What’s your story?

I’m one of those obnoxious Catholic girls who loves hearing people’s vocation stories. And now that I’ve been on this journey myself, I love it even more. I’ll track down just about anything in a habit and demand to know how it got there, and in recent months I’ve been more brazen than ever. 

As I prepare to enter the postulancy this August, the focus on people’s stories has struck me in a new way. Each of us has a story, and those stories should be shared. Really, they’re begging to be, but so often we don’t bother to ask. For some reason, religious vocation strips away some of those barriers, and I’m constantly surprised, humbled, and yes – delighted by it. 

When you tell people you’re entering a convent, they don’t just ask to hear your story – though they usually want to know – they want to tell you theirs. The receptionist at my dentist’s office told me all about his experience in a Catholic elementary school where he was taught by kind nuns. An old colleague talked about visiting his grandmother in Peru, and playing in the sun in a local convent’s courtyard where she went often to visit. Another colleague talked about being let out of detention in his Catholic high school by a sympathetic sister. Friends and acquaintances have discussed their own discernment experiences, or family members or friends who entered religious life.

I know for myself, I worry about being rude or pushy if I ask people (other than religious, of course) to tell me about themselves – beyond the typical name, place of origin, job description. I struggle with the sense of encroaching on someone’s boundaries if I try to scrape the surface. And I hesitate to share my own story because I don’t want to be the over-sharer. I certainly don’t want to tell my story only to be ignored or half-heard or (worst of all) judged. But I’m coming to realize that our stories aren’t for ourselves alone; they demand to be shared, and there’s a lot of joy in sharing and encountering someone else in a deeper way through hearing about their experiences.

Some of my friends went on a road trip a couple of years ago, and one of them suggested sharing life stories during the long drive. It was a surprising and I think profound experience for them, and I’ve always been a little disappointed that I missed it, though I’ve been filled in on some of the stories since. Even now, it’s great to watch them reminisce about that experience. Clearly, it made their friendship much deeper.

Another friend once surprised me at a large gathering when he asked a complete stranger, clearly searching for a good conversation topic, “So – what’s your story?” Even more surprising was the person’s response. She brightened up and started talking. Granted, some people might find such a question invasive, but I think there’s a universal desire to be drawn out of ourselves in some way. We all want to share our stories, and to have someone else listen to them and even enter into them with us.

Of course, there are some parts of our stories that aren’t meant to be communicated. We each live a unique, individual life, and some parts are meant to be wrapped up in a secret place shared only between ourselves and our Maker. There’s a great moment in C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, when one of the main characters, Aravis, learns that her maid was severely beaten because Aravis tricked her so she could run away from home. She knew when she left that the maid would probably be beaten, but she didn’t care. Now she’s sorry, and she asks Aslan if the girl will be all right. Aslan answers, “Child, I am telling you your story, not hers.”

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There’s a fine line between sharing stories and just plain nosiness, and that can be a hard thing to discover. But we have a duty to be ready to encounter the other, and even to invite them to the encounter, and one of the first ways to do that is through sharing who we are, where we’ve been, what we’ve done.

Like Mary in the gospel of Luke, carrying Christ to her cousin, each of us can and should say, “The Almighty has done great things for me” – and I’m aching to tell you about it, and to hear what he has done for you. 

-Mabel

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Profile No. 22: Bill Gonch

Profiles in the Gap

Bill Gonch

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Bill Gonch lives and works in the Washington, D.C., area

Did you expect this time of singleness?  

I expected to be single, but I expected a different singleness.

The whole time I was growing up I was an atheist. I had some vaguely defined plans for what I’d do in my twenties, but they all involved my career, interests, hobbies, fun. I figured I’d get married someday, but I didn’t think too much about the timeline. More to the point, I didn’t think of using my twenties for anything other than whatever I happened to want.

Then, when I was almost 22, I learned that God exists.  I remember one night shortly after that: I was looking around at things in my room, realizing that each one of them was held in existence by a direct, constant act of God’s will. If He stopped perpetuating granting existence to my desk…pop! No more desk!

I grabbed my desk. I don’t want to tell you how long I held it.

You see, when I first believed in God, everything changed. I mean literally everything: every single thing that I could see or touch or smell was a different thing than it had been before I knew that God exists. Before, things were just things—they were brute physical reality, and I thought about them or didn’t depending on whether I needed them for whatever I wanted to do.

But now, every thing that was depended on God’s action for its existence. Every thing is a gift from God: rain and sunrises and scotch tape and earthworms and my sourpuss great-aunt. It was like I’d moved to Mars. (Oh, right, Mars is a gift, too.) I spent my twenties in an entirely different world than I’d lived in as a kid. By the time I’d started exploring the new world—which is the real world—any expectations that I’d had up until that time were gone.

If so, is it what you expected it to be? If not, what did you expect, and has the change been exciting or disappointing? 

