One night, while greeting the audience after a concert, an attendee grasped my hand, eyes wet with tears, and said, “That changed my life.” I smiled and thanked them as they headed towards the door. “I don’t believe that,” I said to myself, having immediately turned on my heels and headed backstage. “Tomorrow will be just like every other day, and we’ll both probably be miserable.”
I was performing well over 100 concerts a year with a storied classical music ensemble in amazing concert halls, traveling the world, and singing quite literally at the top of my game. I was also, however, utterly exhausted. Singing—for one from whom song bubbled unconsciously—had at last become very hard work. As much as I loved classical music (and singing in particular), we should have divorced a few years earlier than we did. I, however, being raised just enough above the poverty line to appreciate my good fortune and decidedly upward social mobility, was loathe to let go of what little comfort and status my position afforded me. As the gospel says, the one who would save his life will lose it, and the one who gives his life will gain it.
Here, I should mention that during the summer of 2011, on a tour which brought us through the Alps, I had a numinous experience of unity. As these are notoriously failed by language, I won’t bother to add my attempted narration to the pile. The shortest version of that telling is that something shifted deeply within me: it were as though someone had set an alarm-timer on my ability to engage with my life from the metaphor of the stage.
Needless to say, that experience inspired a decentralizing period whose epiphanies, combined with my exhaustion, culminated in my inward “miserable” response to someone’s legitimate emotional opening to musical beauty. I confess, it was not one of my proudest moments.
Unwilling to loose my white-knuckled grip on what was clearly no longer for me, when I finally did manage to “retire” from singing, I spent some time floundering personally. I had a “day job” (as performers call them) immediately following my full-time gig, but I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself. So constant had music been that its absence was destabilizing.
After much inward searching, the only identity on which I could settle, the only one that didn’t fade away in different perspectives, was “helper.” I breathed a deep sigh of relief the day my personal prayer revealed this to me. It were as though at last so much emotional clutter had been cleared away. I had been granted the grace of this knowledge, and I would be a help wherever I could.
I shifted my professional focus into caregiving, coordinating services and providing advocacy for elders or others of limited independence. Meanwhile, I was also trained and commissioned as a Stephen Minister. In my personal prayer and study life, I felt as though I were being guided away from abstract concepts and into more concrete practice of what I would now call Incarnationism: namely, the agreement to act, in the world as it is, as the mystical body of Christ.
Singing one day a week didn’t seem too much to ask, and hardly seemed coming out of retirement , so another of the ways I was most quickly able to implement my newly-adopted “helper” identity was in lending my voice in whatever capacity was lacking any Sunday in the choirs at Church of the Atonement in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago. The Church of the Atonement is also by Grace certainly, and not by chance, the manger parish of the Community of the Mother of Jesus (CMJ), in which I am a professed member.
I became associated with CMJ as though by a figurative message from Angel Gabriel, as befits our charism. In a brief chance discussion with one of the “companions”, I became deeply curious about what would become the Community of my profession, as if a yearning to know had been kindled within me. The companion had given me a business card at our meeting whereupon as if by providence was printed the Community’s web address (www.cmjreligious.org).
When I read about the rule of life, Mary’s Way of Discipleship, and our Community’s special vows (Justice, Humility, Tenderness, and Contemplation), I felt that fire earlier kindled ignite my heart entirely aflame, and I couldn’t be in touch with my now-Steward Guardian quickly enough. In remembering this time post-profession, it touches my heart to know that my profession name and the name of my special patron, Blessed Archangel Uriel, means “God is my light”, and Uriel’s iconography almost always includes Holy Flame.
Being formed in my Community’s charism means having a special devotion to Our Lady, which lives itself out in as many different ways as there are members. For my part, I like to say, “Smashing the Patriarchy by living the Magnificat,” to be provocative, but Mary’s Way of Discipleship* is a gentle (which is not to say easy!) method of spiritual formation and transformation, and one especially meaningful to those, like me, in need of a spiritual Mother. As we follow Mary in the Way, while we may rest assured that the Way will always be full of grace, it may not always be full of comfort. Following Mary still means following Jesus, and though the Resurrection is much cause for rejoicing, we may not attain it without first weeping with her at Calvary.
When a novice professes, to mark the occasion with solemnity, they are given both a patron name (in my case Uriel), and a Marian title (in my case Mater Dolorosa, or “Mother of Sorrows”). To stand beneath the cross with Mary is a vocation deep inside the call to a prayerful life. To be witness to the utter calamity that is the Crucifixion Event is to call us into another of God’s Holy Paradoxes: that in opening ourselves to co-suffer Christ’s Crucifixion, in truly mourning our grief, in refusing like Mary to run from the foot of the Cross, but instead by rooting ourselves in deepest suffering, we become strong in an ironic way: able in “weakness” to help bear the grief of others.
The call to serve Christ’s people is also a call to be of help especially to the ones who, like Christ Crucified, cause us shame simply by beholding them: the wounded, the homeless, the disenfranchised, the sick, the forgotten old, the complete failures. In CMJ terminology, this is the “Neighbor in Need” to whom we reach out, and there are so many. The harvest is plentiful, as the gospel says, but the laborers are few. Ours is not to do all the work. Ours is to do only that which we are called, which in the case of living out the vocation of my name, seems to be to burn and to weep.
*Mary’s Way of Disipleship includes: 1. The Way of the Annunciation; 2. The Way of the Visitation; 3. The Way of the Nativity; 4. The Way of the Presentation; 5. The Way of the Finding in the Temple; 6. The Way of Cana; 7. The Way of Calvary; 8. The Way of the Resurrection; 9. The Way of Pentecost; 10. The Way of the Desert.
You can find more about the Community of the Mother of Jesus here @ https://www.cmjreligious.org/