A Persistent God

sr-virgine-elkingBy Sister Virgine Elking
I have a sister who is two years younger than I am. Although we are the closest in age, we are the farthest apart in everything else. She loves cats, I prefer dogs. She likes mysteries, I prefer other novels. If she wanted to see a movie, I wanted to go to a dance. So when at age six she declared, “I am going to be a Sister,” I knew immediately I would NEVER be a Sister.

In fifth grade, I had read all the Sue Barton and Cherry Ames books (about nurses) and I knew exactly what I was going to do. I was going to be a nurse, marry a tall, dark handsome man and have five boys. Jim, Jack, Joe, Bob and Bill.

In 8th grade, Sister Marie Billiart had us say a short prayer everyday. “Teach me, O Lord, to do your will, because you are my God.” But under my breath, I would add, “Don’t you dare want me to be a nun because I want to be a nurse.”

As the eighth grade drew to an end, Sister encouraged me to enter the Notre Dame preparatory school in Reading, Ohio. “No,” I declared emphatically. “I am not going to be a Sister. I’m going to be a nurse.” No amount of persuasion would change my mind.

At that time in the Catholic Church, each month was dedicated to some religious practice. March was the month we prayed for religious vocations and had to sit through zillions of vocation talks. I was a sophomore and after listening to so many, I told my homeroom teacher, “I am sick and tired of listening to vocation talks. I am not going to another one.” “That’s all right,” she assured me. “We aren’t having any more.”

So much for that! On March 31 the principal made an announcement, “All girls, please return to your homerooms, and then proceed to the auditorium. Two Glenmary missionaries are here to give a vocation talk.” I couldn’t get to Sister Roseanna’s desk fast enough. “I am not going. You said I didn’t have to.” She countered, “Well, you’ll have to. I cannot leave you up here alone.”

I knew better than to argue. “I’ll sit back and go to sleep.” That is exactly what I did. As soon as I was seated, I closed my eyes and fell asleep.

“You back there, Wake up! You have a vocation.” Startled out of my nap, I jumped up and in a loud voice, declared, “No, I don’t.” All the girls around me who heard it, giggled. I realized what had happened. I was so embarrassed; I wanted to slink under the seat but I didn’t fit, so I had to settle for slouching as low as I could.

The booming voice continued, “Not the girl in front of you, not the girl next to you, not the girl behind you. You have the religious vocation.” I looked who was sitting in front of me and shook my head. I glanced at the two sitting next to me. Nope, not them either. I turned my head to see who was sitting behind me. For sure, not her either. But I don’t either. Period.

I never heard another word Father Howard or Sister Mary Catherine said. All I could hear was a pounding in my brain that kept repeating, “You have a religious vocation.”

I tried to put it out of my mind, but occasionally during the next two years, that hounding phrase would return, “You have a vocation.” And every time I responded “No, I don’t.”

My senior year was approaching. Family members, friends, began to ask, “What are you going to do when you graduate?” I would respond, “I’m going to nursing school at St. E’s,” but rather weakly and not with much determination.

So one afternoon on my way home from school, I stopped in the parish church to make a visit. “God,” I begged, “Help me settle this once and for all. I really don’t want to go to the convent. I want to be a nurse, get married, have five sons. You know.”

Although I had knelt before the Blessed Virgin altar, I did not gaze upon her statue. Instead I kept looking at the crucifix that had been placed on the altar beneath her feet. The longer I sat there, the more I realized that God loved me so much that He had sent Jesus to die for me. “God, I can never love you that much in return. What can I do for you to show that I do love you?”

I lowered my head and put my hands over my ears. It didn’t make any difference. I heard the response in my heart. “Be a Sister and help Me do my work.”

I was about as stubborn as God was persistent. “Mary, you help me out of this mess. Look, I’ll make a bargain. If I am really to enter the convent, then you make sure I get elected president of the Sodality. I will even make a novena to show that I am sincere about this. If I get elected, I promise I will enter the convent to see if being a Sister is for me.”

I was safe and I knew it. Barbara was going to be elected president of the sodality. The girls had already talked about it. Sure enough, I made the novena and Barbara got elected president.

“Whew,” I sighed with relief. Now I could start making those plans to enter nursing school.

“Mary Catherine, Father Bill wants to see you in the rectory,” my mother informed me. We lived right behind the rectory, so I went right over.

I turned pale and thought I was going to faint, “Mary Catherine, Barbara doesn’t want to be president of the sodality. She’s too involved in other projects. So you are now the president of the Sodality. Congratulations. Are you all right?”

“No, I think I’m going to faint.” I explained to him what had happened – how I had bargained with God and the Blessed Mother.

He wasn’t a bit sympathetic. In fact he laughed. “God surely has a sense of humor doesn’t He? Well, you better start making arrangements. If there is anything I can do to help, just let me know.”

At the family reunion that summer, people were making bets as to how long I would stay. Most agreed that it would be no longer than a week. Uncle Farry had a little more faith in me. I give her two weeks.”

“Well, I’ll show them. I’ll stay three weeks even if it kills me.”

That was 58 years ago. Those years have been filled with many blessings and graces. 32 of them have been spent teaching. Years of touching young people’s lives forming them into good Christians. 15 years I served as a chaplain. Those were the happiest and most fulfilling years of my life. Imagine being at the bedside of more than 350 people when they died.

I hadn’t let God off the hook when he tricked me, so I complained. “What do I get for giving up my family and friends, my dreams of being a nurse, getting married and having five sons?” His answer was in Matthew’s Gospel. “Whoever gives up his mother and father for my sake will receive a hundred fold and life everlasting.” Know what? I discovered Jesus doesn’t know math very well. I have received a hundred fold over and over again. As for the children, “Well, I have had hundreds and hundreds of children too – not only Jim, Jack Joe, Bob and Bill, but Tom, Peter, Fred, Sean, Doug and girls too – Susie, Jackie, Mary, Kathy, Liz, etc.

In conclusion, I’m glad God was persistent.

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