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Finding the path to God at Notre Dame

Tom Bounds | Thursday, September 17, 2009

In this column, “The Notre Dame They Know,” I will interview individuals who have been influenced by the University of Notre Dame.

I will seek to discover the unique role that Notre Dame has played in their life and vocational journey.

It is hoped that this column will inculcate a deeper, more honest and more profound love for Our Lady and Her University.

The lamp hanging above the Lyons Hall Arch glows orange in the early evening as students bustle beneath the yellow-bricked dormitory on their way across campus.

Through the old wooden door on the left, and down a flight of stairs into the basement, a room marked with a red nameplate stands ajar.

Inside, a small bookshelf doubles as a makeshift altar with a picture of Veronica’s Veil taped to the wall above. The mirror over the sink is covered in brown paper. On a wooden chair, wearing a black-and-white flower print dress and flip-flops, sits Sarah Johnson. Soft-spoken, with dark hair and an easy smile that gives way frequently to laughter, Sarah begins her story.

“I was born in Michigan, and attended Marion High School. I decided to go to Notre Dame because I thought it was pretty and liked that it was Catholic.

“When I first came here I wanted to solve poverty. I was going to study economics and do things … to help individuals get out of their poor economic situations.”

Plans for the future soon changed with a new interest in a life of prayer. “I sought out quiet as a sanctuary from all the constant activities. I started to pray in the chapel and then go to Eucharistic Adoration.

“I realized that Christ who I was praying to in the tabernacle and in Adoration was a person and that He was there and I was talking to Him … and I fell in love.

“Then I knew that I wanted my whole life to revolve around Christ.”

Responding to this sense of vocation, Sarah served with the Missionaries of Charity the summer after her freshman year.

“When I got back to Notre Dame, I was praying about it a lot, and I discovered that this vocation was not my vocation.

“I realized that Christianity is not only about helping people. None of it makes sense unless Christ and prayer and becoming more virtuous and more holy are your goals.

“The world gets so caught up in these misperceptions today, I think. God alone is sufficient; that’s the only thing we should be concerned about.

“I’ve always been struck by the verse in the Gospel that says, ‘Without me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5) I think that needs to be emphasized so much. Apart from God, we can do nothing.”

Soon after, Sarah discerned that her vocation was to the contemplative religious life.

“At first glance,” she says, “the contemplative life is hard to understand, just like the Cross or Christianity.

“But if you’re trying to strive for holiness yourself, you are helping other people to become more holy … you show love to the people around you even if they’re hurting in other ways.

“Especially in America … we don’t recognize that God gives us everything, and that we will only be happy with Him.

“To show this simply by the very fact of what you’re doing, of how you are living as a Carmelite, is a greater service to the poverty in America, because we’re so poor spiritually.”

Sarah intends to graduate from Notre Dame a year early, spend a year working to pay off student loans and enter the Carmelite Monastery in Buffalo, N.Y. in 2011.

On life as a Carmelite, Sarah says, “They live a life of work and prayer in the tradition of St. Benedict. They will do any kind of work that poor people do … working for the bread they eat doing simple things, so they can be mindful of the presence of God.”

This life is not without its sacrifices. You really are making a commitment to leave everything in a pretty radical way,” Sarah comments. “When you take final vows you are committing to living in that monastery for your entire life. You also take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, which allow you to be free to love with your entire being.”

To those seeking help in discerning vocations, Sarah says, “I don’t think that Christ only calls certain people. He calls everyone, and He offers this to everyone.

“Discernment is learning how to be generous in whatever circumstances you find yourself.”

Sarah also encourages education in the Faith as a help in discernment: “The knowledge of the Faith is really knowledge about who you are and who God is. I like what Augustine says: ‘The only way you know God is that you know yourself as being loved by Him.'”

“It’s really hard sometimes,” Sarah concludes. “But I’ve already set my will on it. I’m not going to go back.

“I discovered that God loves me so much. How am I going to respond to that?

“My answer was, ‘I have to do this. I have to give You everything!'”

Thomas Bounds is a senior double majoring in math and philosophy. He can be contacted at [email protected]

Sarah lives in Lyons Hall and can be contacted at [email protected]

She encourages you to read “Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery” by Fr. Richard Butler, OP, available from Tan Books and Publishers, Inc.