By Sr. Andrea Koverman, SC
Two unlikely companions adorn the top of my dresser: a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a little carved marble donkey. Strange as it may seem, they stand together offering me the gift of a shared wisdom.
The mother of one of my best friends gave the statue of Mary to me. It had belonged to her husband’s mother, and was a very special gift at a time when I was doing some serious early discerning about religious life, and sorely missing my own mother, who had died of cancer not long before. By that time, I felt a particular closeness to Mary, though during my early childhood, her total obedience and docility were a bit off-putting. I found it difficult to relate to her because she was so perfect, and I was…well, not. I did my best to imitate her virtues and a simple devotion to her developed from the sense of motherly patience and encouragement that consoled me when I prayed to her for her intercession.
I gradually began to realize that there was much more to this woman than the fairy-tale version I knew as a small child, especially as I began to more seriously consider that I might have a religious vocation. The parallels between Mary’s fiat and discerning a call to religious life become very clear and so helpful in the process that I don’t know a single woman religious that doesn’t recognize the connection between her own “yes” and that of Mary’s. I turned to her time and again and was strengthened by the example of her resolve to set aside whatever fears and doubts she must have had, and her willingness to let go of her future hopes and plans so that she could be God’s handmaid and do God’s bidding. I could imagine her own bewilderment in the change of events in her life that transformed her from a young peasant girl into the mother of God, and how it must have required so much more than a robotic auto-response from someone who had been born in such a state of total perfection that there was no question of what her response would be. I could relate to that real kind of struggle.
The carved donkey came as part of a vow gift from my spiritual director, Sr. Anne Flannagan, SNDdN. I have to admit, I was both baffled and amused when I opened my package and found the statue and a little DeGrazia painting of a girl riding a donkey. I was intrigued, but wondered, “What’s with the donkey theme?” The mystery was finally solved one evening a few weeks later as I came upon one of my journal entries, made during the retreat I took just prior to making my first profession of vows last June.
I remembered that I entered that week feeling very anxious and unsure about taking vows, and really upset to be feeling that way after two challenging years of Novitiate. My journal entries and conversations with Anne were stormy and emotional. I felt a profound sense of longing and loneliness, and I feared religious life might mean feeling like that the rest of my life. I had a litany of complaints as I focused on what was not perfect at that point in my experience, as if I were building a case against making a commitment. I was feeling weighed down by my own pressure to be perfect, to have all the answers, to get it all right, wondering once again if I was making the right decision. To clear my mind and center myself, I spent long days out on the beautiful grounds of the retreat center, soaking up warm sunshine, walking and running the trails through the woods, and sleeping twice the normal number of hours I usually do. I worked on letting go of the need to be sure and to accept a state of uncertainty, praying for the grace to trust that God was with me in all my messiness. As I stopped trying to force a decision, I began to feel reconnected and the joy of being intimately in love with God overtook my anxiety. I reconsidered my options and confirmed that I could not rule this one out, at least not yet. It was still the right choice for right then, and that’s all I needed to know. The future would hold whatever God wanted, and I relinquished control of it once again. I felt peaceful, ready, and incredibly eager to publicly profess my vows. What a rollercoaster ride of a week!
On the last night of the retreat, an optional prayer session using poetry was offered. One of the activities was to choose from an array of pictures clipped from magazines, reflect on what it was about the picture that attracted you, and then write about it. The picture I chose was of a docile little burro, typical of what you might see used for transporting goods in Peru or some other such place. I was attracted to its solid stance, lowered eyes, and attentive ears. That night, I dreamt about a wild little donkey that bucked and kicked and strained against the rope it had been lassoed with. I entered the scene and understanding its fears, was able to calm the donkey down in a way reminiscent of the horse trainer’s ability to silently communicate with a disturbed horse in the movie The Horse Whisperer. Rather than trying to tame it by force, I was very gentle with it. With patience and encouragement, it began to relax and its panicked panting slowed to even breathing. The donkey’s ears pricked forward in curiosity as I moved about. I walked over to a pile of bundles and packages and it followed and allowed me to load them on its back. Then it lowered its furry head so that I could put a bridle and reigns in place. There it stood solidly, a study in tranquility, able to bear the load it was given, listening attentively, and not roaming about but willing to wait to be led to where it would go.
I shared my dream with Anne in our closing conference and was delighted by how neatly and precisely it captured my journey through Novitiate. I keep the statue of Mary and the donkey where I can see them everyday. They remind me always and in a special way during Advent, that I too am called and capable of transformation. When doubts and fears arise, as they certainly will from time to time, when my spirit bucks and resists and it seems safer to run for the hills, they remind me that I want to be God’s handmaid, too, and I must be patient, attentive, and willing not to lead, but to be led. It is the disposition that transformed a peasant into a queen, and a wild animal into one trustworthy enough to carry her.