Refiner’s Fire

Shannon Berry


In the Old Testament, fire was a purifying element. The sacrifices were burnt because the Jews believed that their sins were transferred to the animal on the altar, and the burning devoured these sins and sent the aroma of repentance to the God above. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul takes this idea a step further, adapts it to fit Christianity and says that we should offer our bodies as living sacrifices, making our very lives offerings to God, making our lives blazing, constant, purifying fires. Fires that burn, spark, and glow. Fires within. This same fire urged Teresa of Avila to reform her religious order, which had fallen into laziness and wealth. It drove her to sit for hours praying whether she felt anything or not. It’s a fire that isn’t extinguished unless we kill it, heaping buckets of lukewarm water on the blaze.

The apostles felt it on the day of Pentecost when it hovered above their heads in tiny flaming tongues, changing their lives. Peter, who had previously been brash, disloyal and terrified enough to hide in a small room with the doors locked, stepped out onto a balcony and spoke the Gospel eloquently to a potentially hostile crowd. Months later, this fire compelled Stephen to rail against the Pharisees and so become the first Christian martyr, stoned to death at the hands of those who were supposed to be holy.

And like Peter, Stephen, Teresa, and scores of others whose names we will never know, I am beginning to burn slowly, not without pain, a sacrifice beginning to smolder on an altar. I am trying to stand still like an ancient martyr and let the flames envelope me. As this fire burns, growing stronger, it forces me to give things up to its purifying flames: this book, that garment of clothing, this painting, these shoes, this hour, that dream, my own will, and perhaps my entire life. As the flames begin to lick this world around me, I feel more alive than I ever have, trying to surrender myself to the God of this fire, who burns but does not consume unless we say so, who asks but does not force.


I am on my way to the convent of Carmel of the Holy Cross (called simply Carmel to those familiar with its tranquility). It is late October, and the world itself is burning, preparing to sleep under a beautiful blanket of snow. For this two-hour drive, I ride in the backseat of an Oldsmobile next to Kim, my boyfriend, as the autumn trees, sparse with their flaming leaves, rush past my window. A near stranger, a friend of a friend, drives us as I wonder what to expect from this meeting of the third or lay order of Carmelites, a group of men and women who live ordinary lives, but who have devoted themselves to prayer in the Carmelite tradition, which is based in silence. They meet once a month, alone, in the dining room of the convent to discuss the contemplative life and to celebrate the Mass, interacting with a single nun who is called the extern and with the priest assigned as chaplain to this convent. I wait, silently clutching the rosary in my pocket. I wait, wondering if I am getting myself into another world of religious fanaticism like the Pentecostal one I grew up in. I wait, wondering what I will find.

Kim, knowing my tendency towards nervousness, grabs my hand, persistently holding on to me, not letting me drown in my own imagination that is picturing dark cold abbeys, religious fanatics who have “gone over the edge,” or worse yet, upper middle-class Americans delving into some superficial religious experience. Slowly, we both fall asleep, my head nestled like a bird’s against his neck, my hand still clutching the rosary.

He spotted me early on as a contemplative. I remember the day. We had only been dating a month and as we drove along the southern shore of Lake Superior, I had begun to explain my need for silence, my urgency to spend time alone, my love of quiet. He said, “You are a contemplative. When you get married your husband will have to build you a separate room for your silences,” and nothing more, in the way that he hints at things, and then leaves them, sometimes for months, hovering like fireflies in the air until he is ready to catch them again. So four months later when I said that I was thinking of joining a third order, he made his suggestion.

“You should try the Carmelites.”

“I was thinking more of the Franciscans.” My patron is Francis of Assisi and his order focuses on social justice and simplicity, concepts that have influenced me for years, but perhaps not so much as the silence that I cannot live without.

“You’re a contemplative. You should at least visit a contemplative order, and then try the Franciscans. You should go to Carmel next month. I’ll go with you.”

And I agreed to try.

At the Carmelite convent, I find a subtle silence, evocative and without the emotionalism I had known in my Pentecostal days where I heard everything but silence.


