by Kate Gilday
There’s a scene in Happy Feet that’s sure to bring a tear to my eye (granted, I’ve a very low threshold for crying in movies…). While the females are out at sea feeding, Memphis and the other male penguins have been left in charge of the eggs. Their sole goal: keep the egg alive.
The only trouble is that it’s hard to brave the unshakeable darkness and biting chill of the Antarctic winter alone. A huddle is the only way to survive; it’s also the way to thrive. The penguins rotate so that everyone has a chance to be sheltered from the wind; everyone has a chance to feel warm, protected and empowered by those surrounding him (and great sop that I am, I get a bit sniffly at the beauty of that huddle’s commitment to one another and the gifts they carry).
For me, this year’s Sisterhood National Catholic Women’s Conference was the assembling of a penguin huddle; a convening of warmth and grace in the recognition that “it is not good for [wo]man to be alone.” (Gen 2:18) Drawing together over 200 women from across Australia and from all walks of life, the conference was an invitation not only into community, but into communion with others striving to be a woman after Christ’s own heart in lives often burdened with darkness and cold winds.
As a representative of Vocation Brisbane, I found the conference a fascinating look at what lies beyond the yes. Amidst the praise, fellowship and maxi skirts, I caught glimpses of vocational states of life down-the-track: religious sisters 20 years into their profession of vows; mums with nine kids waiting for them to get home from the conference; women in their 30s who are still faithfully living out the call to be single; widowed grandmothers now faced with a fresh vocation to single life.
“Everything is grace,” the conference’s theme declared. Keynote speakers touched on the beauty of suffering; how to maintain an attitude of gratitude; what it means to be a people of hope. Every woman I spoke to was overflowing with thankfulness for the way Christ was speaking to her unique circumstances throughout the weekend; breathing new life into the sorrows and exhaustion she brought to Him.
Because beyond the “yes” lies a reality; an everyday life replete with beauty, sacrifice and suffering. Happily Ever After brings its fair share of misery, and no vocation is immune to burnout, disappointment and heartbreak. The Sisterhood conference reminded me that nothing will ever look the way we imagine it to: but that “all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom 8:28)
Lindsay Dennis, one of the keynote speakers, reminded us that, “we become a people of hope when we stop asking God to take us out of our circumstances and start inviting Him into them.” Surrounded by courageous hearts who continue to give their faithful yes to God even when His call on their lives demands something scary or heartbreaking, I began to wonder if vocation is less about “how” we will follow Him than about “how” we will follow Him.
Let me explain. Often when we think about the “way” we are going, we contemplate a literal, physical pathway. The GPS will tell us the way to the 24-hour IGA when we desperately need chocolate at midnight. But when we think about the “way” someone speaks or dresses, we refer to a manner; a style; a disposition.
Often when we talk about vocations, I think we can get caught up in the “how” (the literal physical way we are going to live, as a single, priest, married or religious) at the expense of the “how” (the disposition of heart that continues to fall in love with God, to discern His call for the very next step every day and desires nothing more than to bear His light to the world).
No two stories of any two souls at that conference were alike. God invites us to carry Christ into the world in a unique place at an unrepeatable time. Our “vocation” will reveal itself in a certain state of life, true; but it cannot and will not look the same as anyone else’s in history. Grace lies in choosing to walk in His way – the way of wholehearted, hopeful surrender.
To say ‘yes’ to the call God has for you is not to magic away suffering and find yourself perfectly equipped to live the rest of your life in holiness, love and peace. To say yes is to know that beyond the yes lies another yes. And another. And another.
The beauty of the Incarnation is that it is still unfolding in every heart that chooses to become a dwelling place for Christ. We are the home, the tabernacle, of the Word made Flesh. That is, and will always be, our vocation: to be His and to let this world encounter Him in us.
Like Memphis the penguin and like Mary the Mother of God, we’re carrying something special. No matter the Antarctic darkness or first-century Palestinian disapproval we face, it is possible to thrive in the call that He has placed on our hearts. When we are surrounded by a community of grace and firmly convicted of the value of the gift we carry, we will bring Christ into the world.