Imagine it is the 13th century before electricity, cars or Snapchat existed. You and a companion are walking through a cold, dark forest in the wintertime. All you have is a robe to keep you warm, as icicles form at the bottom of it, cutting into your skin. Hunger aches throughout your body, for you have traveled all day, and you yearn for the warmth of a fire’s light.
Finally, your destination is up ahead. You knock on the door, but to your dismay, the friend inside does not recognize you. You beg and plead, trying to convince the person that you are their kin, returned from a long journey. However, they insist that you are just beggars and should return to town. They slam the door in your faces. Are you angry? Frustrated? Feel abandoned and misjudged? When you turn to your travel companion, what do you say? I bet, it would not be “if I had patience and did not become upset, true joy, as well as true virtue and the salvation of my soul, would consist in this.” Yet, this is what St. Francis of Assisi said to Brother Leo after such a thing happened to him.
This story is known by Franciscans as the story of True and Perfect Joy, and I often jokingly refer to it as the gospel of my life. It is not because there is so much happiness in my existence that I asked for “joy” to be a part of my new religious name. I had heard the story of True and Perfect Joy as a postulant and could instantly relate to it. Being patient and calm in the midst of suffering, looking to Jesus for strength and guidance, and trusting that he will be with us through it all — that is where true and perfect joy lies.
I believe this is a message we can carry with us, especially as we begin our Lenten journey in the upcoming weeks. We can find happiness in a job promotion, an acceptance letter into college or from the latest iPhone. But joy is much deeper than this. Joy says “there is hope, even when an illness overwhelms.” “I am strong, despite the negative things people say about me, the negative things I find myself saying as I gaze in the mirror.” “Tomorrow is a brand new day, especially after a big mistake.” Joy proclaims that God is the author of our story. A never-ending story where the hero is our best friend.
There was a time when I was trapped in a dark hole of shame, despair and brokenness. I thirsted for healing and a new life. If you would have told me God’s five-year plan involved me becoming a religious sister, I would have thought there was no way. But God transformed my heart and gave me wings to fly. I am now a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity in temporary vows. This means that, while I renew my vows annually, they are not permanent yet.
My formation buddies, as I call them, come from all over the country. Texas, North Carolina, Michigan, Colorado and right here in Wisconsin. I work in spiritual care at St. Paul Elder Services in Kaukauna where I lead rosary, Bible studies and music for people in dementia’s early stages. Being a personal care assistant is another ministry I do, especially with the shortage of health care personnel we are experiencing.
But my passion continues to lie in media and encouraging vocations. I am honored by the people I am able to meet and talk with through my podcasts which can be found on Facebook (Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity) and YouTube (Calledtobefranciscan).
God’s gifts to me are often the people I meet at schools, colleges and even right at our motherhouse when they visit. If you believe God is calling you or someone you know to be a religious sister, please feel free to reach out to Sr. Julie Ann Sheehan at [email protected]. I knew God called me to be a Franciscan Sister of Christian Charity when I visited the sisters and just had a sense of home. I could be myself — the beautiful woman God created to love Him and love others in return.
This is also my hope for you. That you are able to find not only happiness in whatever vocation God calls you to, but true and perfect joy. A joy that will last through the blessings and crosses. A joy you can spread and share with others.
Sr. Cecilia is a temporary professed sister with the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity. Her favorite Bible verse is “Rejoice in the Lord always!- Philippians 4:4.”