It is Monday night, March 4. Kim and I have just returned from separate retreats in Illinois. Mine in Rockford; his in Chicago. Mine at a contemplative Benedictine convent; his at a newly forming community of brothers and priests at the church of St. John Cantius. We have said prayers with the religious, eaten their meals, and done their cleaning: me dusting the chapel, he shoveling the snow. I played party games in the early evenings; he visited a German restaurant. In all of this activity we have been trying to understand what God is saying to us, stretching ourselves bare and laying ourselves out in the silence. We have been saying, “Here I am. Do with me as you will.” We have been kneeling in timber and charcoal, ready to burn ourselves if he asks, ready to strike the match and become a living blaze, ready to enter the religious life. We have spent days chanting prayers, letting the language course over our ears and through our blood, spent hours in prayer and at the Latin Mass with our holy ancestors tapping us on the shoulders and saying, “This. This is how the Mass was when I was a child. This is what the Church was before you were born. Isn’t it beautiful? Keep listening: Something profound always amazes you.”

And I have been amazed. I have discovered a part of my tradition that has been lost, or nearly lost. These traditions have faded with the vast, unsought interpretations of Vatican II. Latin is nearly gone; nuns have lost their habits; priests have forsaken the symbolic cassock for jeans and polo shirts. I can’t help but feel like we have lost something. Mother Mary Patrick, the Superior of the Assumption Convent that I have just visited, vocalized this feeling when she said, “Few children now ever even see a traditional nun.”


In January, I tell my parents I am considering becoming a nun. My mother, a convert from Pentecostalism to Catholicism, explodes, pleads, begs. She wants grandchildren from her only daughter. In one sentence I confront and comfort her: “It’s my life, but I am not making any decisions about this for a while. Besides, there is Kim.” But my father, a cradle Catholic from a bustling Irish family, remembers the old ways and says, “When I was a child, this sort of discussion was expected. At least one daughter should have considered becoming a nun. That was just the way things were. Your mother doesn’t understand. She can’t. She grew up thinking of nuns as something alien.” Now, even among my Catholic friends, I get puzzled, open-mouthed looks. One friend said, “Why would you want to be a nun? It must be so boring.” How do I explain that a life given completely to God must be anything but boring?


It is Monday night, March 4, and I have just left Kim in his sparse apartment with its bare white walls and lack of furniture. As I said good-bye he held me, hard, and whispered the words that are so familiar now, words that I once thought I would never hear because I never thought anyone would find any reason to say them to me: I love you. I left him standing there in his kitchen, the white tile gleaming like the snow outside, he in his green sweater and khaki hiking pants and socked feet, me in my Navy pea coat and collapsing, disheveled braid. I left, not ever wanting to have to pull myself away from him again. Now I drive in silence, shuddering at the thought of my cold basement apartment and the loneliness there. Before I left, Kim told me that I am holy. I do not feel holy.

It is Tuesday, March 5. I wake up early at 6:15, determined to be disciplined. The sun is barely moving his long steady arms and I am barely moving mine, though mine are not so steady. I sit in the old chair from the ‘70s patterned with brown flowers and pray Morning Prayer, still clad in my white Victorian nightgown that I bought on a layover in London, a remnant from my years spent obsessed with Arthurian legend and the British Isles. I attempt to pray and let the words slip over my tongue, tired but sincere, tired but trying.


It is Friday, March 1. As Kim and I drive, a silence creeps into and over us, clustered around the sad strains of Fleetwood Mac, resting but not heavy. The ride has already been long and it is only five hours since we left Marquette and stopped twice on this Lenten March Friday for fish sandwiches and frozen custard. The wind through the slightly cracked window, barely open by his ear, mingles with the warm air pouring from the heater vents. This mingling makes me uncomfortable. The sound of the rushing air grates against my nerves, restless from so much driving and the anticipation of a weekend of discernment, of a possible life in a convent, of the possible ending of this relationship. This grating is why I dislike having windows down on the highway: the loudness, the unbearable sound. But I know he is too warm and press my irritation from my mind. Soon, I am able to forget it is even there. The roar of the wind becomes part of my silence, like the voice of Stevie Nicks.

