatian technique of imagining oneself at the end of their life, perhaps on their deathbed, looking back over their years. From that vantage point, what do I wish I had done with my life? What decisions do I wish I had made? What kind of life would give me inner freedom?
Annina could look back with utter peace. She has been faithful to God, and God has surely been faithful to her.
The unreserved abandon to God's will that "Alma Misionera" professes once roused anxiety in me. I know now that the discomfort surfaced because the words touched into my deepest desire. That desire, to give everything to God, is buried inside of us all. It can be scary, because saying yes does come with a cost. Still, the greatest loss would be to only half-live our lives.
A few years into my commitment as a sister, I know that my missionary soul needs to be awakened continually; I need reminders of my call to radical faithfulness and the infinite faithfulness of God. At this point in my life, what inner "tugs" have I ignored? What is holding me back? What are fears and anxieties that keep me from trusting God? Where have I allowed myself to become comfortable instead of cleaving to the prophetic edge of the Gospel? Our deepest joy and freedom will come from giving it all.
And so, I pray: Lord, take my new life, before waiting wears my years away. I am ready and willing for whatever you want, no matter what it is. Call me to serve!
[Tracy Kemme is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. Author of the blog Diary of a Sister-in-Training, Tracy is excited about the future of religious life! She currently ministers at the Catholic Social Action Office in Cincinnati and as Latino ministry coordinator at a local parish.]