We live with such assumptions and expectations. We plot our lives and the lives of our loved ones as though we can control them.
We make few allowances for sickness, accidents, death, or other interruptions to our grand plans. Even good surprises—if they don’t fit our scenarios—can leave us feeling cheated and crying out to God.
Several years ago, one of God’s good surprises came into my life. And though it’s something that many Catholic parents would not see as a hardship, I have to admit that it has caused me some pain. I can’t say that it was a total surprise either, because one day at Mass, God gave me a little heads-up.
I had just returned to my pew after receiving Communion. As I lowered the kneeler and looked at my daughter beside me, I heard these words from deep within: She’s going to be a nun. Puzzled, I looked at the crucifix hanging over the altar. Did I make that up, Lord? I always expected that Abby would marry, have kids, and live close to us.
The Best-Laid Plans. A short time later, Abby came to her father and me and said with a shaking voice, “I think I’m supposed to be a nun.” Well, I can’t say I wasn’t warned, I thought.
I replied calmly, urging her not to be afraid and to be open. God loved her, I said, and if he was calling her to religious life, that’s where she would find peace and happiness. I did suggest that it might be only a test: maybe God was asking her to put everything on the line, as when he called Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Until she knew what God wanted, she should do her best to be obedient and attentive to him.
We all went on as if nothing had happened. However, I felt anything but calm. Even though I knew everything I had told Abby was true, there was only one outcome that I felt able to accept. So I prayed, “Please, God, let this be a call similar to Abraham’s. Please don’t really be calling her to religious life.”
Searching and Pretending. The truth was that Abby had been searching for some time. Only months before, she had broken up with the young man I’d been sure she would marry. Then she had gone on a mission trip. At college, she had also begun going to daily Mass and having a weekly breakfast with two nuns she had met there. They were praying for her, she said.
Soon Abby was researching religious orders and setting up visits for discernment retreats. My husband and I picked her up from the airport after one of them, and on the ride home, Abby told us what she was experiencing: confirmation about this vocation, but also a sense of grief over how it would affect our family. I had been thinking about that myself. When your daughter enters a convent, you can’t see and talk to her whenever you want. You won’t spend holidays together. And what about the grandkids you were looking forward to?
My husband, too, was grappling with these realities, yet he never wavered in his support for what God was doing in Abby. Throughout the process, he led our family—and sustained me—by his example of calm acceptance and approval. Still, I couldn’t help praying, “God, can’t you just end this? I don’t want Abby to hurt. I don’t want to hurt.”
Finally, one Sunday, right in the middle of a large family gathering, Abby returned from a retreat by the religious community she had met at college. This was the one she wanted to join, she announced. All eyes turned to me. I pretended that I was fine.
Moment of Truth. In the following weeks, I kept begging God to help me keep it together and hide my hurt and fear. I didn’t want Abby to know. I didn’t want my other kids or anyone else to think that a call to religious life was bad. And so I helped Abby prepare, sewing her habits and throwing her a farewell party. But every time she said her good-byes, my heart broke.
The day after the party, I went to a movie with all my children. It was one more “last thing” that I didn’t want to do, and I agreed only because Abby begged me to go. Shortly after the movie began, our eyes met.
“Do you want to be here?” I whispered.
“Not really,” she said.
“Take me to that church,” I told her. She knew the one I meant. It was where she had been attending daily Mass.
On the drive there, Abby started to cry and apologized for the pain she was causing us. It was a moment of truth that I could open up to or deny. For the first time, I decided to be honest about how I was feeling. We spent the next hour talking and praying—right in church, in front of the mosaic where Abby had first sensed the call to be a nun. I told her how tough it had been for me and how much I would miss her. But I also assured her of my trust in God. If this was his call on her life, I knew it was good, and I would not get in his way.
Painful as it was and as much as I had tried to avoid it, this conversation was God’s precious gift for both of us. It helped me through the next day, when we all took Abby to the convent. We toured the house that would now be her home and met briefly with her superior. After tearful good-byes, we were on our way back home.
Grace upon Grace. I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss my daughter. But God is not outdone in generosity. When we give to him, he offers returns that cannot be measured. For me, one of the greatest is that Abby is happy. “She’s radiant!” people tell us.
Another blessing has been the opportunity to know many of the women in her religious community. When a child gets married, your family grows as you welcome their spouse, future children, and spouse’s family. Letting go of a child who enters religious life brings similar growth, I’m discovering. Over the last two years, we’ve experienced prayer and fellowship with Abby’s sisters, sometimes even joining them for workdays where we share laughter and smiles, labor and love.
Some days, I’m tempted to mourn bygone times of family togetherness and my unrealized plans for what might have been. But here, too, there is blessing. Every day is a new chance to learn to treasure the past, live in the present, and leave the future in God’s hands. With his grace, I can trust him and his perfect plan.
*A pseudonym has been used at the author’s request.