I look over at Kim as he drives, at his glasses, his nose, his eyes searching the increasing darkness we drive in. I try to memorize his color in these growing shadows—his brown hair, casting down around his neck, curling slightly just below his ears; his dark eyes; his skin, olive but paler from a long winter. He is silent, intent.

Looking at him, I remember the day we sat on a stony beach behind a monastery and I told him, trembling, that I felt like I could love him, that I liked being with him, that I wanted more than a friendship. He looked the same then, looking out across Lake Superior, intent, asking me for my thoughts. Later that Fourth of July day we sat in my car, perched on a hill. We watched fireworks far off in the distance and he told me about his nightmares filled with academic failure. He told me how happy he was to be with me. He told me that the day had been perfect.

I turn now, and stare out the front window into the dusk stretching before us. My reverie has filled me with a strange combination of contentment and uneasiness. I wonder what it will be like the next time we are in this car together, wonder if we will still be together or if we will be separate people, preparing for separate, consecrated lives. We continue driving along this flat stretch of road, flat like most of Wisconsin, as we move away from Milwaukee to the South, deeper into the Midwest, looking for a convent and then a fledgling community of brothers and priests. And I keep telling myself not to be afraid.


It is Friday, March 1. Kim and I arrived about forty-five minutes ago. He is gone now, driving deeper into the heart of Chicago and into the snow and the darkness. I am alone with three professed sisters and a postulant. The house that serves as the convent is warm and welcoming and part of a neighborhood nestled like a dove into the woods.

The sisters and I are playing games. I have arrived in the middle of recreation, so my first act in the convent is to play Scrabble. The four sisters, still in full habits but for their veils (when relaxing they wear something more like a bonnet; Sister Rose Christine calls this attire their “jeans”), sit with me in a warm fire-lit room around a card table. We make words and play with language, listening to a dissonant classical piece from an English composer and discussing Baroque music. Sister John Marie gets up to change the CD after discovering that the dissonance is wearing on us all. We play Scrabble, but more importantly, we talk. They ask for my history and I tell them: Catholic, Pentecostal Protestant, cynic, and Catholic again. They are searching me, wondering if I will become one of them. I am wondering myself. We laugh, and I am at ease… almost, thankful that this convent is not full of the dour, somber nuns of bad medieval films. There is life here, but I can’t pin down exactly what gives these women so much life, what makes them so completely human, what makes them seem so whole. I only know that I want to know what has made them seem so alive.

But just thirty minutes ago, I stood in their driveway, clutching Kim as the snow fell around us, afraid to let go. He whispered his fear and asked forgiveness for his visible frustration while driving; he also asked me to pray. For the first time I thought that he might be scared. Standing there freezing in only my long sleeved t-shirt and a pair of jeans, our frames stark against the fading red car, I knew I didn’t want to let go. But we pulled away from each other and carried my bags into the convent.


It is Saturday, February 16. I am on retreat again with the Catholic Campus Ministry at the university where I am completing a master’s degree and Kim is the campus minister. We have gone south about seventy-five miles to a retreat house on the Garden Peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan. I find these retreats odd. While I seek silence and solitude the way I seek bread and water, I find that most of my counterparts seek the companionship of others, friends from Michigan Tech, and the loud enthusiasm of praise and worship music. Kim and I crave quiet and reverence. But that could be our introverted natures. It could be that I have no friends at Michigan Tech. It could be different personalities; it could be that we are both slightly older than the majority of the students, but I remember that the highest form of prayer is contemplation, and contemplation comes through silence. I want to make everyone shut up for awhile and listen.

