Someone once asked me to share with them my ‘Jesus story’… Well, by the grace and mercy of God, I was blessed to make my First Profession of Vows on the Feast of the Annunciation, 2017.
Now my ‘Jesus story’ is written very visibly in the form of my COLW habit: Jesus asked me to marry him and I said Yes, Fiat. (Alleluia!) “I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her heart. […] There she shall respond…” (Hosea 2:14,15.) So, this is the story of how I fell in love with the Risen Christ: how he chose me before I chose him; how he had been there all along as my Bridegroom, patiently loving me and waiting for me, until I opened my eyes in the darkness and saw him looking straight at me. Miserando atque eligendo (‘seeing him through the eyes of mercy, he chose him.’) Jesus’ look was the eternal gaze of merciful love, thirsting for my heart, for every heart. I could no longer resist him!
I was raised Catholic and grew up wanting to know Jesus, but never experienced a personal relationship with him. The pull of the world’s distractions anaesthetised this heartache, and I allowed myself to be swept away in the rushing surge of exams, UCAS, socialising and cultivating an identity… all without Jesus. It was only ever the Holy Spirit that really had a look-in on my life of faith: he faithfully responded to my emergency calls, either for inspiration as I was lining up to go into the exam hall, or for inner fortitude as I prepared myself for a challenging conversation. Truthfully, I gave up expecting any deep experience of closeness to God; I settled for an easy materialism and put any spiritual desires last on the list of priorities. The Trinity subtly became ‘behind-the-scene’ extras in my life, supporting me in the wings whilst I fought the battle centre-stage, striving to become the protagonist of my life. I wanted to become a fashion-magazine editor (Alexandra Shulman, the then-editor of Vogue, was my heroine!) and I had planned my perfect life… right up until retirement. I lived to see my dreams become reality.
It never occurred to me to ask God what dreams he had for my life. Everything had gone so well according to plan until then! When I went to my first-choice university, I felt like I was living the dream – fulfilling hopes I had cherished since my childhood. When my grandfather died unexpectedly at the end of Freshers’ Week, however, I struggled to process my grief. I was driven by the apprehension that if I stopped, I would be crushed by the stampede of deadlines and commitments. I had erroneously equated productivity with self-worth, yet I had lost my very self in the process. Mindlessly rushing from one deadline to another and jumping from experience to experience, I could no longer see the point of what I was doing it all for. Deep down my heart screamed with conviction that this wasn’t true Life, surely this wasn’t how I was meant to be living. But everything around me told me I was living my dream life… So what was my heart still searching for?
The longing for Truth intensified. What was the solid rock upon which I would build my life? I had stopped attending regular Sunday Mass (only obliging my baptismal ‘duty’ when my parents came up to visit…!) and was feeling disillusioned with the Catholic Church. I started attending a close friend’s Evangelical Church and bought my own Bible (albeit without the Apocrypha!) that I read on a daily basis. Jesus’ words in Mark 8:35 gave me fresh hope: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it.” With every fibre of my being, I wanted this true Life that Jesus promised. I had a growing desire to live intentionally; conscious of how I would live “this one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver) I had been given, what I would do with it and what I would leave behind. I had a firm resolution that this life I have cannot be wasted: it has to be used for something, contribute some good, mean something…
By summer, I was contemplating leaving the Catholic Church. My mother was horrified. She persuaded me to watch the BBC documentary ‘The Big Silence’. As I saw each retreatant have a profoundly personal encounter with the divine, my heart began to soften with painful surrender as I realised that I did not have all the answers. Feeling very much like the prodigal son, I began to attend fortnightly Taize prayer meetings at the Catholic Chaplaincy (their ecumenism was suitably non-threatening) and even took part in the week-long ‘Retreat in Daily Life.’ My eyes were opening up to the treasures held within Catholicism: the Church was offering me the means for a powerful depth of intimacy with God. I wanted to find God in the silence.
I did, however, balk at the thought that this would entail conforming to an institutionalised religion – and worst of all, to the inherited faith I had sought to reject. In my stubbornness of spirit, I resolved to carve out my own path, convincing myself that I was walking towards freedom. I was drawn to a local meditation centre, which advocated a spirituality based on Hindu and New Age concepts. Their committed members (including married women) lived out a sexual purity that I was intrigued by: it was regarded as an indispensable means to attaining union with the Divine.
Whilst attending these meditation courses, I was also reading articles on the Taize website. One of these was entitled, ‘Letter to those who want to follow Christ.’ When I came upon the words, “There are also those who ask themselves how they can follow Christ by choosing the road of celibacy,” I was shaken by the sensation that God was speaking to me directly. It was as though he were pointing a finger at the screen and saying ‘Carina, that’s for you.’ In the ensuing months, I wrestled furiously with my angel: celibacy in the New Age/ Hindu way of life was an enlightened choice; within the Catholic Church, however, it was a travesty. Celibacy appeared crippled under the weight of imposed religious obedience, which threatened to annihilate the very spontaneity and adventure of life. It was no longer a temporary means to an end: it had become a life-long prison sentence.
As part of my degree, I studied the writings of St Teresa of Avila and her ‘Book of Life’ made me convinced of the powerful truth that God is real, personal and immediate. Contrary to the meditation centre’s ideology, I could not accept that Jesus was anything less than fully human and fully divine! My heart soared as the wrestling with my angel slowly became a dance with Christ, the Beloved. I no longer rejected the call to consecrated life as something shameful, but instead saw it as a privilege – chosen by the Father to be the spouse of his only Son, the King of Kings. I no longer attended Mass on a ‘Sundays-only’ basis, but needed to quench my thirst in Communion almost every day. In the Eucharist, I saw the immense power of Jesus’ Love and his Beauty overwhelmed me: I wanted to give everything to the One who had given me Everything. I wanted to live with purpose in such a way that I was saying with my life: Jesus, you did not die in vain for me upon that Cross. I surrendered to the beauty and freedom of spiritual motherhood and I could finally accept that having my own family would never be enough for me. I longed to proclaim with my life that Jesus is Enough, by living a life that could only be sustained by his grace. The life that I had fabricated out of my own self-will was no longer my dream: he had become all that I longed for and thought about. I realised with joy that my heart had found what it was looking for – found the one whom it was looking for: Jesus who is Truth incarnate; Jesus who is Life incarnate.
I came across the Community of Our Lady of Walsingham on a Google search for Carmels in England. When I read their website, my heart exulted in the faithfulness of my God. Their motto, ‘called to the fullness of life and love,’ resonated deeply and I strongly identified with the vocation to a life lived ‘intensely with God and intensely with people’ (as symbolised by COLW’s hood!) This vocation was written in my bones. Discernment with an enclosed Carmelite community and an Ignatian apostolic community had still left me searching for more; yet in COLW’s charism and spirituality, all the inexpressible longings of my heart had the potential to be fulfilled. I had no idea at the time but the night I discovered their website was the vigil Feast of Our Lady of Walsingham: she was leading me tenderly as my mother to a community which served a shrine I had never been to and knew nothing about. The real adventure was just beginning! When I visited the community for the first time, I experienced pure joy – like the leap of joy at the Visitation when St John the Baptist recognizes Jesus in the womb of Our Lady. I knew intuitively that it would be here, in Mary’s little community, that my true self would meet the true God.
Fiat. Amen. Alleluia!
“I thank you for your faithfulness and love/ which excel all we ever knew of you.” ~Psalm 138:2.