Why is it that when you decide to pursue something or someone, that thing eludes you or that person runs away from you?
I expected that the discalced nuns at Carmel would welcome me readily into their fold. Vocation to the monastery was scarce after all.
But what I met was disappointment after disappointment thereafter.
I entered the massive iron gates, like Maria von Trappe, when she came running from the hills after singing “The hills are alive with the sound of music.”
A thrill ran down my spine. It was surreal. The monastery stood like a huge fortress fenced with iron around acres of land. Tall cypress trees adorned the side of the church. A small front store served as the entryway where a volunteer, a lay woman, welcomed me and brought me to the parlor to talk to the mother superior.
I sat beside an iron grille with a brown curtain. The line of separation was distinct. I was an outsider, an alien.
After a few minutes, I heard the rustling of garments and a hello. I waited for the brown curtains to be drawn. But the mother superior talked to me behind the drapery. My heart sank. It was like going to a confession, but this time I wished I could see the face behind the curtain. “Mother, I think God is calling me for the religious life,” I said.
“I will let you talk to our spiritual director, Fr. A,” she said.
After a couple of days, I was back and was sitting in front of an elderly American Carmelite monk.
Knowing my motives for my desire to enter was the top of his list.
I could totally understand. What young girl in her right mind who just graduated nursing would want to lock herself in the confines of the massive walls of Carmel?
“You’re too young,” he said.
At 22, I didn’t think I was young. I was ready to embrace my calling. I knew the monastery was where God wanted me to be.
Hearing the words from Fr. A made my lips quiver. But what he said after made me want to cry.
“I want you to find a job as a nurse and work for at least 6 months. Just try to be in the world and see if the desire remains.”
“But Father, I had discerned that this is it.”
Months ago in Manila, while studying for my nursing licensure exam, July received an invitation to attend a vocation discernment with the Carmelite Missionaries.
Upon hearing the word Carmelite, my heart leapt with joy. This was the religious order that St. Teresa of Avila founded! If there was one thing I learned in the spiritual journey, it was knowing that nothing happens by coincidence. Everything comes to you through divine providence.
When a heart desires for good things, doors open and the stars line up to bring about this goodness.
I joined the many young and not-so-young single women in a weeklong retreat where the vocation directress led us through a discernment process.
The vocation directress was a vibrant marketer of Jesus Christ, who sold the idea of being married to Him and embrace His lifestyle. She’s the type who can sell you sackcloth in exchange for your luxurious wear, and you’d be jumping for joy for getting a good bargain.
“There are three paths you can choose to discern the state of life that God destined for you: the religious life, the single-blessedness, or the married life.”
The retreat guided us to discern our vocation through silent recollections, daily masses, songs, recreation, workshops, and lectures.
As drawn as I was to her missionary adventures, I could not take away the notion that I’d be choosing a lesser good. I didn’t want some hybrid type of Carmelite order. I wanted the real thing. And for me, it was the one that St. Teresa founded when she reformed the order.
I wanted to become a Discalced Carmelite, embrace the most extreme and ascetic form of religious life, and renounce the world and all its glitter.
Such was my ambition, the reason why I packed my bags, went home to Davao City, and knocked at the door of Carmel.
I thought nothing could stop me at this point, not even my parents. But Fr. A wouldn’t budge. With a gentle and knowing smile, he pointed me out the door, to come back every month for spiritual guidance.
I would have resisted had not Teresa of Avila’s teachings echoed in my soul.
Humility and obedience will never lead you astray. The man who thinks too highly of himself and thinks he is far up the road to sanctity is the one who’s traveling the dirt road to hell. Pride is the mark of the devil and a rebellious nature is the symptom.
So I applied at a nearby hospital run by the Dominican nuns. I was hired along with three others, who graduated from the school affiliated with the same hospital and treated in the same manner. It was good but later turned into bad.
The five-month stint was filled with nightmares and horror.
The veteran nurses and midwives expected me to learn the ropes.
Orientation comprised of a day-tour of the unit and being assigned to work with someone more senior during the first few duties. After a week or so, we were on our own.
Whereas the other new hires, who were familiar with the set-up of the unit jumped into the routine with ease, I groped like a blind man in the delivery-nursery room complex.
On some days, I’d be assigned in the delivery room, which was attached to the nursery. And just when I find myself slipping into a routine, I’d find myself in the nursery, which would turn into a neonatal ICU with the coming of a preterm newborn. Adjacent to this unit was the sick baby area where we isolated newborns with infection.
My uncertainty soon turned to fear and anxiety.
“She has no initiative. You need to tell her to get the suction, prep the patient for the emergency operation, and so on.” I heard the charge nurse talk behind my back when they thought I wasn’t within earshot.
“I thought she was smart. Didn’t she top the boards? How come the others are smarter and has more common sense?”
The laurel of landing 9th among the three thousand examinees who took the nursing licensure exam became my crown of thorns.
