Ann's Call to Carmel
During our Carmelite retreat on July 14, 2017 with Retreat Master Father Fryderyk Jaworski, OCD, Secular Carmelite Laura told her conversion story. The affirmation of life in her testimony was so overpowering, that we suggested she publish it and the rest is history.
Journey to the Son: Laura's Conversion
I am married, have three kids (four if you count my husband) and we live in Washington State. We had actually lived our whole lives in southwest Michigan, within minutes of the Indiana boarder until fairly recently. About 4 ½ years ago I accepted a job that took us from our home in Michigan and planted us in a teeny little town in Washington State on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains.
It was about 4 years ago on a Tuesday when my husband Jim, my two kids Alyssa and Xander and I got home from work and school and flopped on the couch. Jim went out to get the mail and when he came back in he handed me a letter that was from the Indiana Department of Health. I couldn’t imagine what I could be getting from them and I opened the envelope. I remember looking at the letter, reading it and it taking a moment to sink in before I finally understood what it was telling me. The letter inside said that I now had the right to know information on the child that I had given up for adoption when I was a teenager. Thank God I was sitting down or I would have keeled over. The first page listed my son’s name and phone number. The following pages contained a copy of his birth certificate and identified the couple who had ended up adopting him. I sat in shock. I couldn’t believe that after 23 years, I finally had this information.
You see, I had spent the last 23 years thinking about him. To start off, giving him away in the first place was a horrendous, scarring decision that I struggled with seriously for a few years after the event, then to a lesser degree as time and activity brought about a numbness if not a level of comfort. As the years grew between us, I would find myself looking at toddlers or kids in the mall, looking for someone who looked like me, looking for my boy. I remember about the time he would have been graduating from high school, I looked through the papers to see if any of the kids looked like my old boyfriend. Once he hit 18, I daydreamed that he would find me. I imagined one morning there would be a knock on my door. I would be in my pajamas looking disheveled but not too scary and I would wonder, who the heck could that be on a Saturday morning. And when I opened the door, there would be a young, lanky guy standing there who would say, “Mom?” and we would hug and I would invite him in and make him a sandwich. I had years of dreaming of this. Years.
So imagine me now, having his name and phone number in my hands. All I can remember is jumping up and grabbing the phone. My husband said to me, “hold on, are you sure you’re ready for this? Do you know what you are going to say?” But I was unstoppable. I said, I have waited 23 years and I am not going to wait a moment longer. I dialed the number and got a voicemail and I thought, I don’t think this is something I should leave a message about so I hung up. Then I thought, I have his name – I’m going to Google him! So I got on my laptop and when I typed in his name, a Facebook link popped up. The link took me to a Facebook page and there was a picture on his front page of a few guys but it was hard to see any detail on the faces. He had posted on his front page something about leaving Facebook and left an email address for friends to contact him at. Now I had an email address! So I sat down and constructed an email. I wrote: “Are you the Stephen who was adopted by Sean and Tanya? If so, I am your birth mom and I have been waiting 23 years and 8 days to talk to you.” (He had just had a birthday). I sent out the email and in the morning I had a response waiting. He wrote: “yes, I am the Stephen adopted by Sean and Tanya and I have thought about you for 23 years and 9 days! You are a most wonderful belated birthday gift to me!” You can’t imagine my joy! Through email we made a date to talk for the first time that evening. I went to work that day and felt like I should hand out cigars. “Hey did you hear about my new kid?” I had to call family – I was so excited to tell them the news! I called my sister Maria and we spoke briefly. She was super excited. After we hung up she started Googling Stephen’s name and in a minute or two, she called me back. She said, “Laura, I found a picture of him and I’m going to email you a link to it. You have to see this!” We hung up and when I got her email and clicked on the link, there was a picture of a handsome young man that looked a lot like my old boyfriend and similar to my oldest son and he was wearing a black shirt and a priest’s collar. Stephen was in the seminary. I remember my first response was, oh bummer, he’s going to be a priest (not sure why I thought that). Then my next thought was, wow, he’s going to be a priest! That’s kind of cool! Doesn’t that give me a free pass in to heaven or something – being the mom of a priest?
