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Story

By Julia Strukely

When I was in my 20s, I discerned a call to the religious life. While many of my friends were working on their careers, planning a wedding and mapping out their five-year plans, I was taking time off work to go on retreat or meet with spiritual directors. Even though my experience was different from those of my friends, it was still one of those heightened, life-altering periods that one anticipates during that particular phase of life. It was as if my friends and I were all climbing that societal, young adult mountain: off to find out who we were meant to be.

When it came time to sell my car and give away my J.Crew clothes, I felt invigorated. I was embarking on a quest to find my vocation and embrace the poverty, chastity and obedience that my Catholic school and St. Paul in his letters had told me were the ultimate call.

Imagine my disappointment when my experience of religious life was not the heroic crusade of Joan of Arc or the poetic Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux. It seems that I had forgotten that these women had to struggle in their journeys, too, and eventually would die rather unpleasant deaths. My time in the convent was difficult and short-lived. I had climbed the mountain and worked hard to get to the top in the hopes of “achieving” my vocation. I had closed bank accounts, cut my hair and quit my job to embrace a total union with Christ. And this effort was not without fruits. I did grow closer to God through prayer and discernment, but my efforts were not life-giving, at least not at that particular time.

We are conditioned in our culture to aim for those mountaintop moments. Our movies inform us to think that finding the ultimate love of our lives will fulfill us. Our industries motivate us to work towards that raise or promotion. We are always chasing up that mountain, and the top of the mountain can be a very beautiful thing. But what if when we get there, the moment isn’t what we had anticipated? Or perhaps we are always climbing and are never satisfied?

The Bible is full of mountaintop moments. Moses receives the law of God on Mount Sinai. Elijah hears the voice of God on Mount Carmel. Christ is transfigured on Mount Tabor in the presence of both of these Old Testament prophets and his divine nature is revealed. In these scenes, the purpose of these men’s lives is revealed. It isn’t such a wonder, then, that we too seek the pinnacles in life in hopes of obtaining our life’s purpose. It is a good and holy thing to seek God in our lives and to want to achieve our best selves in order to serve him. However, sometimes, we can get so caught up in achieving an identity that we lose sight of our true call — connection with God.

In the aforementioned mountain moments from Scripture, while it is true that Moses and Elijah received their purpose, they most importantly received connection with God. That encounter with the Lord is what spurred them on to greatness, not necessarily the achievement of the goal itself. In the story of the Transfiguration, I can empathize with Peter who wants to build tents and commemorate and hold onto that incredible time with Christ. But the reality is that we cannot stay at the peak forever; we have to carry the encounter in some way with us. That means coming down to reality and living that connection in the everyday.

My experience of the convent was arguably one of the pinnacles of my life even though it didn’t end up being my life’s vocation. The tools I was given during that time and the insights I gained about myself and Christ are what I have taken down the mountain with me to help me in my everyday work as a middle school teacher.

One of those tools that I received while discerning religious life was learning about St. Ignatius’ Discernment of Spirits. I have found that over the years one of the rules of discernment that I really hold onto is that of the Eighth Rule. In this rule, we are asked to remember the times of consolation, or those times when God was very present, during the times in which we are feeling less than close to God. For example, when I am not feeling God’s presence as closely as I might have been when I was entering the convent, I can go back to that time and those memories and pull from them the presence of God that I know to be real and am certain was with me then.

I think this is the challenge of the Transfiguration. Peter wants to stay and cherish the moment, but the reality is that he is called down to lead the broken church, not from a high mountain, but in the challenges of daily life. It is much less glamorous and difficult, but as St. Ignatius gives us in his Eighth Rule, the consolation of our close encounters with Christ while on the mountain can help to carry us through the trials of the day-to-day. Our culture, and even our faith, may tell us that reaching our vocational goals is the ultimate purpose or experience, but vocation is integrating that connection with Christ in our daily lives. That is the call of these transfiguring moments.

Is all this to say that we shouldn’t pursue those monumental opportunities or that we should downplay the high achievements of our lives? Scripture, as well as the First Principle of the Spiritual Exercises, show us that these moments are vital and formative, but only in so much as they bring us closer to Christ. And it is not only in these formative, peak moments that we can encounter God, but rather, we can see Christ’s presence in our every day.

I can say that my mountaintop moment, like Peter, changed me even as I had to return to my secular life. Because of my time of discernment, I discovered my passion for handing on the faith to others, which I do now through the ministry of my classroom. I carry that mountaintop experience with me — and it encourages me to take on whatever peak is awaiting me next.

Julia Strukely is a theology and media literacy teacher in Richmond, VA. She serves the Catholic Church in a variety of ways including teaching middle school and high school theology, coordinating faculty and adult faith formation sessions at her school and parish and providing music ministry as a piano accompanist and vocalist. Julia has a background in media studies, catechesis, and youth ministry and seeks to evangelize through blogging, podcasting and social media. She is currently working on her Scripture-centered podcast “Seven Mile Chats” and has contributed online content to The Live Today Well Collective, The Holy Ruckus and Liturgy Training Publications.