Years of Choice and Grace

The following blog was contributed by Sr. Mary Paul McCaughey, coordinator of DePaul University Catholic Educational Leadership Programs and author of the new book, Grace and Guts for School Leaders: Practical Prayers.

At 72 years old and almost 54 years after entering the convent, I am still clueless about my vocation. This is an honest clueless which I hope is not disappointing to those wishing something profound – and I trust that is okay with God. My vocation is simply a grace and a choice.

At 17, existential angst was the order of the day. Like Sartre in Nausea, even my death would have been “in the way.” Laughable now having lived a while, but desperately sincere at the time, my choice of God – and, in retrospect, the imperative of giving my young life completely in service as validating the belief in a living God – meant taking the leap and joining the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois. If this came as a cause for laughter for some (my best friend’s mom hiccupped herself off the sofa), it was not a huge shock to my boyfriend or my dad, both of whom knew I had to try it…and told me that I would always be welcomed home.

From there, it was Merton, scripture and secular and spiritual writers to feed an immature but willing soul. Blessed in role models within the community, learning to be professional and trying to be kind was the order of the day for young adulthood as it still is for me today. The winds of Vatican II had blown through the windows but saying “yes” to needs of the community remained a constant, a curb still for a rather independent spirit trained as a waitress (everyone should be) and willing to meet new people while passing the hors d’oeuvres.

Since being sent to teach fifth-graders at age 20 (bless their very dear and patient hearts, soon to be facing retirement), it was off to seventh graders (endurance), then high schoolers at all levels and ministry itself became grace and formation. Born in the daily work, there is innate gratitude for the rhythms of ministry, the seasons of the heart of serving kids in the now and for the future. As a teacher now at the graduate level, this very direct call to individual and communal transformation remains powerful. I may not remember every name, but even neuroscience tells me that every moment is indelible in my brain.

A bit of Holy Spirit (thank you, my Dear!) works outside of the classroom too. While I always wanted to be a counselor, I was to spend 30 years in administration as a high school president and principal then superintendent of schools, trying desperately to see God in the cracks of life, the face of Jesus in working to steer systems. It is a part of a single fabric – serve as called, as you can. These years brought me deep pain, not in doubting my call to religious life, but in not being able to do enough or even very well.  Out of this well of experience has come a sense that we simply do our best in all arenas and then trust God for the work. There are a million things I would have done differently, but I was not that person then and I simply need to ask forgiveness and lean into integrity again.

Life has been as St. Bridget of Kildare wrote, “a great lake of beer for the King of Kings.” Seriously. A lake. Beer. Years of choice and grace have been an opportunity to live and serve and love all in my path. The love was sometimes angry, always imperfect, but still real. Because I lived, gifted with family, community, co-workers, my friends, students and the breath of God, I have drunk deeply of the lake. If drinking up has left me clueless, it has also provided me with thousands of songs from the bar….and a true (if sometimes tipsy) joy.