Well I’m not sure how I made it through the rest of the day at work. I couldn’t possibly have been very productive. At 5:01 I raced home from work, grabbed the phone and sat on my bed to wait for his call. I remember sitting there, staring at the phone, wondering how many times I should let it ring before I picked it up. The answer was obvious –one ring is plenty and I would be surprised if I could even let the ring conclude before I picked up. Then the phone rang and we spoke for 3 hours. We got on each other’s Facebook pages and looked at all the photos. I remember him showing me one photo in particular in which I would have sworn it was my old boyfriend standing there and not Stephen. It was an incredible feeling – somehow knowing someone without knowing them. Kind of hard to describe.
We spent the next month and a half in close, almost daily, contact. During that time I connected him with his biological father, which was also a wonderful thing for both of them. And we made plans to meet in person for the first time at Thanksgiving. He was in Maryland in the seminary and I was in Washington and we both made plans to fly home (me to Michigan and him Indiana) then meet each other halfway between his parents’ house and my parents’ house. Unbelievably he had grown up about 40 minutes from where I lived in Michigan. Stephen chose the meeting point to be the Grotto on the campus of Notre Dame.
The morning we were to meet, I was so nervous! When I got on Notre Dame’s campus, I got a little lost and was a few minutes late. I remember turning a corner and seeing the Grotto and seeing a slender guy kneeling in front of it. Stephen heard me approach and he stood up and turned around. I couldn’t believe he was standing right in front of me and I was ecstatic and shocked at the same time because the long dream was over - it was finally reality. I got to put my arms around him for the second time in his life. We hopped in his car and spent the day together. It was unbelievable. We had difficulty driving because all we wanted to do was look at each other. He showed me around town and took me to the home he grew up in and the schools he went to and for lunch he took me meet his parents at their home. His mom called me her “Soul Sister” and we hugged and cried. To say that it was amazing and memorable would diminish it. There are no words to describe it.
So as Stephen and I spent time together, he started saying to me, “you know mom, God loves you so much.” And when he said this to me, I would respond passively, “yeah, I know.” And the next several times he told me this my response was the same, “yeah, I know.” Sure I knew. I was born and raised Catholic, I’d attended Catholic elementary and high school, I’d gone to CCD, I’d attended a Catholic college. Of course I knew that, what did he think? No, I didn’t really go to church much these days. Only when the spirit moved me and conditions were just right – when I knew what time mass was, when I was up early enough, when the kids didn’t need me for anything, when I wasn’t too tired that morning, when the stars were all aligned correctly. Yep, I went to mass periodically. And Stephen continued to tell me, “God loves you so much mom. You can’t even imagine how much.” “Yep, I know, thanks!” It took a while but Stephen was diligent and at some point when he repeated his mantra, I remember pausing a moment and thinking, “Huh. Really?” “Is that really possible?” “The guy, who is the creator of the whole universe, the guy who created the stars, actually gives a crap about me?” How is that possible? I am a dust mite in the vast scheme of things. I am nothing or so close to it that I shouldn’t matter to the creator. How is that possible?
The following spring, Stephen invited me to come out to the Seminary and spend a week with him just hanging out together. I was so excited to go though I do remember asking my husband, what if we don’t have enough to talk about? What if we get bored of each other? In retrospect, those were really dumb questions. We had so much fun together! We found so much joy in finding ways we were alike: our favorite color- blue, most desired place to travel to - Greece, we even thought we had the same gait, same stride. There was a real joy and contentment in finding a connection in similarities shared.
One evening when I was visiting, Stephen and I went out to dinner with a friend of his who was also in the seminary and his friend told us his conversion story. He had been an IT guy at a company and at one point he felt that God was calling him to have a relationship with Him. And he thought, if I want to get to know my creator, if I want to find out what he is calling me to do, I need to spend time with him. I need to go to church more than once a week. I need to go every day if I can.