Holy Hour. Well actually two. Confessions are going long tonight and the priests keep listening, while we keep praying, or trying to. Two hours is a long time for a bunch of college students to sit still and quiet. I can feel the room getting antsy. As I kneel, the couple in front of me chats, oblivious to my need for prayer and silence, and, apparently, to the fact that Christ is fully present before them in the Eucharist. Annoyed, I keep trying to pray, to meditate, to adore. I have been wrestling with God on this retreat, feeling a strange calm when I go to my cell in the evening: sitting alone in that stark white room with the simple crucifix above the bed, praying Night Prayer, and ending the day still and silent. I have been wrestling with God over the same thing since I was ten years old and saw a documentary about religious life: Am I supposed to be a nun? Even in my Protestant days it haunted me, mostly appearing after a romantic rejection, an apparition hanging in the air, materializing in corners and shadows. Now it still presses, harder than it ever has, and for the first time in my life I am also seriously thinking about marriage. I honestly wonder what God is thinking sometimes, but know that if I were not considering marrying Kim, this thought would probably not be so prominent. Big decisions leave us wondering what the alternate outcomes could be.

But here in this chapel, I listen, try to kill my will and pray the prayer of Christ in Gethsemane: “Not as I will, but as you will.” I try to let go of the only earthly person ever to compel me: Kim. I remember Abraham, standing above Isaac with a knife raised, ready to sacrifice his beloved promised child, ready to burn him on the altar. But an angel stopped him, and a ram appeared as an alternative sacrifice. And I am standing, knife held, match ready to strike, ready to let go of Kim, ready to walk into the convent, ready to blaze into flame. But I keep praying for an angel to stop me, for a ram to bleat in the distance, and for a fire to burn deep in my soul, constant but not consuming. But for just a second, I let go of everything: Kim, the past, the future, my own will. And I see two beautiful lives laid out before me: the silence of the convent and the gentleness of a family. And for the first time I think I could be happy in either. For the first time I think that my will is dying. For the first time I am truly open wide, letting anything God wants come through my doors. I am learning the art of sacrifice. Grateful, I kneel on both knees in reverence to the exposed Eucharist, stand, cross myself with holy water, and go to find Kim.

He is in the dining room, talking with Monsignor Tim, the retreat master. The room is empty but for the two of them. All the tables have been moved to make a large circle of chairs. We are supposed to be playing party games now. Monsignor is frustrated and tired, upset that the holy hour has gone so long and disrupted his schedule. He decides to go to bed after asking me if everyone is still praying. Kim and I are left alone in the large, silent room.

“I think I want to visit convents. Will you help me?”

“Of course, I’ll help you.” And that is all. The course is set in motion. I am actively listening, straining to hear a call to the religious life. And somehow all of this is expected.


Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto… It is a prayer I know well… in English: Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit… It is the doxology following each Psalm in the Liturgy of the Hours, which I am now chanting (or trying to) in Latin. The sisters and I are praying Compline, Night Prayer, which, before I met Kim, I had only heard about, read about in the works of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. But I have never prayed it in Latin. Like almost everything here, this language is a remnant of the old ways. I feel the history of this, of two thousand years of prayers chanted, ancient, against the ever-changing world and this prayer, like God and truth, does not change.

After Compline, we enter into the Great Silence (lasting from nine in the evening until after Mass the next morning) and go to the cloister; the only sounds are the shuffling of feet and the closing of doors. I stand by the bed I have been given in the large room I share with Sister Laura labeled “Postulants.” This word for candidate is chilling to my ears, because I wonder if it will soon be used to label me as well.

I go into the bathroom to wash my face and stand staring back at myself in the mirror. I wonder if the image I see is that of a nun, a postulant, a candidate for religious life. I try to picture myself in a veil and habit, red hair shorn like St. Claire’s, my body draped in black, brown or the navy blue of this order. I remember that when I was a girl I would pull my shirt up over my head so that the collar remained in front of my ears, framing my face, the sleeves and body dangling down the back of my head. I would pretend I was the Blessed Virgin Mary. All the better if my shirt were blue, the traditional color used in so many paintings and statues of the Madonna. When I told Kim this story he laughed and said, “And you wonder if you have a vocation.” Now, at twenty-three, I stand in my black-watch plaid pajamas and pray for wisdom, knowing that true happiness only comes in God’s will. But also knowing, or coming close to knowing, that I want to spend the rest of my life with Kim.

