A Call to Greater Love and Intimacy – Sr Karen Theresa, FSP

A Call to Greater Love and Intimacy – Sr Karen Theresa, FSP

When I was in Primary 6, a friend wrote in my birthday card, “I have come so that you may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). I was intrigued at what this could possibly mean. It was not until many years later when I was in vocational discernment that it dawned on me that no ordinary person would be able to deliver on that promise.

I grew up in a Taoist family and followed all the practices of the religion as part of our family custom. As I was growing up, I recall reading something about Jesus and feeling an attraction to him but this interest quietly faded due to a lack of direction. When I was in Secondary school, I started to ask questions about the Taoist and Buddhist religions since these were part of my immediate environment but remember being dissatisfied with the answers. My desire to know God grew stronger even as the proper direction and answers seemed out of reach. Somehow I knew there had to be a God ‘out there.’

…if all of Christianity is contained in a book, I can certainly read it by myself and do not need classes.

My Search for God

I had the opportunity to take up Religious Education in Secondary 3. I ignored Bible Studies, mistakenly thinking, “Oh, if all of Christianity is contained in a book, I can certainly read it by myself and do not need classes.” I chose Buddhist studies because I was determined to unravel the mystery of the religious practices I grew up with. Before the classes were over, I was totally sold and became a Buddhist. I felt that I had finally found the meaning of life by following the Way to attain Enlightenment – the ultimate fulfillment. I believed in doing good deeds, having compassion for all and embraced the idea that I was responsible and able to work for my personal Enlightenment. I greatly appreciated the sense of universal interconnectedness. However, the one thing Buddhism did not answer for me was the question of creation. I remember studying this: ‘Where did we come from? Does the answer help you in achieving Enlightenment? No, and if so, there is no need to ask that question.’ I shelved that issue for another day.

Discovering the Way as a Person – Jesus Christ

When I was studying in Singapore Polytechnic, I had two good friends, Susan and Theresa, who were Catholic. Their faith did not have an impact on my life until the day they decided to pray the Rosary with The Legion of Mary at lunchtime. I didn’t want to eat alone and decided to hang around with them. As I watched them pray the Rosary, I sensed a sacredness and intimacy. This became a regular practice for my friends and before long, I started to ask questions about the Rosary, which led to questions about the Virgin Mary, God and his son, Jesus. In my years of growing up, I had ‘met’ this Christian God through people who approached me in school and at MRT stations but they were often too aggressive for me. I was upset as I felt harassed by them. The vibe I got was ‘repent or go to hell’ and I felt pressured to ‘accept Jesus’ immediately. I argued with many zealous evangelisers and grew increasingly resistant towards God and his son Jesus. I could not accept a God who would sacrifice the life of his only Son – not a very loving thing to do! Granted, he did it for us, for me, but in my rational approach, I could not accept nor see beyond this harsh reality – I simply could not grasp the love behind the mystery.

Strangely, however, whenever my Catholic friends spoke to me about God the Father and Jesus his son through the eyes of Mary, my heart softened and was awakened to God. In between our classes, Susan and Theresa would tell me more about Jesus. Their love for Jesus and the life­ giving personal relationships they shared with him were tangible and inspiring to me. Finally, I experienced and accepted God as love and there was simply no turning back. In Catholicism, I discovered a God who loves me, a God who wants to be in relationship with me. Even though Buddhism made some sense and I had embraced it for a few years, there was no personal love, no personal relationship with God – the One who created me and loves me, the One with whom I am meant to be for all eternity. I remember vividly the first time Susan brought me to a Catholic Church. Kneeling before my God present in the tabernacle, I knew in my heart that I had come home.

The most intriguing thing I learned was that Jesus was truly present in the Bread (Eucharist) that was given in Communion. I can’t explain why this great leap of logic did not faze me. As I look back now in gratitude, I realise that it truly was grace and grace alone. I started going for Mass on Sundays. Theresa had taught me to pray an act of spiritual communion with Jesus when it was time for others to receive Holy Communion and I prayed it with all my heart. But week after week, as I watched others stand in line to receive Jesus, I felt my own longing grow. I knew I had to take the next step of faith – to be baptised.

In the meantime, I read the autobiography of St Theresa of the Child Jesus. My heart resonated with her sentiments as I too desired to belong totally to Jesus, to become holy and to draw many souls to Jesus! In this resonance, the tiny seed of a religious vocation was awakened in me. On 24 December 1992, I was baptised Theresa and received my long-awaited First Communion.

