ANTIGO — God has beckoned Eileen Hartl through a labyrinth since she was a young woman, and she continues to trust and follow.
“I consider this the Advent of my life,” said Hartl, a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish. “I have sensed this invitation from Jesus, ‘Come, Eileen, together we can do better.’”
Hartl has been active in the church for decades, previously serving as a volunteer, a Catholic education director for two parishes and as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. Every time she walks through one doorway, another appears, slightly farther down her spiritual path.
It started as a young girl in Green Bay, where she was a member of and attended school at St. Mary of the Angels Parish. But by sixth grade, “I was starting to skip out on Mass.”
That feeling was intensified a few years later, when her brother, Tom, died violently at age 22 while serving in the U.S. Air Force in Guam.
“God existed, but not for me,” she said.
In her late teens, she followed her parents north to Antigo and, as a young adult, found herself in Appleton.
There, she said, another door opened, with her discovery that “Jesus was real and he wanted me back.” That led to her involvement at St. Pius X Parish.
A chance meeting with her future husband, Gary, on a visit back to Antigo led to her permanent return. Thirty-four years later, the couple has two children, ages 32 and 30.
Even as she established a rich and fulfilling life, Hartl was beckoned through another doorway. It was in 2000, when a friend, Steve Zimmerman, introduced her to Living Waters International, a charity that was established locally to fund the development of water resources and other projects in Africa.
Hartl met Zimmerman when both were attending a catechist inservice. She initially invited him to speak about the charity to her youth group at St. Joseph-Holy Family Parish in Phlox.
After hearing his presentation, “I offered to help,” she said, thinking she could play some small role. Instead, Zimmerman invited her to join the organization’s board of directors, where she remains active today.
“It’s the concept that people everywhere need help and some more so than others,” Hartl said. “They are the poorest of the poor.”
That would be enough “doors” for anyone, but the biggest cracked open a year ago.
Hartl appeared to be what many would consider a model Catholic, but “I was experiencing spiritual sloth. I was weaving in and out and going through a period of turning away from God.”
As the Lenten season opened, Hartl decided to forego weekly Scripture study and was home when she received a call from Sr. Dolores Demulling, who had misread a name and mistakenly assumed she had signed up for the program.
“I didn’t want to do it,” Hartl admitted, but she attended. The lessons followed the Oremus study program, which focuses on the essentials of an effective and fruitful Catholic prayer life. And even as the program ended, Hartl and several others continued to meet and study.
They followed the edicts of Matthew 11:28-30, where Jesus says to “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
Hartl was stirred by the simplicity of the message.
“It was the Lord speaking through Sr. Demulling, to take my prayer to the next level,” she said. “I felt the invitation. I rediscovered the treasure that lies in praying with Scripture. It renewed my desire for deeper prayer and the sacramental life, particularly reconciliation.’
At the same time, Hartl was introduced to Margaret Kleinschmidt, whose Carmelite scapular sparked a discussion.
“The seed was planted,” Hartl said, and she began the process to join the Secular Order of the Discalced Carmelites, where she is now in the aspirancy stage.
“The grace that comes from reconciliation lightens the load and, in turn, lightens the load in other people’s lives,” she said. “I hope to continue the frequent use of the sacraments (including reconciliation) and Scripture study. I’m committed to the (Carmelite) order to seek the face of God.”
In addition to her spiritual studies, Hartl is caregiver to a friend, about her age, who is dealing with the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Although she was never an athlete and her friend always was, the two now join on frequent walks, adding to their mental and physical strength.
“I feel like I’m getting in shape, spiritually and physically,” she said.
Hartl remains open to whatever doors open.
“It’s unknown. It’s unfolding where the Lord wants me to go. I can only see what’s in front of me,” she said. ‘The Lord sees what can be done. This is what he was inviting me to do.”