When I returned home from my trip to Maryland, I kept thinking about that story. It made sense to me. If the creator of the universe loves me (still hard to believe he even knows my name among the billions of other dust mites), he probably wants to get to know me. And he probably wants me to get to know him. I felt kind of lost, like there was a lot I didn’t understand so I thought of the things I did know: (1) there is a creator (2) he loves me (how could he not – I absolutely adore the kids I helped create) and (3) he must want to have a relationship with the one he loves. The first one I’d known my whole life – of course there’s a creator. The other two I felt like I had just realized for the first time on a personal level. If someone had asked me before if I thought God loved us, I would have said, sure he does. But I always thought He loves us kind of like you would love a big honkin crowd at a concert – some of them are cute and at times they are super fun to watch. It was a distant, out-of-touch kind of generalized love. What I didn’t even think of until recently was that He might actually know me and think I am worth something. That was quite a new concept to me. Is that even possible? I suddenly felt like I might be more than a dust mite. I thought back to Stephen’s story in Bremerton – when God had mentioned him by name and said that I was part of God’s plan. I suddenly thought I might be kind of important. Huh. That would be so cool.
So I did what Stephen’s friend did - I started going to mass as often as possible. I asked my boss if I could come in to work early then step out to go to 8 am mass. I remember him making a sarcastic comment (something about him not wanting to be the reason I go to hell) then saying that I could. Then one day at Sunday mass, my priest stood up to say the Homily and instead he read this:
It is true. I stand at the door of your heart, day and night. Even when you are not listening, even when you doubt it could be Me, I am there. I await even the smallest sign of your response, even the least whispered invitation that will allow Me to enter.
And I want you to know that whenever you invite Me, I do come – always, without fail. Silent and unseen I come, but with infinite power and love, and bringing the many gifts of My Spirit. I come with My mercy, with My desire to forgive and heal you, and with a love for you beyond your comprehension – a love every bit as great as the love I have received from the Father ("As much as the Father has loved me, I have loved you…" (Jn. 15:10) I come - longing to console you and give you strength, to lift you up and bind all your wounds. I bring you My light, to dispel your darkness and all your doubts. I come with My power, that I might carry you and all your burdens; with My grace, to touch your heart and transform your life; and My peace I give to still your soul.
I know you through and through. I know everything about you. The very hairs of your head I have numbered. Nothing in your life is unimportant to Me. I have followed you through the years, and I have always loved you – even in your wanderings. I know every one of your problems. I know your needs and your worries. And yes, I know all your sins. But I tell you again that I love you – not for what you have or haven’t done – I love you for you, for the beauty and dignity My Father gave you by creating you in His own image. It is a dignity you have often forgotten, a beauty you have tarnished by sin. But I love you as you are, and I have shed My Blood to win you back. If you only ask Me with faith, My grace will touch all that needs changing in your life, and I will give you the strength to free yourself from sin and all its destructive power.
I know what is in your heart – I know your loneliness and all your hurts – the rejections, the judgments, the humiliations, I carried it all before you. And I carried it all for you, so you might share My strength and victory. I know especially your need for love – how you are thirsting to be loved and cherished. But how often have you thirsted in vain, by seeking that love selfishly, striving to fill the emptiness inside you with passing pleasures – with the even greater emptiness of sin. Do you thirst for love? "Come to Me all you who thirst…" (Jn. 7: 37). I will satisfy you and fill you. Do you thirst to be cherished? I cherish you more than you can imagine – to the point of dying on a cross for you.
I Thirst for You. Yes, that is the only way to even begin to describe My love for you. I THIRST FOR YOU. I thirst to love you and to be loved by you – that is how precious you are to Me. I THIRST FOR YOU. Come to Me, and I will fill your heart and heal your wounds. I will make you a new creation, and give you peace, even in all your trials I THIRST FOR YOU.
Don’t you realize that My Father already has a perfect plan to transform your life, beginning from this moment? Trust in Me. Ask Me every day to enter and take charge of your life. – and I will. I promise you before My Father in heaven that I will work miracles in your life. Why would I do this? Because I THIRST FOR YOU. All I ask of you is that you entrust yourself to Me completely. I will do all the rest.
