Sr Elizabeth Burgess
My Life, My All: A Vocation story
Well, if I change my mind, you'll have to force me! I must have been only about 8 years old at the time but I remember the scene vividly. I had just declared to my Mum my intention of becoming a nun when I grew up. She had been pleased to hear this news, as she had always striven to foster within the souls of her children a deep love of Christ, but my older sisters had, as she pointed out to me, said the same thing when they had been small. I remember stamping my foot in despair, "Please, please promise to force me if I change my mind. I don't want to change my mind!" But no amount of pleading and wailing would persuade her to agree. I remember feeling indignant about her lack of co-operation, but also inwardly distressed by the fact that one day I might stop desiring something which I wanted more than anything I could think of, that during that strange period of my life awaiting me in the distant future, which my Mum had termed "the terrible teens", I might begin to reject what I once loved and love what I had once rejected.
I don't know why I desired the religious life with the ardour I did. I was far too young to know what it meant to be a nun. But the call was there, and somehow I sensed it, without in any way being able to express it. The word vocation comes from the Latin word vocare which means to call. A vocation is a call from God, a call of love from His Heart to the heart of the one called. In my case the call came early on. Thank God it did, for I was still open and receptive enough to be able to hear it clearly. I feel that this early call was an act of mercy on the part of God and I am always edified when I hear stories of people discerning a call much later on in life and still being open enough to respond with generosity and enthusiasm.
Many years had to pass before I was able to answer the call of love. The terrible teens struck and although they didn't have the dramatic effect I had feared, my enthusiasm for the religious life was by no means as forceful as it had been. I think that this gradual waning of enthusiasm was a necessary part of the process of learning to respond fully to His call. If I had stuck to the resolution I had made at 8 years old and held to this ideal against all odds, there would have been the danger that my vocation was something I had chosen to do rather than a listening to and discerning the real call of God. The stubborn determination to do what I thought God wanted me to do had to change to a willing and loving acceptance of God's Will, simply because it is His Will and for no other reason.
I settled on nursing as a prospective career and as I had a year to spare at the end of my A levels, I worked as a nursing assistant in the JR hospital in Oxford while at the same time securing a place at University to study nursing the following year. Everything was set up and ready....but was I? Though I often pretended not to notice, the desires of my heart were pulling me in a different direction. During a family holiday to the Isle of Wight a couple of years earlier we had visited St Cecilia's Abbey in Ryde, and as I had prayed in the church with my Mum I had experienced an overwhelming sense that this was where God wanted me to be. During the months following the visit I had been longing to return. My enthusiasm for the religious life was at a height, though I mentioned nothing of it to my family. But again, as time passed, the memory of that strong sense of call faded and with it, the enthusiasm. It never completely disappeared but it seemed to become less and less urgent as I became more and more distracted by other things. The Lord didn't seem to be acting, so I got on with making my own plans for the future. I don't know quite how I had expected Him to act. I was too blind to see that He had already been very active in my life, not least in rather miraculously getting me to St Cecilia's Abbey at a time when I was planning the next stage in my life. He had done His part - I should have been ready to do mine. But I wasn't. The start date of my course was looming and I refused to speak out. So He had to intervene in a more painful way.
My Mum had for a long time been suffering from a rare medical condition. As a result of complications linked with this illness, she was rushed into hospital with internal bleeding in summer 2005. This had happened once before when I was 10 and she only survived by what my Dad referred to as "an absolute miracle". This experience had shaken me deeply and seeing it all happen again was like re-living my worst nightmare. We had been told that it would happen again. Every night I had pleaded with God that it might not happen this night. And now it had happened. After a failed intervention we were called in to say goodbye before she was taken to theatre for a high risk attempt to save her life. They were perhaps some of the most painful, heart-rending moments of my life, but it was in the midst of this great suffering that the Lord opened my heart to receive one of the greatest graces of my life - the grace to speak out. I don't know what made me say it - perhaps I feared that if I didn't, she would never know the secret in my heart on earth and I didn't want to keep anything from her at what seemed to be the end. "Mum, I want to be a nun". She turned to meet my eyes and gave me the most beautiful, heavenly smile, "Oh, Lizzie..." Before she was whisked away she told me that I must speak to a priest about it and I promised her I would. The Lord had intervened in the most mysterious way. I had kept my vocation to myself for so long that if I hadn't literally been forced to tell someone, I'm not sure I ever would have. But the Lord was having His way and now that I had spoken my desire aloud, I knew that there was no going back. By another against-all-odds miracle, Mum pulled through after long days and nights in Intensive Care. Not long after she came home she brought up the subject of my vocation and again urged me to speak to a priest. Only when I received a letter from the University asking for a definite confirmation of acceptance did I reluctantly make an appointment to see him. He strongly suggested that I write that afternoon, explaining my situation and asking about the possibility of a visit.