It’s been wild. I haven’t gotten married, but here are a few things I’ve done.

I’ve met incredible friends—people who are so good that they make me want to be better. Some people I know are so good that it frightens me, the way Aslan frightens the Pevensie children in Narnia.

I’ve sat with homeless men in a park late at night, giving out sandwiches and talking about our families.

I’ve learned—maybe it’s shameful that I needed to learn this, but I’ve learned—that homeless men have families, that they see them and care about them.

I’ve helped a man get off the street and into a homeless shelter.

I’ve learned that the devils who keep men on the street are beyond my power to defeat, and often beyond those men’s power, but not beyond God’s power.

I’ve organized church groups.

I’ve learned that I’m really bad at organizing church groups.

I’ve learned to pray the Hail Mary.

I’ve learned that one of Mary’s titles is “Exterminatrix of Heresies,” and that there’s a painting of her beating down a demon with a giant club.

I’ve been one of the crazy people who prays the rosary outside of abortion clinics, and I’ve learned that the stereotypes of those people are very far from the truth.

I’ve seen a woman approach an abortion clinic and then change her mind, deciding to bring her child into the world, because of things that my friend said to her.

For three years I lived with the Blessed Sacrament in my house. In my house!

I’ve counted among my friends men who wear brown dresses, giant rosaries, and no shoes. I’ve learned that they’re called “friars,” not “monks.”

I’ve become the godfather of little boy whose soul is immortal.

It’s been wild.

Do you seek or find fulfillment in your career? If so, can you elaborate? If not, where do you seek / find it? 

I’d have found a lot more if I’d listened to what God was telling me.

There’s a passage in A Man for All Seasons that has been playing in my mind for the past several months. Richard Rich has been seeking a position in the government from Sir Thomas More, but Thomas refuses, believing (rightly) that Rich does not have the moral fiber for an intrigue-ridden court. Instead, he offers to appoint Rich to a teaching position. He says, “You’d make a good teacher, Richard. Perhaps a great one.”

Rich: “But who would know?”

Thomas: “You, your students, perhaps your colleagues, God. Not a bad public, that.”

I came to DC to work in policy two-and-a-half years ago. I thought it was the right move…and at first it was. My employer has an important mission and I work with wonderful, talented people; I’ve learned an awful lot from being there. But it’s been clear for a while that policy is not what I should be doing. For a couple of years now, I’ve felt a pull to return to school, get a Ph.D. and, well, be a teacher. At the end of this past summer the Lord hit me with a series of hammer-blows: it was time (past time, maybe), to apply. Lord willing, I’ll start classes in the fall. It doesn’t feel too good to be in the same spot as the villain in one of your favorite movies. But now, for the first time, I have a strong sense of vocation. I’m finally doing what God intends me to do. That does feel pretty darn good.

How does faith play a role in your actions and your outlook on your life as a single young adult? 

Goodness! You might as well ask, how does oxygen play a role in your life?

I mean that pretty close to literally. Faith gives me joy in good times and strength in hard ones. Faith constitutes the world: by it I know that each person I meet deserves my love and compassion and respect because each person is made in the image and likeness of God. I’m not sure I’d agree that it plays a role in my outlook: it’s more that faith is the very grounds by which other things can play a role. It’s not one of the things out there in the world, but the means through which I understand anything else that’s in the world. Faith is the pair of eyeglasses that lets me see the world clearly, and my soul comes with the same fine-print notice as my driver’s license: “Restriction: corrective lenses.”

Since you have this time, what are some challenges you give yourself? If you didn’t have to worry about failure, what would you do with this time that you might be putting off out of fear?

I’d talk to more people. I’m very shy, and I have a hard time knowing what to say to people whom I don’t already know well. It’s an INFJ thing, I guess. But when I do meet new people, I’m always glad to have done it, so I’m trying to be more outgoing.

I’d write and publish more. Ray Bradbury once encouraged young writers to write a story every week for a year, because “No one can possibly write 52 bad stories in a row.” I’ve decided 2014 will be the year I get my fiction published, so I’ll be writing a lot and submitting things I’ve never submitted before. I’m just hoping I don’t prove Ray Bradbury wrong.

Finally, I’d listen to God more. It’s weird—I listen a lot when I’m talking with other people, but when I pray suddenly I’m doing all the talking. Talking in prayer is easier than listening…after all, if you’re just sitting there listening, pretty soon you find yourself thinking that you need to pick up some chicken cutlets on your way home, and how are you ever going to finish that report by Thursday, and—darnit—you left the dishes in the sink again, and hey, that girl by the Mary altar’s pretty cute. And then your mind’s entirely distracted from God and it’s time to start over on your page of Francis de Sales and see if you can salvage a bit of this Holy Hour for some actual prayer.

But I guess distraction isn’t the real reason I’m afraid to stop talking in prayer. The real reason is that sometimes, when you stop talking, God starts.