Musings of a 22-year-old preparing to enter the convent

Note: This is a letter from Candice Punzalan, a 22-year-old beautiful woman originally from Northern California, who joined the contemplative-active Norbertine Sisters of Wilmington in August 2016, shortly after graduating from Cal State Fullerton. Candice, who served last year as president of the Fullerton Catholic Newman club, sent her story to us just days before she formally entered the convent in Wilmington, California. 

By the time you read this, I will already be in the convent. Most likely. As I write this, I am in Northern California, sitting in my childhood bedroom. The Little House on the Prairie books, high school cross country medals, and Jonas Brothers posters are all still here. The walls are still pink. Everything is the way I left it before I moved to Southern California for college, except now there are cardboard boxes of things packed from my college apartment– accounting textbooks, worn out backpacks and purses, and binders filled with notes – sitting on the carpet. A newly minted college graduate, I am now on vacation, visiting my family and enjoying the freedom from homework, exams, and deadlines. This visit is bittersweet, as I am preparing to embark on a spiritual journey I have been fervently anticipating for over a year, while at the same time I am learning how to say goodbye to my family, friends, and former way of life.

THE DESIRE FOR GREATNESS

Four years ago, I accepted an academic full-ride scholarship to a university in Southern California. It was my golden ticket out of this town. I moved into an apartment in Orange County and got a job on campus that demanded very little and paid a lot. I had it made. Like most ambitious students, my life revolved around personal accomplishments, prestige, and goals. My life revolved around me. “I am a strong woman, a minority, and I am successful. I can do anything,” I thought.

During freshman year, however, I learned that the more I sang my own praises, the harder it became to deal with inevitable failures and disappointments. Due to budget cuts, I lost my student assistant job. I learned the hard way I had zero real friends in this new city. My cohorts in the full-ride scholarship program were landing amazing internships and news features for their volunteer work, and I just didn’t match up.

At my lowest point, I was crying in my car so my roommate wouldn’t see me. I felt so isolated. In hindsight, I was experiencing the consequences of idolizing myself. I made myself into my own god, and I inevitably became frustrated with my human limitations. I was restless, trying to improve myself, pushing myself to live up to my own expectations. I made myself into my own god, and my peace of mind was shaken by the slightest failure. Every time I saw someone more beautiful or more successful, I was consumed by feelings of inferiority. I made myself into my own god, and it enslaved me.

During my sophomore year, my Thursday workout buddy Gaby invited me to a Newman Catholic Club meeting. At the time, I was going to church every Sunday, but it didn’t really effect the way I lived. I agreed to go, just so I could meet a guy she was talking about. While there, I was surprised by how genuinely nice these people were. During conversations, they wouldn’t cut each other off. In our Bible studies, we weren’t competing to have the most impressive response. Sometimes someone would speak up simply to affirm what someone else had said. My hardened heart was shocked by how much they seemed to care about each other. After every meeting they invited me to get frozen yogurt with them, and instead of gossiping, they told stories and bantered with each other. It came so naturally too: these guys weren’t trying to be welcoming and joyful. They just were welcoming and joyful. I noticed something in them I hadn’t found in any other student group I had tried out. Happy to be away from a cutthroat environment, I looked forward to these meetings every Thursday.

WALKING ON WATER

Unbeknownst to me, the third Thursday of every month was Adoration night for the Newman Club. I had no idea what Eucharistic Adoration was until Father Aaron, our chaplain, ceremoniously walked into our meeting room, approached the altar set up in the front of the room, and placed the Eucharist in a gold monstrance for us to see. The classroom lights were dimmed and silence coursed through the room. Someone began tenderly strumming worship music on a guitar. “Am I supposed to be kneeling right now? Or can I sit?” I thought. I looked around and saw my friends on their knees before the Eucharist, their eyes reflecting the light of the candles on the altar. I followed their example. Father Aaron walked into an adjacent room to hear confessions and a short line began to form. It was never a priority for me to seek out the sacrament of Reconciliation, but I guess if it’s readily available and my friends are doing it, I might as well get in line, I mused.