I was invited to visit for a week in early September. I loved my time at the Abbey. Everything about the life delighted me: the glorious liturgy, the warm and friendly community, the work in the large garden and altar bread department, and above all the powerful atmosphere of peace and recollection which seemed, literally, to breathe holiness. A few days inside the monastery was all the incentive I needed to send off the letter to the University with a tick in the box by the statement rejecting the place. This was a big weight off my mind and I felt very happy with the decision. I promised to return in November for a longer stay of 3 weeks inside the enclosure. Not long after I got home, however, I was faced with the turmoil of Mum's second hospitalisation, only three months after the previous emergency. No one thought she could possibly pull through this time, but pull through she did. The doctors, however, were far from reassuring. "It will happen again," they told us bluntly, "It's just a matter of time". And next time, they said, there would be no medical interventions. The last procedure had caused a lung to collapse and further attempts along these lines would be too risky.
Mum returned home in mid October and my three-week visit was due in November. I was anxious about leaving her for three weeks in case anything happened while I was away, and I was overcome with doubts as to how I could join the Community anyway when my Mum was so unwell. As my Dad and brother were at home to look after Mum, I kept to the planned dates. During my time at the Abbey I fixed a preliminary entry date, 25th March, as I felt I needed some kind of anchor when I returned to the world. But I was still unsure about whether I could actually go ahead. In the end it was Mum herself who decided the matter. She said that there was no way she was going to stand in the way of my vocation. She might live for a long time yet and she wouldn't have me sitting around waiting for her. These were brave, completely selfless words, as I know for myself just how much the sacrifice cost her. On a human level, I think she would have valued having me around to help her more than anything, but all that mattered to her was the will of God, and if He was calling me to the monastery, then go I must.
It often happens that when someone has made a decision to follow God's call and embrace the religious life, they experience what could be described as a counter-call, something that will make the response to God's call all the more radical. This could be anything, from an amazing job offer, the career opportunity of one's dreams, to a marriage proposal, but there is usually something to pull one's heart in the opposite direction and so enhance the value of the sacrifice in His eyes. In my case, that something was my Mum's illness. The months leading up to my entry were not easy ones. But I knew that to put off following His call would be to put my vocation at risk in a serious way. There is always something urgent and impelling about His call, which demands an immediate response on the part of the one called. When we read the accounts of Jesus calling his disciples in the Gospels, we see that His call invariably demands this total, immediate response: And immediately they left their nets and followed Him (Mk 1:18). Those who put forward even legitimate excuses meet with rebuke: No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God (Lk 9:62). Follow me - Jesus calls, and it is for the disciple to respond with all the alacrity and generosity of which he is capable. I also had to keep reminding myself that with the grace of a religious vocation comes the grace to respond to that vocation. If I am open to His grace, then His strength, made perfect in weakness, will be mine. Nothing is impossible for God.
On 25th March 2006, 6 months after my 19th birthday, I entered the monastery. The parting with my family was painful, but looking back, I do not think I would have wanted it in any other way. Like married life, the religious life is a life of self-giving love, and thus involves sacrifice, immolation. In Our Lord�s life, love and sacrifice go hand in hand: He loved me, and gave himself up for me (Gal 2:20). It was love that drew me to the monastery, and if sacrifice is only love put into action, then that love found its expression in a desire to give my life to Him, who gave His life for me. And like David, I would not have wanted to offer to the Lord a sacrifice that cost me nothing (2 Sam 24:24).
The Lord is never outdone in generosity. The contemplative life, that hidden life of prayer and praise, of love and sacrifice, lived within the silence and tranquillity of the cloister, bestows upon the soul a peace and joy which the world doesn't know. "I have found my heaven on earth", exclaimed Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity, "since Heaven is God, and God is in my soul." The liturgy with its beautiful Gregorian Chant, our prayer, reading and study, silence, life in community, all these things strive to deepen that union with God in the soul which makes our life here below already a foretaste of the life that awaits us in heaven. But if it is a law that love and sacrifice go hand in hand in this life, it follows that joy, the fruit of love, is also a partner with sacrifice. My Clothing Day was the happiest of my life thus far, but less than a month afterwards, my family broke the news to me that Mum's general condition had worsened. She was rushed into hospital on Palm Sunday and died on Good Friday, April 6th 2007. There are also the smaller sacrifices of each day. St Benedict in his Rule sums up the doctrine of religious asceticism in one sentence: the monk is "to deny himself in order to follow Christ". And did not Christ himself state quite clearly in the Gospel that the disciple who would come after Him must be prepared to deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow Him (cf. Lk 9:23)? If we come to God by following in the footsteps of Christ, then cross-bearing and the avoidance of all that might hinder our progress along the path of life must form an essential part of our journey.
A religious vocation carries with it the grace to go all the way in love and thus all the way in sacrifice, love-in-action. When one loves, one wants to give oneself wholly to the object of one's love and to hold nothing back in the giving. On Profession day, this act of self-giving love is solemnly ratified by the Church. As I approach this great day, I find myself drawn more than ever to the contemplation of Christ Crucified. It is in this supreme act of self-giving love, made perpetually present in the Church through the daily sacrifice of the Mass, that our own sacrifices, great and small, find their meaning. Sr EB
"Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all".
(from Isaac Watts "When I survey the wondrous Cross")