I am first-generation American from the New York City metropolitan area. My father was from Germany and my mother is from Cuba of Spanish descent. My vocation experience began at an early age but at that time I did not know what it was. While I was preparing for First Communion, I began to pay more attention to the kids who were altar servers. Mass bored me and I never understood the homily so my mind wandered a bit. I was impressed by the robes worn by the altar servers and the attention they seemed to show during Mass. I approached Father Greg who was great with children. He made learning fun and genuinely made us excited to come to Mass. As I got older, my responsibilities grew. Parishioners ask for me by name to serve at funerals and weddings. My fellow classmates would get a bit jealous when I was pulled out of class to serve. What kid does not want to get out of class? You knew you made it as an altar server when you were asked to partake in midnight Mass. That's like the Super Bowl of Masses!
After my Confirmation, I became too old be an altar server. So the next natural step was to become a Eucharistic minister. Since Fr. Greg had now left, it was now Fr. Rob who taught me. He was overjoyed that several other classmates wanted to participate. Some time went by, and as my high school life became more stressed and filled with activities, I chose sleep over going to Mass. Some would say my spiritual journey ended, and at that time, I would have to agree. The Holy Spirit never stopped speaking to me. I just stopped making time to listen.
My twenties were filled with youthful interests and frenzied social activities. I always knew my life would be that of service but did not know the form it would take. I was all over the place and tried everything but rarely went to Mass. Lifeguarding was fun but it's not a career. Bartending was fun but not a career. Acting and dancing, any type of performing, were loads of fun. Making people smile is a great thing but not a career for me. Medicine! That is where I should go! I then went to school to become an EMT. After a few years of that I went to nursing school and got my LPN license. I jumped from various EMS agencies and police departments and lived a life of service and fun. My social calendar was always packed. But despite all these, I still felt something was missing.
I took care of my father and having him die in my arms at home surrounded by family was a turning point. A few months after his passing, I quit my police job, went back to medicine, and bought a house in the Catskills Mountains. With some money I had saved up, I surprised my mother and two brothers with a family trip to do "El Camino de Santiago" ("The Walk of St. James"). This was something my mother had always wanted to do, so I figured better now, while she is still physically able. And just like many who completed this journey, I had my religious awakening. It was just me, my pack on my back, the open trail and not a soul for miles. The world melted away and my path became clear. Upon my return home, I began to notice that my social life was not as much fun as it used to be. My mornings were not just filled with exhaustion and hangovers, but there was an emptiness that could not be filled. Questions began to pop up in my head- "Why", "Is this it?", "This is my life?" - I had friends and colleagues telling me I should be happy. I had the American dream - owned a home, cars, motorcycles, lavish vacations, designer clothes, got invited to all the top parties and clubs. But I was not happy. All of these could go away in a heartbeat. This was all meaningless materialism that our pop culture has brainwashed us into believing that we will not be truly happy unless we have this list of things.
I started to spend more time at my mountain home away from the madness of Manhattan. No TV, powered down my computer, and turned off my iPhone. I began to listen like I did on El Camino! Little by little I weaned myself off of social media. Just like any other addiction, I stumbled but plugged along. The weeks went by. One day, I had a desire to sit on my computer and googled "Carmelite nuns." My family has a long history with Our Lady of Mount Carmel. But that is a story for another time. So behold the first site to pop up was the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm. I clicked, went to the vocation page and called the vocation director to ask for a meeting. Each journey begins with one step. Mine began with a phone call. As I hang up the phone, I thought in disbelief," What have I done? I'm crazy! people will think I'm nuts. I can't tell anyone!"
Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months. The more I spoke and texted Sister Maria Therese, the more I knew that this was my path in life. She called me a "character." We laughed and I shared my journey, my wild and crazy youth spent days. She showed me the joy of community. The love, compassion and patience she had for me was beautiful. As rough around the edges that I was and still am, she welcomed me. Every Sister I have met since then has greeted and welcomed me with open arms. Religious life is a bit of a culture shock. Had I not prepared myself by slowly pulling away from the world over the course of a year, I'm sure my entrance experience would have been far different and most likely been difficult. I struggle to find the proper words to convey how I feel and how the Holy Spirit has moved me. So I shall give a humble and perhaps oversimplified analogy. Remember during those hot summer days when all you wanted was an ice cream? Then in the distance you hear that familiar tune. You race to your mother to ask for some money. Jumping up and down, she says yes, and hands you a dollar. That joy and titillation you feel as you race after the ice cream truck. It is that same feeling. The feeling of the Holy Spirit saying "This is right. This is where you belong."
To answer the question I'm sure is at the forefront of your mind - "not in the slightest." I do not miss my homes, cars, motorcycles, social life, designer clothes, jewelry, etc. When your basic needs of food, shelter and clothing are met, everything else becomes unimportant. Earthly goods mean nothing when you can spend your days with Christ helping your fellow man at the end of their journey on this earth. Throughout all my stumbles and missteps, Jesus was there. I might not have been able to see him, or want to even listen, but he was there. When I cried, he cried with me. When I laughed, he laughed with me. When I fell flat on my face, he was there to give me the strength to get back up again and to say, "Okay God. I messed up. How do we fix this?" Luctor et emergo ("I struggle and emerge").