Whilst I was still in primary school I can remember sitting in Church and this vague idea of giving myself to God clearly popped into my head. I remember thinking it was a good idea for all of a minute, and then very quickly backtracking. I would say this has summarised a lot of my journey to this point!
This idea of ‘becoming a nun’ floated in and out of my head for quite a portion of my life, but then so did most other things! I was also keen on becoming a marine biologist, a park ranger, a teacher, and a Mum to seven children whilst owning two dogs and a flock of chickens! The idea of becoming a religious sister became something more serious and defined when I attended an Invocation Retreat at Ampleforth Abbey at the age of 14. From then on I started to take more interest in other religious communities. I grew up going to Walsingham quite frequently and so decided that founding a religious order dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham was quite a good idea, not realising that someone else had beaten me to it! I encountered COLW for the first time in Walsingham at the age of 15 but didn’t make the connection between my idea to establish an order related to Walsingham and meeting COLW until quite a number of years later.
My prayer to the Lord was that I was willing to test a religious vocation, provided that he make it obvious. Well, as they say, be careful what you pray for! After spending a year working in Ireland with a missionary organsiation, I returned to England where my parents had moved to a village just outside Walsingham, my Dad having secured a job working for the Shrine. I bumped into COLW yet again who were commuting between Brentwood and Walsingham, squishing into a few rooms in Dowry House when possible. I remember being shown around some of the rooms as they were in construction, little knowing I would one day call one of them my own. I started joining them for adoration, something I have always loved and realised things were getting a bit ‘serious’ when I started being invited in for breakfast afterwards! I alternated between being attracted to COLW and thinking ‘Not them! I want to have a veil!’ and ‘they are okay Lord, but this is probably a bit too obvious…’ After leaving my job with the Diocese of East Anglia at the age of 23 I decided I would just go ahead and spend a month living with them, reassuring myself it would ‘rule them out’ at the very least.
With the benefit of hindsight I realise that in that month I wanted God to provide me with some definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to COLW. And when that (naturally) didn’t transpire I moved out to Austria to aupair for a few months. I loved learning to ski, travelling around the Tyrol on days off and finding beautiful pilgrim sites perched on the side of mountains. COLW drifted in and out of my mind during this time but not with any serious reflection on my part, but on one of my excursions I wandered into a Church in Hall-in-Tyrol and found myself in a perpetual adoration chapel run by religious sisters. Seeing them there before the Lord made my heart skip several beats and filled me with longing, a longing to live that life of total immersion in God alone. That totally spontaneous reaction to seeing them filled me a renewed sense of wondering if this may be the life I am called to.
On my return to England due to the outbreak of Covid-19, I started trying to secure a job, no easy task at the beginning of the pandemic when one lived in North Norfolk! I was offered one but as I was about to call back and accept it, I suddenly had this sense of the Lord gently suggesting that I give COLW another try. What really has stayed with me about that moment was the sense of God’s love, the freedom he was leaving me with. I knew that he was saying no matter what I chose to do in that moment he would be with me and his love for me would stay the same. So I called Sr Camilla there and then and 24 hours later found myself at their convent in Dereham. I had never been so nervous before, but when I pulled up on the driveway, it felt like coming home.
My intention had been to stay for three weeks, but that has now become three years, all of which have been filled with immense growth, both personally and with God. Also in learning to do various random things like assembling flat-pack furniture and learning to use a ride-on lawnmower and strimmer! Whilst there were many ‘growing pains,’ the unfailing love and patience of both God and my sisters in community sustained me. It has been a relearning of many presuppositions I had about myself, religious life, and God. A tearing down of false ideas and slowly building up again from a firm foundation. The greatest gift in all of this has been that knowledge of God’s unconditional love, a love that leaves one totally free. And this love felt like a tidal wave the day of my First Vows, that sense of belonging totally to God was unlike anything else, the sense of God’s love swept me off my feet and left me with that deep certainty that my heart is His, even if my mind and will take a lifetime to get there!
Discerning one’s vocation in religious life is not a matter of deciding this is the right thing for the rest of one’s life in a month, a few months, or even a few years! It is a journey with different steps and roads, and I know that God’s love for me what not be any less or any more if I chose a different path and that is what gives real joy in the saying ‘yes,’ knowing it is given freely, and therefore, purely out of love.