Backpacking to Carmel
Wanting to prove to myself that the world is round and having completed college and with some work experience under my belt, the time felt just right to embark on a backpacking trip right around the world. Leaving my very secure job and facing into a very uncertain future did not seem like a very good idea to my parents and family but they assured me of their love and support as I set off to travel east until, hopefully, I arrived back to where I had started. Fortunately for me, two girlfriends from college were interested in joining me and so pooling our resources and with no fixed time span we set sail from Dublin port on this great adventure, travelling much of the time by land or sea.
This was to be an exhilarating and very enriching experience that brought us into contact with a vast variety of peoples, cultures, languages, religions, work-experiences, food, animals and the stunning and amazing beauty of our planet earth. By the time we reached Port Headland on the north west coast of Australia our cash flow was running low and we decided to move south and find some work in Carnarvon and Perth and save money to bring us further east. Probably the most exciting and dangerous work we did was at Carnarvon where we worked with the Prawn Fishing Fleet who harvested the large Tiger prawns for the Japanese market. Here we were introduced to some of the amazing creatures that live in the depths of the ocean and if we worked hard it was possible to earn a lot of money in a few months.
From there we moved to the beautiful city of Perth and it was during my stay there that I had a brief chance meeting with the Carmelite nuns in the parish of Nedlands where we attended Sunday Mass. On hearing that I was from Co. Wicklow, they asked me if I knew the Carmelite nuns in Delgany, a small village about five miles from my home. They were not impressed when I told them that I knew the pretty little village of Delgany very well but I had never seen or heard of Carmelite nuns being there. This was my first and last encounter with Carmelite nuns until years later I found myself knocking at the door of the monastery in Delgany.
When we felt we had enough money saved we headed east again to explore the vast continent of Australia and spending Christmas in the sweltering heat on the beach eating ice-cream plum pudding was a new and enjoyable experience for us. Months later we found ourselves on a ship sailing south east out of the magnificent Sydney harbour and in some sense we felt that we were now homeward bound, but with vast expanses of the South Pacific ocean to cross and a myriad of islands like New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, Futuna, Tahiti to visit, where we felt very much at home in our grass skirt ensembles.
The unspoiled beauty of these islands was breathtaking and the people were extremely friendly and easy going. We found it hard to move on from these idyllic places and head towards Mexico and the neighbouring countries with our passage through the Panama Canal a very interesting experience. We called to some of the islands called the Netherland Antilles and then across the Atlantic Ocean to mainland Europe and eventually sailed back into Dublin port to be warmly welcomed back into my family.
Needing to get back into the workforce I was very blessed to be offered a job that I thoroughly enjoyed and very easily slipped back into the social scene and into a steady relationship with a new boyfriend. Then some time later, through some form of spiritual awakening I began to see beyond the superficial attractions that now occupied my life. I experienced dissatisfaction with the life I was living – deep hungers of the heart were calling me into a deeper search of myself and a desire for wholeness and ultimate meaning in life.
A question I’m frequently asked is why I became a Carmelite nun. Well, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t know anything about Carmelite nuns but it seems to me that the Holy Spirit chose Carmel for me by pacing in my heart an irresistible attraction to Carmel. It felt like a very powerful magnet was drawing me in the direction of the nearest Carmelite monastery – Delgany – and one day I found myself knocking on the front door and wanting to know more about the life of these women. This first visit brought a huge measure of relief that here were real people, as warm and human and down- to – earth as any. Then began a process of discernment to try to tease-out if this was where the Holy Spirit wanted me to be. It certainly was not plain sailing from then on, but some time later I came and I am still here.
The invitation of Carmel is simply to pray – to be within with God. It asks us to cultivate a relationship with the personal God, and because every relationship is unique there is no right or wrong way of doing it. But it does involve a journey “from room to room” in seeking God and the challenge is to keep at it! As I was joining a Carmelite community – we were all on this journey together – hermits in community: a strange paradox which tempers each extreme with the wisdom of its opposite. Much as we need solitude and silence, we also need the help and support of these other “good friends of the Lord” to show us the way ahead and encourage us when we are struggling. This personal inward struggle is undertaken in some mysterious way on behalf of the whole of humanity.
How does our Carmelite tradition speak to the hungers and needs of our post-modern world? Our world needs a sense of community and a genuine hope that the wounds of the world can be healed. Living on the surface, in a culture of images and sound bites, we have lost touch with the skill of listening. Listening, pondering, treasuring in the heart are values that matter to Carmelites.
The Carmelite life continues to call me onwards, bounded in space, structured through time, mapped out by a rule, yet open to infinite possibilities and studded with the unexpected – a way of life I have been invited to embrace, sometimes fought against and resisted, yet one which I want others also to know and love and live.
Sr. Gwen of the Holy Spirit
Another Vocation Story
My reply? “Well I’ll have to go for the fortnight! Some vocation!”
What is it? What is a vocation? It is a persistent – insistent – call which cannot be stifled try as one may endeavour to do so. Eventually, over time one is irresistibly drawn to respond and surrender – even if only to get it out of the system! God has won the first round. That was my experience.
But why the Carmelites?
Are you not running away from something? Are you not burying yourself alive? Is it not a waste of the God – given gifts you have? Can you not do more good helping people in all sorts of ways? Good people are needed in the world to give witness and example to a Christian way of living. Such were some of the arguments thrown at me.
Family circumstances prevented me from entering until I was 29 years of age. In those days that would be considered as a “late vocation“, so I had plenty of time to consider these and other questions. Always the same answer came. “give everything to God – 100% he is worth nothing less”.
These other options offered a lot of self-satisfaction. For example, I loved children and teaching; I loved travelling and seeing new and interesting places; I was very happy serving the sick in Lourdes and as a volunteer in the local hospital; I liked the attraction of one Congregation which told their entrants what work they would do – teaching, nursing, social and /or missionary work. Then there was vague remembrance of the school-girl envy of St. Therese who just wanted to love God.
Lord, what do YOU want me to do? I often said the prayer of St. Alphonsus which ends with these words, “Grant that I may love You always, and then do with me what You will”.
A chance remark of mine to a priest was “Oh, I would love to be a Carmelite, but I don’t think I could ever make the grade”. His reply was, “Don’t say that ! With God all things are possible!”. He arranged for me to meet a Carmelite Prioress. I was scared! but she put me at ease and I told her I knew that the Carmelites were good at praying, and I wasn’t so good at that. She laughed heartily and said, “You have us all on pedestals: (Actually I thought all Carmelites must be saints). She assured me that they were all very human and they entered so as to love God with all their hearts whatever the cost.
When the time came for making the decision it was very clear. For me it had to be ALL or NOTHING!. All or nothing! – two words which later on I realized were favourites of St. John of the Cross. As he writes, “One act of this pure love is worth all apostolic words put together”. That was it.
So I decided “If a Carmel accepts me, I’ll join up”. The rest is history.
Yes, despite all the ‘ups and downs’, the ‘highs and lows’, the ‘ifs and buts’, the ‘doubts and fears’, one thing remains certain, I’d do it all over again.