A Journey in the Desert
I truly believe it was God’s grace that led me to Maggie’s Place and His will that I should learn the language of love in action there. The 2nd day I was at The Elizabeth House for my interview, I knew God wanted me there and I had this conviction until my very last day of service. I don’t like to talk about my “time” or “giving my time” at Maggie’s Place because what I gave was not my time; I gave my heart so I speak of my service.
In order for me not to get too carried away, I’ll try to illustrate some lessons learned and how they parallel to my life now in postulancy.
Lesson 1: Love Your Neighbor
Why did I go to Maggie’s Place? The simple answer is to help women who are pregnant. Helping pregnant women in particular was important to me. I had personal experiences in my life where an unplanned pregnancy led to a big change for women I cared about and I had the privilege to encourage them through it, along with their family and friends. These women were blessed. They had the support they needed to face the future with some security. I knew, however, that others were not so fortunate and my heart broke for them as I imagined my friends and sister having to be in their place. I saw in every pregnant woman the face of my sister, my best friend. I wanted to be of assistance in any way to encourage them, to lighten their burden, to help make them happy, to love them.
Now I ask myself, why enter religious life? The simple answer is to love God and to love my neighbor. You see, Maggie’s Place allowed me the opportunity to love God by serving first pregnant moms and then teaching me that I was also called to serve the other MissionCorps, staff, volunteers and donors I would encounter. The first part I understood, I had “signed up” to serve the moms and babies. The second part came as a surprise. I had assumed that our moms would have the “baggage” but I thought that everyone else involved would not. I didn’t explicitly think this, of course, but it’s an assumption you don’t realize you have (until you’re faced with other’s “shortcomings”). Well, I learned that I didn’t just have to be kind and selfless with the moms when they needed something from me or had an attitude, I also needed to be that with the very people who were there to do the same work: the MissionCorps, staff, volunteers and donors. The founding documents say (somewhere ) that it’s precisely the mentality of helper versus helped that we need to avoid, that we need to recognize that everyone comes to Maggie’s Place because they need something and we are called to respond to that need. Well three years of practice (which isn’t much but it’s a start) taught me to reflect on the truth of this statement beyond Maggie’s Place, beyond just helping pregnant women. I recognized God’s call to love and serve everyone. We always hear that everyone needs love, but I think deep down most of us don’t really understand that until we’ve lived it. I had the privilege to work with some brave and selfless people, saints truly in the making, and yet I saw in them needs to be met, especially love. When I would respond to that need of love, I felt the most whole. Maggie’s Place taught me the need to love everyone, my neighbor.
Lesson 2: Living in Community
The next lesson is tied to the first; in fact, it springs out of the first. The practice of loving my neighbor was lived out in community. I had chosen when moving to Maggie’s Place to intentionally live with strangers and share a life in common. It’s quite the same when entering consecrated religious life. Well like I said in lesson 1, you are faced with the shortcomings of others when you’re in community. What I forgot to mention is that your own shortcomings also become apparent! Your impatience, anxiety, short temper, laziness, naivety, scrupulosity, know-it-all-ness, and on the list can go! You and everyone else will come to know each other’s shortcomings. This can be discouraging when you first join a group or community. You think you have finally come to an oasis of good people only to realize they are just as imperfect as everyone else, and to your horror, you begin to see that others are becoming aware of those shortcomings in you that you wish weren’t there! Well when my shortcomings became apparent, it was a chance to grow in humility and acting to improve in those shortcomings. When it was someone else’s shortcomings, it was an opportunity to grow in compassion, forgiveness, acceptance and love. When others treat your shortcomings this way, it really helps you to grow and flourish in virtue and good habits because you’re not busy trying to be fake or be on the defensive. You’re safe to be who you are while being encouraged to be a better you and that’s what I realized. I realized I flourished in that sort of community environment and that is why, in my pursuit of holiness, I realized I needed and wanted to join a religious community.
Now besides shortcomings, there is also “the duty of the moment.” A very popular phrase used at Maggie’s Place to mean that you put aside your plans in order to meet the real needs and demands of love and service for another. Oh boy is “duty of the moment” full of lessons! I learned patience and sacrificial self-giving (giving of myself) when it was so tempting not to. In all honesty, I failed at “duty of the moment” probably twenty times a day. The real key in “duty of the moment” is in being humble, relinquishing your will to serve someone else. I learned from “duty of the moment” that love requires sacrifice, from the smallest gesture to the biggest; for example, unclogging a toilet to driving a mom and baby to the hospital at 2AM. “He that can be trusted with little can be trusted with much.” I knew that in choosing to live out a religious vocation, I would constantly have to “die to myself” in order to respond to the demands of the Gospel in my vocation. Although I don’t do this perfectly, “practice makes perfect” and little by little, I’ve grown more and more.