I go back to my bed, pull down the simple sheets, look pleadingly at the crucifix just above the headboard, turn out the light, and try to sleep. I dream of nuns calling me from my places in the world: from the university where I sit chatting with a student, from the grocery store where I survey a head of broccoli, from my grandparents’ house where my father and I are deep in conversation, and from the vestibule of the cathedral, where Kim and I stand talking with friends. The sisters are calling me to prayer with their bells and chants, and I leave, not wanting to be late for their beautiful rituals, not wanting to disrupt the rigorous discipline of their lives. I leave seeking their silence, but wanting to hold on to the people they are pulling me from. I awake, unstartled, to the morning bell at 5:45, pulling me from my dream and into the chapel to pray Matins and thank God for a safe and peaceful night.

In the afternoon, Sister Laura and I sit at the dining room table. She is studying; I am reading Kathleen Norris. She looks up with her simple black-rimmed glasses, which magnify her intent eyes. “It is good?” she asks.

“Yes. She talks a lot about Benedictine monasteries. It’s funny to be in one while I read about them.”

She smiles. “Is it a good description?”

“Yes. I think so. She is an oblate, though a confusing one, since she is a Presbyterian and not a Catholic. What are you studying?”

“Latin.” It is almost a sigh, but only almost. “Would you like to help? I’m struggling with this last translation and you understand syntax better than I do.”

So together we translate—- I supplying the placement of the direct object, she the vocabulary. We finally master the sentence after about twenty minutes. We are celebratory and decide to make ourselves tea. Something in me is envious. Sister Laura’s day is spent praying, studying Latin, doing chores, making rosaries, and eating meals with her community. She tells me that soon, they will begin planting an English garden in the backyard. The life is so simple, so basic, so predictable, so calm. But so much is gone: the freedom to leave the house and simply walk to the library without asking permission or to drive to the ocean or to hear the high-pitched laughter of a child who was once a part of yourself.

After our tea, I try to go back to my reading, but only think of the High Latin Mass we attended earlier. I knelt there in St. Mary’s, awkwardly placed in the middle of fully habited nuns, standing out in my khaki pants and dark green shirt, a black lace chapel veil lying limp over my braided hair. I listened to the choir as they chanted the responses in Latin; I listened to the priest as he chanted the prayers in Latin. I was able to follow better today, borrowing an ancient missal from Sister Rose Christine and stumbling through the pages looking for the next part of the Mass, trying to know when to kneel and when to sit, trying to read the English translation of the priest’s words. I am learning… slowly. There was something there this morning, something that is gone now in most Catholic churches. There was silence, stillness. The ceremony was stunning. I could spend days listening to Latin choirs, but what struck me most about that Mass was the silence that whispered in between the pageantry, the silence that followed after the end of Mass, when the people stood and silently left, tangibly aware of God among them, and a small group of children knelt at the statue of St. Joseph, the older ones keeping the younger ones still.

Holy hour. The nuns and I sit before the Eucharist, which is present inside the tabernacle and covered with an elaborate purple cloth, the symbolic color of Lent. I try to pray seeking true communion with Christ, picturing in my mind the crucifixion, trying to understand his agony, trying to unite my soul to him as I would to my dearest friend. I try to move, even if only slightly, further in the direction of God. I try to be transfixed, stunned and ecstatic in the light of so much forgiveness, peace, and complete love.

Somehow the imagery in this chapel is more familiar than a Florida summer rain from my childhood or the small rooms I occupy in my basement apartment: the echo of this cloister, the childish remembrance of folded hands and prayers and little statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is familiar the way all cathedrals and libraries are familiar, and the way Kim was familiar during our first conversation.