It was once a source of consolation and affirmation of God’s faithfulness. For while I studied for the board exam, God struck me with the words from Deuteronomy —- “you shall be at the top and not at the bottom.” I highlighted this verse with my yellow stencil pencil, and read it everyday.
When the results came out six months after, and I learned that I landed in the top ten, I was elated just for a moment. The prophetic verse came true. But I no longer cared that much for earthly glory and honor. I didn’t even bother to fly to Manila for the oath-taking ceremony.
My heart was intent on doing only one thing, to pursue God’s will and His greater glory and honor, not mine.
Who would have known that such a blessing would become my curse?
It led to high expectations from doctors and co-nurses for this new graduate, as though knowledge and theory would convert to skills and experience overnight.
One particular resident would be so annoyed at my mistakes and inexperience that she’d often shout at me and malign me in front of my co-workers.
Some would console me and say, “Don’t mind her. She’s just jealous because you’re pretty.”
That sounded lame. Why would someone treat another because of looks? I didn’t think that was the reason for her abusive treatment.
More and more I realized my inexperience. I would go cold and clammy whenever I turned the tiny newborn inside the incubator, praying that I don’t dislodge the tube in his mouth. I’d often pray that no pregnant woman would come in fetal distress so I don’t have to scrub and assist in an emergency surgery.
The schedule made matters worse. Our shifts changed everyday. On a Monday, I could be assigned the morning shift of 6-2:30pm then on Tuesday I could be on the 2:30-10pm shift. On Wednesday I could get assigned on the 10pm - 6am shift then have my day off on Thursday.
My body was as confused and demented as my mind and heart. I’d sometimes go home from a night shift, cry myself to sleep, and wake up in the afternoon sweating with anxiety thinking I overslept and missed my schedule.
I became more introspective and turned to the Bible, to daily masses, and hourly meditation.
Everyday, the nimbus cloud shrouded my head and swallowed me until I’d end up in a pathetic sweating heap on my bed, drenched in tears. I fought voices of little demons that wouldn’t leave no matter how much I casted them out in Jesus’ name.
I dare not say anything bad against my neighbors for didn’t Jesus say, “When your enemy slap you on the right cheek, turn and offer the other cheek?” So I kept everything to myself.
But everyday, my innards ate my gut at the thought of work. Nobody knew about my great struggle. Not even the Charismatic community that I treated as sisters and brothers. Not even Mama and Papa and my youngest sister at home.
I thought God would want me to suffer and share in His cross. And suffered I did.
One day, after the morning endorsement, I went to my area of assignment. Two babies with yellowish discoloration of their skin were under UV light therapy and three others were under observation for potential infection.
I took the vital signs of the other more toxic-looking infants. When I got to the supposedly least sick baby, who was awaiting discharge orders, I gasped at his ashen color. The baby wasn’t breathing. When I pushed my two fingers with the stethoscope on his chest, milk dripped at the side of his mouth. I cried for help while I resuscitated the baby, my heart pounding with fear.
Soon the resident came in and battered me with questions that sounded like accusations.
Did I feed the baby and not burp him right? Did I put him on the bed flat shortly after feeding? What did I do wrong?
She put in a breathing tube and demanded for an IV line. My hands trembled as I fumbled with the needle, while she eyed me with disdain.
When the baby continued to deteriorate the next days and eventually died, I could not help but think I caused his death.
Only the words of the mother assured me that this was not the case. The day the baby was put on all sorts of tubes, the mother came and talked to me.
I explained what had happened. She said, “Don’t feel bad. I expected this. At least, no more suffering. Something was wrong with him even while in my tummy, the doctor said.”
How could a grieving mother comfort someone besides herself? Only God knows.
But the incident would still haunt me day and night.
I developed a chronic cough. The radiologist read it as pneumonitis. The pulmonologist said it could be stress-induced asthma.
For me, it was my ticket to the monastery.
On my next visit and spiritual direction, I said, “Father, after five months, I know the hospital is not for me. It’s making me sick and I’m not good enough to be a nurse. It’s not my calling.”
He agreed to take me on one condition: That I stay with the out-sister and the lay volunteers. “I don’t want you to disrupt the community should you decide to leave. You can go home on weekends and be with your family, then come back on Mondays.”
I had wanted to see what was inside the cloister, behind those drawn curtains, but it seemed, God didn’t find me worthy enough to be part of the community. Yet.
Beggars can’t be choosers. But I can now resign from the hellish job and be in my haven of peace.
I was free to tread the footsteps of my spiritual mother—the great Teresa of Avila.
Or so I thought...
The three months that followed tested my humility and obedience.
Fr. A ordered that I abandon the mystical path of Teresa and stop reading her three books.
“Read this instead.” On the table, he laid a small book and pushed it towards me.
The Story of a Soul by Therese of Lisieux.
The young nun on the cover stared at me, with a hint of a smile on her cheeks.
“Her path to sanctity is simple and safe,” Fr. A said.
Another Teresa? Rather, Teresita?
Could she be the one on the prophecy? Who was she? I soon found out when I entered the Carmelite Monastery.