When it was my turn, I sat in an empty chair facing Father Aaron. “Bless me Father for I have sinned.” These were words I hadn’t said in five years. I kept my eyes fixed on the tile floor as I listed all the sins I could remember. And when I was done, I grimaced and looked up at him, expecting him to look disgusted or disturbed. I saw none of that in his eyes. Instead he looked at me and smiled, searching my eyes. “Candice, do you know the story of Jesus walking on water?” he asked. I nodded.

He continued: “The disciples are in a boat and they see Jesus from far away, walking on water. Jesus calls Peter, so Peter steps out of the boat and begins to walk on the water toward Jesus. But then Peter starts noticing the waves.”

Father Aaron made a sweeping motion with his arm. “Peter gets distracted and takes his eyes off of Jesus, and then what happens? He begins to sink. But then Peter reaches up with his arm, and calls out, ‘Lord, save me!’ and Jesus pulls Peter out of the water. When Jesus did this, he did not condemn Peter. Instead he said, ‘Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?’”

My eyes began to swell up. I could easily see the parallels in my life.

“Candice, next time you become distracted, I want you to reach up your arm and say, ‘Lord, save me!’” I began to sob as the priest placed his hand on my forehead and absolved me of my sins. I was washed over with the consoling realization that I never had to do anything alone again. I returned to the room where Jesus was present in the Most Blessed Sacrament. I dropped to my knees and cried. I listened to the words being sung by the guitarist in the back of the room – words about mercy and forgiveness and love. I felt as if those songs were written for me. My life changed when I realized I never had to do anything alone again.

TO JESUS THROUGH MARY

My heart was on fire. I wanted to know everything there was to know about prayer and the Catholic Church. In addition to regularly attending the Newman Club meetings, I found myself going to Bible studies and praise and worships with my friends. I started going to Confession at least once a month (conversion is an ongoing thing). I was more attentive during Sunday Mass. Sometimes I would even go to Mass on a weekday. After school and work obligations (I had found another job on campus as a student assistant with really awesome co-workers), I spent most of my time with my Newman Club friends hanging out and learning about our faith. Two girls from Newman, Jessica and Chelsea, invited me to do a Marian consecration with them. “We’re reading 33 Days to Morning Glory by Father Michael Gaitley,” they told me. It entailed reading a few pages every day about the role of Jesus’s mother in our lives – how she can lead us closer to her Son. I was skeptical at first, but after Chelsea told me how Saint (then, Blessed) John Paul II and Mother Teresa were proponents of this, I agreed to join them. We only had one copy of the book among the three of us, but that was all we needed. Since we all lived on campus or across the street, we were able to meet up regularly to read and pray together.

Through this I learned that Jesus lived on Earth for 33 years before undergoing His passion, death, and resurrection. Of these 33 years, He only spent the last three years of His life doing what He is best known for: walking from town to town, working miracles, and preaching to the crowds. He chose to spend thirty years with His mother, Mary. This is the woman He has chosen to bring Him into the world. The woman He has chosen to play an important part in our salvation. From the cross, Jesus gives us Mary to be our mother. During these 33 days with Chelsea and Jessica, I learned that Jesus and Our Lady are not competing for our attention. The more we love Our Lady, the closer we get to Jesus and the more we become like Him. Saint Maximilian Kolbe, a heroic priest who sacrificed himself to save another man’s life in Auschwitz in 1941, said this: “Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.” I took this to heart and began praying the Rosary more often. Also, Jessica and Chelsea became two of my best friends. I like to think Our Lady brought us together because she knew how well we would get along.

BREAKING THE ALABASTER JAR

“Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head, as he sat at table. But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Matthew 26: 6-13)

Sometimes when I am kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, I imagine myself as this woman. I am sitting Jesus’s feet, my arm wrapped around His calf. I imagine the people dining at the table looking at me with pity. I am unimportant in their eyes, even foolish. When they make their remarks about how wasteful I am with my valuables, I just look up at Jesus and He looks upon me. We smile as if we were keeping a secret. The two of us know that I have chosen the better part. From where I sit, I may be misunderstood by the world, but being here allows me greater closeness and intimacy with Jesus.