I was 25 and felt that my life was really taking off. I looked forward to all that life promised – marriage, children, a fulfilling career – these would be more than enough for me.

Discovering the Call

After my conversion to the faith, I finished my Diploma in Biotechnology and worked in a research lab for a while before going on to University to pursue my love for the Life Sciences. After graduation, I got a job at an exciting biological research lab. I was 25 and felt that my life was really taking off. I looked forward to all that life promised – marriage, children, a fulfilling career – these would be more than enough for me. In fact, I got so caught up with life, friends and endless other concerns that some other things started to slip away. Things like God, my relationship with Jesus – all that truly mattered, if only I could pause for a minute in my hectic life to realise.

On the surface, I seemed fine – I was young, had a promising career and was financially well off. I had moved away from home, shared an apartment with a friend and was living up my newfound freedom. Who would have guessed that deep inside were doubts that would creep up on me occasionally. The restlessness frightened me and I thought, “Surely there is something wrong with me. Everyone else seems just fine with what I have. I should be satisfied. Who am I to be different, to think there could be more?” What I tried to brush off as boredom, burnout or restlessness always returned to haunt me. But what is restlessness? As St Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

There were so many voices competing for my attention – society, peers, family, expectations, momentary pleasures. I was trying to fill myself up with one thing after another only to wind up emptier than before. Nothing seemed to fit because I was looking in all the wrong places. I had lost sight of the one true source of Life – Jesus.

Although I enjoyed my work, it was not life-giving for me. As I poured more hours and energy into my career, I was seized by a growing emptiness and the realisation that I only have one life. I wanted to spend it on something I truly believed in, something worth dying for. With my quarter­-life crisis – a crisis of identity and the meaning of my life – I hit rock-bottom.

I found myself revisiting that inner voice of conviction I had when preparing for baptism – of belonging totally to Jesus. My answer was already a definite ‘yes’ although my understanding of it and my actions certainly had a lot of catching up to do. The Shepherd came in search of me and was calling my name again because my ears had grown dull to his Voice.

I finally turned to Jesus again and found myself spending time before the Blessed Sacrament. I was uncertain of what I would find but I knew that if anyone had an answer, Jesus did. In time, I renewed my relationship with Jesus and in utter brokenness, asked to know once again his plan for my life – truly His will for me and not my own misguided attempts. I found myself home once more in his abundant love, outpoured from the Blessed Sacrament.

Sr Karen on summer mission in the Philippines

Responding to the Call

I realised that my attraction to religious life had come and gone over the past nine years. The lack of clarity, my timidity and the incredulity of it all had kept me from speaking seriously to anyone about it. Many times, I looked through the Catholic directory and considered calling up religious orders to find out more but I never mustered the courage to call nor did I make time in my busy schedule to really check them out. I was about to give up on the whole idea of religious life when I met the Daughters of St Paul at a book display at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in 2001. I was immediately attracted to their Eucharistic spirituality and that sufficiently motivated me to learn more. I requested information via mail – simple and harmless, I thought. I never expected Sr Jocelyn, the vocation directress, to invite me over for a chat. It really took off from there. I shared with her my deepest desires, those I had kept secret for so long because I thought them too unbelievable to be true. To my great relief, they did not seem so strange to Sr Jocelyn as she patiently listened. I felt a burden lifted from me as I could finally acknowledge the soft promptings Jesus had been placing in my heart all those years. My desire for a total consecration to Jesus was re-ignited as I began my vocational discernment with the Daughters of St Paul.

A powerful experience that also increased my vocational awareness was the tragedy of September 11, 2001. I grieved for the people who perished in such senseless cruelty and felt a growing heaviness that nothing in our world would ever be right again. But in the midst of this darkness, I discovered an inextinguishable hope within and realized that Jesus himself was sustaining me with his love. And what I had, I wanted so badly to share with everyone. From this experience, I grew convinced of the meaning of my existence: to spend my life so that all may come to know Jesus and his infinite love for them.

Why did I join the Daughters of St Paul? As my discernment with the Sisters continued, I felt a right ‘fit’ with their spirituality and mission. I spent time with the Sisters, participating in their life and mission whenever I could, mostly on weekends. I sensed Jesus showing me that it was as a Daughter of St. Paul that I would best serve him and share him with the world. The words of our Founder, Blessed James Alberione, aptly express it: “The mind, heart and soul of an apostle is filled with Jesus Christ, Way, Truth and Life. No longer able to contain herself or her treasure, there is a spreading and overflowing of it towards others. She wants everyone to share her riches, and therefore searches for the best and fastest means.”