It blew me away. I felt like Father was speaking directly to me. Except it wasn’t my priest speaking to me, it was Jesus speaking to me. He had been with me my whole life. He knew everything about me – all the bad things I had done – and he didn’t care. He has loved me my whole life. What a joy there is in knowing that. What a consolation. What a stability in knowing that your creator loves you solely because he created you. It has nothing to do with what you’ve done or not done. He loves you because you are you. And there is nothing you can do about it. You can do some really bad and dumb things and at the end of the day Jesus will be waiting at the door of your heart, knocking, waiting for you to open it to let him in. It’s a great feeling knowing that I cannot get rid of him. In my Youth Group we call him Jesus the Stalker – he is always with us. He has always been with us. It gives me the feeling that I can do anything! I can accomplish anything because even in failure, he will love me. And it’s not just a passive love, but an active one that I can feel as long as I search for him in prayer and at mass. But that is the key. He is waiting for you. He has always been waiting for you to make a move. He has been knocking at your door your whole life and if you want to have a relationship with him, you have to open the door. You have to talk to him.
I thought back to when I was a teenager and found myself pregnant. I remember going to get “the free pregnancy test” and how I felt when I was told the results. I remember feeling the fear of telling my parents and telling my boyfriend and the shame of facing his parents. I remember the difficulties surrounding the pregnancy and I remembered the birth, holding him then handing him over. I recalled the feelings of pain and loss over our 23 years apart and I thought of the overwhelming joy felt at our reunion.
And I looked back over my life to see where God was. As a child, I remembered being so faithful and having no doubts. I remember sitting in church with my parents, siblings and grandparents and seeing the light from the window shining just on me and feeling like God was looking directly at me. I remember growing up and growing out of it, away from him and not seeing him anywhere. I focused on my family and my career and felt contentment in my husband and kids but didn’t see God there. Then finally someone told me that Jesus has loved me my whole life and I came to believe it. And I wondered, why hadn’t I been told this before? I am 46 years old, for heaven’s sake – it would have been nice to have known this before now. Surely at some point in mass or in school or at home someone could have made me aware of this before now. And when I asked my priest about this he said that I have been told this before now and probably many times. Then an old saying came to mind: When the student is ready, the teacher arrives. I hadn’t been ready. Not until now. God has a plan. He has had one all along. Suddenly I looked back at the path of my life – the one that was fraught with crazy hills and very low points and random turns and stops and I saw it for the first time through God’s eyes. It was a straight line. He had had a plan all along. He was there when I was pregnant and gave my child away. And this child who I saved, came back and saved me and it was all in His plan.
And I have had moments, several of them just in the last 4 years, when I’ve pleaded with God, why did you do this to me?! Why would a good and kind God who loves me as much as you do, put me through so much pain and suffering for so long? I remember a specific instance a few years ago being in church, praying fervently with all my heart, praying through my pain and asking God, “Why did you do this to me?” And asking it again and again and waiting in pain for an answer. And I waited and then I felt his answer, like a breath or a sigh, and he said to me, “I’ve done this for you. Look at you! Look how strong you are. Look at the person you have become. I have done this for you.”
A lady in my church recently said to me, I don’t like to see the cross without Christ on it, it doesn’t seem right. I told her one thing that I learned as a Carmelite: we have the cross without the figure of Christ on it so that we can put ourselves up there. If we want to share in the joy that only HE can give us, we have to also share in his cross. My life has been my cross that has brought me to where I am today. Exactly where He wanted me to be. Where He planned me to be. Now I have the joy of running a Youth Group. I have had the joy of getting my kids baptized. I have the joy of being a Carmelite. I have the joy of telling this story to others in hopes of helping them to see their path. And when people thank me for teaching kids about Jesus or embracing the Carmelite ways or taking care of his children I feel silly. It’s not me. All I am doing now is living the plan He has set for me. I get it now.
If you don’t know yet, if no one’s told you this yet, I’m here to tell you: Jesus is a stalker. He has watched you your whole life, He knows everything about you and He loves you and he has a plan for you. One day you too will look back on your life and see a straight line. And if the student is ready, you will then see a straight line in front of you too.