But all I can think about is that my legs itch, too dry in this long winter, that I miss Kim and wonder if his community has turned him into a brother, that it has been a long time since I have been able really to pray. Distractions come like murdering bees to me, attacking with their killer stingers, paralyzing their victim. And I am paralyzed. The muscle is atrophied; the ligaments won’t stretch. I thought here I would find some miraculous cure for this anguish that has plagued me for weeks. I thought I would find some strength. I thought maybe I would hear God, know what my life is to be, but there are only slight slivers of what I thought I would find. There are small graces, moments spent with the ancient Latin that I drink like water; inaudible movements when I think of Kim and pray, almost hearing my answer; subtle seconds where I feel the whisper of God, the brush like the feathers of a great bird, quickly flying past. I stretch out my hands to grasp those brilliant wings, but catch only the sweet silent wind left behind them. I am in a state of almost-but-not-quite.


It is Friday, March 8. Kim and I stand in my kitchen. It is one in the afternoon, and we have just returned from midday Mass. I am crying. He is holding me, warm, calm, encircling this desert that I have become. Outside my basement window, snow from last night’s blizzard piles high against the casement. It is strange that with so much precipitation, I feel like a wasteland, a desert; the great Sahara has settled in my soul, dust storms and all. And I am choking on its dust.

“My soul feels like a desert.” I weep, pressing my face against his shoulder.

“It’s ok. You just have to keep praying.” He is reassuring. We have gone through this before. I have been arid before.

“I’m just so empty. There is nothing there. I have nothing left to give.”

“Just keep praying; don’t give in to the mirages. Sit back in your lawn chair, put on some sunscreen, make a glass of lemonade, and wait it out. Rain will fall.” I nod, desperate for anything. Mass nearly broke me today. I used to weep during the Eucharistic prayers, overcome by the great agony and beauty of the Crucifixion, overcome by the fact that God would give us his very body and blood just to make us a part of himself, overcome by such astonishing, steadfast love. Now there is a vacant lot in my soul and the sand keeps seeping into it and it has been this way for a while.

“Sometimes when we think we are in the desert, we have really come to an oasis,” Kim adds, smiling at me, telling me that God is doing something I can’t see or feel. But I wonder.


The black lace chapel veil, another remnant from the old ways, hangs over my face, and I peek through the edges, still trying to pray. The nuns are all motionless, still like English guards, but I am antsy, wondering when lunch will be, seeking any distraction. Prayer is unbearable. I look down and see a picture of Christ taped to the top of the kneeler. He is praying in agony just hours before the Crucifixion. The words leap from the dark background: “If you would give Him your hand as bride, the nail must join your hand to His.” Again, I feel the chill, the possibility of spending the rest of my life within these walls, or in others like them. And… and I don’t know if I could do it. I don’t know if I want to do it. More importantly, I don’t know if I am supposed to do it. So I try to pray but feel nothing but my own lack.

I have been learning to know this Christ practically from birth, and I have been in love for just as long, but the feeling is fading and has faded in the past. It undulates like water, like all feelings do. And the deserts persist. But I know that if I push through, hard, steadfast against this blinding cyclone of dust, I will find him again on the other side. I have before, but there is always the fear that this time I will get there and God will be gone. But I know my soul is barren so that I keep going, keep looking for the water, the water that Christ said is alive. My soul is circled in dust so that I know what Christ knew when he screamed out in agony on the cross, “ My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And because of those very words, spoken in so much more anguish than my own, because he came here like one of us to know that desolate feeling, I know that he has not abandoned me.

Because I can’t pray, I read St. Teresa of Avila and find small comfort. She says we have to expect the deserts, that they will come and go. She says we must be diligent and keep bowing, kneeling, listening to the silence, even when we hear nothing, because God is there… always. She says a meditation spent only battling distractions is fruitful and pleasing to God, because at least we are trying. She says she lived in a desert for eighteen years, all the time in a convent, praying daily before the Eucharist and feeling nothing. It occurs to me that this faith has very little to do with our feelings and a great deal to do with our will. Encouraged, I close my eyes, let my imagination take me again to the Crucifixion, try to pray and commune with God, to hold conversation, to feel something other than myself for just a moment.