Lesson 3: Suffering and Joy
The Gospels and all of scripture is full of much to say on suffering and joy. I could write a whole book just on this but I’ll do my best to keep it short.
Suffering is real and joy is real. My hope in coming to Maggie’s Place was to relieve the sufferings of others or to remove them completely. The truth is that deep suffering is real and sometimes you can’t do anything to make it go away or reduce it, no matter how strong your love and desire. My first year at Maggie’s Place was a year of much consolation and joy. Community life overall was full of respect and joy and our group worked quite well together. There was one exception to my bliss and that was the suffering of two of our moms whose children were taken from their custody at the hospital. To make matters worse, they were moms with which I had a special bond. One of the worst days of my life was being at the hospital with my contact mom as she was told her baby girl was not coming home with her that day and then having to bring her home. I couldn’t do anything for her but to suffer with her. Sometimes it’s all you can do to show them they are not alone. It was even more difficult to cope because these moms were so hardworking and respectful. It just didn’t seem fair, but now I think it’s because they were strong enough to overcome, only God really knows. This taught me to walk with others in their suffering and not have the presumption that I would have the gifts to take that suffering away. I was humbled to learn to just suffer with them.
My second year at Maggie’s Place was quite different from the first in many ways. Although I did journey with some moms in their suffering, it was really I who had to endure a trial of personal suffering. I felt truly alone at times because I was the authority figure in the home and I always wanted to present a calm and loving face to those I served. I didn’t feel at liberty to let any “weaknesses” show. I felt I could only reveal my true feelings to a small handful of four friends who understood the full scope of my state. This truly limited how often I could really find relief and comfort. This suffering brought me to my knees, literally, in our house chapel before the Blessed Sacrament every day, sometimes multiple times a day. In this suffering I was truly humbled by the limits of my being and powers and I learned to trust in God’s promises in trials. I learned what hope was and God freely bestowed me with hope so that I was broken but not defeated. I knew the storm would not last forever and the sun would shine again in my life and it did. Then came the joy again. Joy is far more sweet and beautiful when you’ve suffered. When this joy came, I was filled with so much gratitude. I rejoiced in small things and was not as prone to take things for granted because I learned that the blessings are a pure gift, not something earned or deserved. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). So there is a season for everything, joy and suffering will come (Ecc 3:18) when the Lord permits, we just need to hold fast to His promises to get through it. This is a great lesson for me to remember in my future vocation because it will be the same and I cannot grow discouraged.
Lesson 4: The Greatest Good – God Alone
I’ll end with this lesson which is the most important. “In God alone is my soul at rest.” Through all my service, here is the sum of it all, the tears, the joy, the exhaustion, the thrill, the dull, the fears, etc. etc. etc… IN GOD ALONE IS MY SOUL AT REST. Sometimes no matter how hard we tried, our moms would suffer, hard choices would have to be made, and THINGS WOULDN’T TURN OUT THE WAY WE HAD HOPED. We would create a “perfect plan” for a mom to be “successful” and sometimes she just wouldn’t follow it, or things out of her control would get in the way. It was very painful and sometimes greater suffering would occur. I had to ask myself many times, “What was the point of this mom coming to us, only to have things turn out so badly for her?” Well someone at Maggie’s Place told me that in the end we are there to plant a seed of hope and love and goodness. Sometimes we’re blessed by seeing the result of that work, like a mom gaining custody of all her children, finding a job, graduating, moving into her own place. Other times, we don’t, but at least we plant the seed and hope that in due time, God will help it grow. Well what is God if not hope, goodness and love? I learned that the best thing I could give my neighbor wasn’t resources for material success (although this is a necessary good) but the greatest good I could give them is God. That is what I intend and hope to do in my religious vocation because there is no greater love and no greater joy than God.
Thank you to the moms, babies, MissionCorps, staff, volunteers and donors of Maggie’s Place for helping me to discover my religious vocation and put it into practice. You have my eternal gratitude.
By Lety Sanchez, alum MissionCorps (2013-2016)
Postulant with the Apostolic Sisters of St. John