Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Ilia's Odyssey: A Vocation Story
Meet Sister Ilia Delio: teacher (chair and professor, Department of Spirituality Studies, Washington Theological Union), author of a number of books on Franciscan themes, and internationally recognized Bonaventure scholar. In addition, she is Director of the Franciscan Center at the WTU. I had the chance to meet with Sister Ilia recently at a Franciscan gathering in Colorado, where she agreed to share her own vocation story:
Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to be a sister, but I didn’t want anyone to know. It was my ‘secret vocation.’ I attended Catholic schools in my hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, and I very much admired the sisters who taught there. After high school , I wanted to join Maryknoll and be a missionary, but I got a definitive ‘no” from my parents. They wanted me to finish my studies first. When I started out in college, I would go to Mass every day, but towards the end, I went through a questioning period about my faith and became more critical about the Church…. But, still, I felt like Jonah in the whale. God was constantly pursuing me.
Then, one day while I was in grad school, I came across an article on Thomas Merton in Time magazine. I was completely mesmerized and immediately went out and got a copy of his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. It was the beginning of the articulation of what I had been feeling and living for so many years. Like Merton, I wanted to renounce everything for God. So I (found out) about a newly-founded group of Discalced Carmelites in Pennsylvania. When I met them, I was attracted to them. Their lifestyle seemed so different from anything I had experienced in ‘the world.’ So I started communicating with them while I was finishing up my doctorate work (in pharmacology). I discerned with them for a year-and-a-half, then entered postulancy.
When I entered the Carmelites, I told my academic colleagues that I was going on a long trip, that I would be in Europe for about three months, but … the reality was that I was in Carmel. Finally, though, I was forced to tell people. I had received a postdoctorate position at John Hopkins University in the neuropathology department. I wrote to the department chair just before I was to start work. They called my former colleagues at Rutgers asking if I had had a nervous breakdown! I had never revealed to anyone that I was even a religious person.
In my years at the monastery, I learned a lot about prayer. When we weren’t working in the garden or the bakery, we were praying—up to six hours a day. During that time, I developed in my relationship with God. But I found it difficult being cloistered, with a grill separating us from visitors. You couldn’t even go out and have a beer with friends! …. Seriously, though, I couldn’t reconcile my understanding of the Incarnation with a lifestyle that was so cut off from the world. There were no magazines or newspapers—just a total spiritualizing of religious life.
Finally, after three years (I was 28 at the time), I asked to take a year’s leave of absence from the community and arranged to live in a convent of German Franciscan sisters (the Franciscan Servants of the Holy Child Jesus)while I worked at Rutgers University. When I met the sisters, at first I thought: “Oh, they’re nice women. They get to drive cars and even go to parties occasionally. I had no inkling or desire to be a Franciscan, though. I thought that these women were just like the Carmelites, but with a more joyous spirit, so I decided to join them. I still had to wear the habit and follow a strict horarium getting up at 4 every morning…. (At one point) my superior called me in and said, “We’d like to send you to studies in spirituality.” I thought that it sounded rather fluffy; I wanted to do an MA in theology instead. So we agreed that I would go to Fordham University—while I was still a second-year novice.
At Fordham, I lived with the Ursuline sisters. When I arrived in my full habit I’m sure they must have been thinking: “What’s wrong with her? She’s young, but in that habit she looks like something out of a museum. “ And I was asking myself: “Are they really religious?” But when we began to live together, I realized that they were quite wonderful women and I love them dearly. I stayed with them for five years, until I finished my comprehensive exams. My community asked me to become vocations director, but I needed time for my dissertation. They told me I had three months to do it, so I went off to live with the Allegheny Franciscan sisters while I finished my work. I ended up staying for a year. The sisters were so supportive and they made it possible for me to get things done.
I did my doctoral work on St. Bonaventure’s Christ’s Mysticism—the mysticism of the historical event. When I finished, my community said that I could either find a teaching job or work in their nursing home. I found a position at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and lived with yet another community—the Sisters of St. Joseph of Hartford. Shortly afterwards, someone told me about an opening at the Washington (DC) Theological Union. Friar Dominic Monti invited me for an interview and offered me a position in Franciscan studies. My area was in Patristics, but through my work with Bonaventure, I made my way back to Sts. Francis and Clare. The decision to move to WTU was really a graced moment—it is a very good school, very communal, and with a nice group of students.
During all this time I had remained with my Franciscan congregation, but about two years ago, I felt the inspiration to start a new community myself with the approval and support of my congregation. Another sister and myself moved to D.C. and have since been working and praying for the future of Franciscan life. We believe in the richness of religious life and feel that Franciscan life has much to offer to the church and world today. Like the seeds of a plant, new life takes time and patience, and care.
In terms of any advice I would be able to offer a young person in discernment, I would urge her/him to take some time with a good spiritual director. Take the time to focus on the way that God is calling you in your life. Then, visit different types of groups to see if there is a good fit between your personality and spirituality and theirs. See how communities live out their calling. And be attentive to what your own spirit is all about. Then, finally, at some point, you just have to take the step, go forward, and try it.
I live in great hope and optimism. I am fairly future-oriented, looking forward to making more new discoveries in Franciscan life, and living with a greater sense of thankfulness. I am a dreamer and always will be. I dream that this way of life—religious life— will bring love to the loveless, make God alive in this world, and help to transform it.
Books by Ilia Delio:
Franciscan Prayer. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2004.
The Humility of God: a Franciscan Perspective. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005.
Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2007. Delio, Ilia, Warner, Keith and Pamela Woods.
Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2008.
Christ in Evolution. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2008.
Ten Evenings with God. Liguori, MO.: Liguouri Press, 2008.
Posted by Fr. Charles Talley, ofm at 9:00 PM