And how did I know when it was time to take the leap?Naturally, in the one and a half years that I was discerning my vocation with the Daughters of St Paul, there were moments of fear, doubt and hesitation. But Jesus in the Eucharist was ever faithful and always reassured me with these words, “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” The abiding peace I experienced in prayer eventually triumphed over my doubts and fears and I found myself unable to resist him any longer. I broke the news to my family and friends and amidst their mixed reactions, I still found the courage to join the Daughters of St Paul.

Sr Karen in Italy preparing for her perpetual vows

The Journey of Formation

The time of preparation to become a Daughter of St Paul includes two years of postulancy followed by two years of novitiate after which first vows are taken, if God so wills. These years are an ongoing deeper discernment within the community of Sisters.

I arrived in Boston, USA, in August 2003, not knowing what to expect (60 Sisters!) but was warmly welcomed and felt very much at home. Each day, we make an hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament – truly the highlight of my day! Since we are an active-apostolic congregation, we also participate in active ministry, although in these initial years of formation, we spend more time on study and reflection.

My experiences of our mission so far include communicating Christ through book exhibits, Baby Jesus parties (where kids come to our book centers to have their picture taken with Baby Jesus in celebration of his birthday), Christmas concerts, vocation talks and Eucharistic adoration in parishes. Our Founder said, ‘love is creative’ and these varied experiences truly manifest the creative love and collaboration of many Sisters!

In postulancy, I worked part­-time in the Marketing  Department of our Publishing  House. In our mission-oriented  viewpoint, marketing helps  awaken in people their innate desire for God by offering them an experience of God through forms of media such as books, music, radio and the internet. I also spent a month with our community in Miami, Florida, serving in our Pauline Book & Media Center. There, I learnt that all hurdles (mostly linguistic, since we serve a 60% Hispanic population in Miami) could be overcome with warm smiles, a willingness to ask for help and the ability to laugh about our miscommunications. It is a joy to invite people to visit the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel of our book center!

During these years, our classes on scripture, the catechism, church history, our Pauline history and spirituality, human and spiritual formation have enabled me to deepen my relationship with the Lord, helping me recognise his presence in my life and in the lives of the people I meet.

Living in community is a big part of religious life. I am blessed to live with postulants, novices and professed Sisters of varied ages, cultures and backgrounds. There is never a dull moment! Of course there are bound to be differences and areas of friction. But moments of tension are also beautiful opportunities to give and receive love and forgiveness as we grow in a spirit of reconciliation, unity and collaboration. There is such strength and joy in sharing the same mission and living a community life centered on Jesus! The years since I joined the community have been the most intense and beautiful in my life, filled with much love and joy, even amid life­giving challenges.

I began the novitiate in August 2005 and have entered deeply into this intense time of prayer, reflection and study of the history, charism and constitutions (rule of life) of the Daughters of St. Paul. God’s all-sufficient love energises me and is helping me grow in freedom to be more fully who he created me to be. Jesus our Divine Master is the Way, Truth and Life and it is he who forms us to be effective apostles integrated in mind, will and heart, “until Christ is formed in me” (Gal 4:19). Formation is only the beginning of a life-long process of “putting aside the old person and putting on the new” (Col 3:10). Ultimately, vocation is not about what I can do but about who I am and whose I am.

So why do people become Sisters? For me, it began when I experienced the life-changing love of Jesus and fell in love with Him. I realised that nothing less than belonging totally to him would fulfill me. While I was discerning my vocation, it was evident to my colleagues that I was in love although I did not reveal the identity of my Beloved. I did not have the words back then to explain why I was entering religious life but this is how I would explain it now. At the heart of my religious consecration is a passionate love for Jesus, not of my own initiative but because he loved me first and gave himself for me. He invites me to a greater intimacy with him.

When a person hears God’s voice and desires nothing more than to respond to his irresistible call, his loves become her loves, his people become her people.

When a person hears God’s voice and desires nothing more than to respond to his irresistible call, his loves become her loves, his people become her people. She desires to give herself completely so that others will discover his love and find in that love the real meaning of their lives. What lies ahead is unknown but the only certainty that is needed and is promised, is the love of the Lord. “I have come so that you may have life and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). My journey thus far has been one of great joy and adventure in the abiding presence of God. Each day, I experience anew the truth that only Jesus can offer an abundance of life beyond my imagination!

Sr Karen Theresa, FSP

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