I pray (or try to) for diligence in this faith, for the strength to become a saint, for forgiveness, for my family, for Kim, for the Middle East, for those dying, for those dead, and in thanks for my home on the shore of Lake Superior, for a man who loves me enough to help me find a convent, for the university and my classes, and for my faith. Above all, I pray that I can touch God, and so just sit and try to talk for a while and listen. When I hear nothing, I pray, shaking, for his will to be done in my life and not my own, knowing that his will could be anything, including this convent, and trying to trust that it will be the best thing. As I pray, I fight off distractions like Don Quixote warring with the windmills, frantic and ineffective, but striving.


It is Sunday, March 10, 7:20 a.m. I sit alone in the massive cathedral in Marquette. The marble and stone echo the silence back to me. I cannot pray, though I keep trying. Trying to close my eyes and listen. Trying to make the world stop for just a few minutes. The lights are dim here and the altar, crucifix and columns are draped in purple, the symbol of Lent and of our repentance. It is Sunday, and inspired by monastic discipline, Kim and I recently resolved to pray for an hour every morning before the 8:00 a.m. Mass… no matter how we feel. And this morning I feel nothing, except perhaps my own arrogance, boasting about how holy I must be to come here at 7:00 a.m. on a Sunday when the rest of the world sleeps decadently. Even when I try to pray, I sin, self-centered and prideful, only reminding myself of my own frailty.

The desert presses in though these red stone walls and marble columns, the sand pouring in through the stained glass, until I am no longer kneeling on wood and cloth, but on earth so hot I know I am making a penance. It is the loneliness that gets me, the silence, the unbearable aching to feel God, and the knowing that I am not feeling anything but separation, distance, longing. Doubts slither through the sand, leaving trails and markings on my soul: Is this really the one true Church? Should you be praying to Mary, honoring her, even though it is not worship? What about the saints? Are you sure Christ was the Messiah? Are you sure the stories are true? What if he never died? Never rose? Are you sure you are right? What if you aren’t? You can’t even believe the basics, what makes you think you could be a nun? Or a wife and mother, teaching her children?

It is Sunday and the desert and the doubts keep coming, and I keep kneeling, praying, pressing, frantically fighting to hold on. I ask God to give me the strength to pray, to give me the strength to become a saint, to give me the strength to believe. And I feel, faint like summer wind, a stirring and a silent voice, whispering in the depths of me: “I AM.”

I stop, resting, exhausted. The voice gets louder, repeating, “I AM.”

“I AM.”

I listen, my soul becoming a burning bush, flaming but not consumed. I remember Moses who fled to the desert and stayed for years, and then suddenly one day God showed up in a burning bush and said, “I AM.” And Moses left the desert, slowly, warily, fearfully, but he left. Maybe this is the beginning of my leaving… this time.

Later Kim calls and I go to his apartment. He holds me and sings me Frank Sinatra songs. He’s got me under his skin and I like that… a lot. We laugh as I let the desert begin to slip away, let the fire continue to burn away the stagnation, still wondering where he and I will be in a year, but perhaps closer to knowing than I think. Perhaps we both are.

The next day, we rise again separately, early, and disciplined like religious, carrying our rosaries and prayer books and meeting in the chapel to pray for an hour before Mass, surrendering to the God of fire who burns but does not consume, until we ask. I start to realize that all life lived in service to God is sacrifice, because love is sacrifice. All life lived in service to God, whether lay or not, whether as nun or wife and mother, must become a living blaze. So, as I sit next to Kim here in the chapel, I grab his hand before meditative prayer and think that either way I will be okay. I remember that two paths filled with sacrifice and love stretch out before me, both beautiful. And I am not afraid. Even in this receding desert, I am not afraid. I come here and pray, beginning now to ask God to consume me. I tremble, stretch, pour out my soul whether I feel anything or not, drop to my knees and let the flames lick my skin whether I want to burn or not.