Of all the women in the Gospels, the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar is the one I relate to most often in prayer. My alabaster jar is filled with my education, the college degree I earned without having to pay a cent of tuition. My alabaster jar is filled with the skills and the potential I was graciously given by God. My alabaster jar is even filled with all the love I have for my family and friends. Everything good and valuable that I claim as my own is in my alabaster jar. And Jesus asks if I will give it to Him.

with great freedom

My college roommate Eliana – affectionately called Ellie – is one of the funniest people I know. One night we were sitting at our kitchen table drinking a glass of wine and commiserating over life’s woes. With a glass of wine in hand Ellie drawled, “You know, sometimes I wish discerning your vocation was like putting on a sorting hat from Harry Potter. You put it on and then poof! You know what you’re supposed to be.” I threw my head back and laughed at the possibility…

One by one, young adults would approach the Sorting Hat and learn of their fate…

SORTING HAT:   CARMELITE!

(A shower of roses falls from the mystical ceiling of the Great Hall.)

SORTING HAT:   FRANCISCAN!

(A long table of bearded men explode with excitement and stomp their sandaled feet. Barnyard animals everywhere rejoice.)

SORTING HAT:   NORBERTINE!

(A table of clean-cut men in white habits boisterously clink their mugs of Leffe beer and let out a roaring “Huj, huj, hajra!” Everyone in the Great Hall shares in their joy.)

(A young lady modestly approaches the SORTING HAT.)

SORTING HAT:   Hmmm…interesting…very interesting. You’re going to join the Sisters of Life, drop out after postulancy, date a chastity speaker for a couple years but eventually marry…that guy over there!

(Everyone turns to see who the SORTING HAT is pointing to.)

RANDOM GUY IN LINE FOR THE SORTING HAT:   Um, what?

(End scene.)

Ellie and I together could make a great Catholic satire of Harry Potter. Just imagine all the saints roaming through the halls and the moving portraits of Catholic art in the common rooms. Pope Francis would be Dumbledore. (Okay, prudence suggests I stop right there before I commit further sacrilege.)

Ellie and I only shared an apartment for the past year and yet it feels like we shared so much of our lives together. Whenever we were both home, we would make tea for each other, sit at the kitchen table, and talk about everything: the books we read, our prayer, our relationships, her preparation to be a special education teacher, my application for the Norbertine Sisters. We can both laugh at our Harry Potter shtick because we both know how ridiculous and uncharacteristic of God it would be to work this way. Sure, it would save us some trouble if we were told immediately which path would best lead to our sanctification and happiness. But we know that God loves us and gives us the freedom to make our own choices.

(A Norbertine priest from St. Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, CA gave a great homily emphasizing the freedom we have in choosing our vocation. You can read it about it here.)

Many of my family members and friends are worried about the restrictions I will take up after entering the convent, namely the restrictions on communication with the outside world. I will only be allowed a certain number of phone calls and home visits per year. To this, St. John Paul II responds: “Love consists of a commitment which limits one’s freedom – it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one’s freedom on behalf of another.” (Love and Responsibility)

So there you have it. I have a hard time thoroughly answering my family and friends’ concerns because I don’t know exactly what the future holds. I only know how much Jesus’s love has changed my life and how much I want to give my alabaster jar to the One who has been so generous with me.

So it is with great freedom that I am giving this life a shot. I want to assure all of my family and friends of my love and prayers for them. I am indebted to the Newman Catholic Club, the FOCUS missionaries, the Norbertines, and so many others for being instruments of God’s love in my life.

I humbly ask you for your prayers as I take the next step in this spiritual journey. May we always give all glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Lover of books, wandering, music, coffee and Jesus. I'm a curious storyteller with (and a child at) heart. www.allyson-rae.com

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