The morning light is beginning to come early these mid-spring mornings. By six o’ clock, a warm glow infuses our room through the east window. I’ve long wanted to establish a habit of rising with the dawn but could never seem to develop the discipline to consistently do so. Now, another feature to my morning, more persuasive than the light, enjoins me to wake, ready or not. My three-month old son, Eli, a champion night sleeper, has yet to pick up on the appeal of sleeping in. The dawn beckons him and he awakes, without regard for rough nights or weekends. It’s taken his demanding (adorable) presence to help me begin the practice that I romantically imagined I would do for sheer love of the day.
It is all very well and good to dream of what we would do for love; it is something entirely and astoundingly different to do it. It is often less dramatic and more difficult, less immediately satisfying and ultimately more fulfilling. As Dostoevsky so aptly wrote, and Dorothy Day so often quoted, “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” These two had quite a flair for the dramatic themselves. Love is not always a harsh and dreadful thing, though it certainly can be. Love in reality is a small thing compared to love in dreams, small as a mustard seed, and not always as desirable or easy to identify as love in dreams.
When I was a child, I didn’t think in terms of vocation. But I can say that, interspersed with fancies of being a writer, a botanist, a singer, an actress, and so on, I had an abiding sense of call to be someone who loved and cared for others (often imagined in the form of cradling orphans and practiced in the form of walking around the neighborhood looking for wounded birds to rescue). As I stretched into my twenties, without a prospective life partner and with an ever-growing sense of the aching needs in the world, I imagined myself into various roles that would satisfy that desire to be loving. I never had a clear sense of what particular field I was called into but felt a kinship with St. Thérèse of Lisieux and her proclamation that her vocation was, “Love Itself!” My dreams of how to fill that call ranged from hungering to imitate the life of Thomas Merton, dwelling in a hermitage, living without distraction, devoted to communion with God and nature and writing; to boldly placing myself in regions of violent conflict, protecting the innocent and fighting for justice with a Ghandian fidelity to nonviolence; to emulating Dorothy Day in establishing houses of hospitality and integrating the Works of Mercy into every aspect of my daily life. I imagined really learning to live simply and commune with strangers by going on “pilgrimage,” travelling without money, working and begging, praying and fellowshipping as I went. I imagined sacrifice and tears and passion, revelation and communion with humanity and the earth and ultimately with the Creator. Powerful stuff. Harsh and dreadful and heroic.
So which of these grand endeavors am I doing now? You may very well ask. I answer with a knot in my stomach and a lump in my throat, “none of the above.” What I am doing is living in a comfortable home with a gentle husband, a precocious infant and another young couple with whom we share resources and decisions. Together we live on a 22-acre cemetery with a fabulous garden and fledgling orchard which we’ve been given stewardship of by the three relatively (in)famous activist women who, in an object lesson of detachment from personal possessions, handed over their beautiful house and their mantel and moved to the little cottage directly next door.
I have a contradictory feeling of gratitude and disappointment. The comfort and beauty of the space I share leaves my dramatic side feeling deflated. The ever-present relationships leave my introspective side feeling invaded. Yet, somehow, I do believe I am where I am because of vocational moments when I was called upon and answered, “Here I am.” I don’t think my earlier dreams invalid, or even completely off the table. For the present though, I wonder if what I am being asked is to engage with the practices of love that those dreams proposed in ways that are more immediate, simple, humble and, for me, more challenging. Though my dream lifestyles demanded courage and physical sacrifice, they let me off the hook on one of love’s essential requests, perhaps even requirements—that thing which above all ripens the spiritual fruit of patience, perseverance, trust, gentleness, humility—commitment to and cooperation with others, commitment not just in the moment, but over time.
The commitments I have felt called to (and which I questioned and resisted before giving my “Yes”) have forced me to confront my idealized forms of love and forge a path to practice them in reality. While I imagined myself making room in my life and home for strangers, I struggle to live in community even with like-minded friends. While I wax eloquent of embracing all humanity as brothers and sisters, I sometimes feel intruded on by my own expanding family. While I can imagine conjuring the courage to face violence and live in solidarity with people in distant lands, I am afraid to walk the streets and connect with neighbors in my own West Baltimore neighborhood. I imagined a solitary life would be most conducive to prayer and devotion, but it is having a child that finally made the invitation to wake with the dawn irresistible.
In his book, The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times, the late Dean Brackley, S.J., writes, “My vocation… will not be something I just up and decide on, like picking out a shirt in a store. My vocation is something I discover…. We discover our callings in response to the world… our surroundings shake us, sift us, and draw our vocations from us.” Where I am today is part of the unfolding and evolving of the “Yes” I proclaimed when feeling a sense of call at different points in my life, knowing and unknowing what that commitment would mean. The opportunities to practice radical love and to conspire with God in meeting the needs of creation abide and beckon, coaxing me, like the dawn, to awaken.
My marriage with Ted, and the birth and life of Eli have shown me that it is possible to make room where there seemed to be no room, whether in a womb, in a busy day, or in plans for the future. They have revealed to me that committed love is deeper and broader than the initial feelings that brought us to it and that it is possible to have a stronger desire to meet another’s needs than to have my own met and to find my own joy in another’s smile. Perhaps present circumstances are a training ground for something more, perhaps they are more than enough in themselves. In any case, I can avoid the challenges before me by continuing to ask, “Did I make the right choices?” Or, I can close the door I’ve walked through and recognize that the real question is, “How do I live deeply into that ‘Yes’? What will it look like for me to embrace love in reality over love in dreams?”