I was about to return home to work and save money for my college education but God had a big surprise for me
When I was a college student many years ago, I went on a mission trip to the Texas/Mexico border to volunteer with Our Lady’s Youth Center and the Lord’s Ranch Community. This lay apostolate, founded by a well-known Jesuit priest, Fr. Rick Thomas, had outreaches to the poor in both Juarez, Mexico and in the slums of El Paso. I had just completed my first year at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, and after this 3-week experience of missions, I was to return home for the summer to work and save money, then go back to Ohio to continue my college education. At least, that was my plan. But God had a big surprise for me.
During my first week at the Lord’s Ranch, I started getting the uncomfortable sense that the Lord was calling me to stay. I was horrified! I had never been to the desert or experienced dry, swelteringly hot weather. I was born and raised in the tropical paradise of Hawaii surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, palm trees and an abundance of flowers and rain forests. The Ranch, on the other hand, is surrounded by mesquite bushes, tumbleweed, and a parched, semi-arid landscape.
“Lord, you’ve got the wrong person in mind,” I cried out in my prayer. “I could never live here, never hack this life of hard manual labor, no air conditioning, and very few creature comforts. Choose someone else, not me!”But the strong feeling that God was calling me to a radical departure from my carefully planned-out life kept growing in me.
One day in the chapel at the Lord’s Ranch, I received this reading from the book of Ruth:
“I have heard what you have done… you have left your father and your mother and the land of your birth, and have come to a people whom previously you did not know. May the Lord reward what you have done! May you receive a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.” Ruth 2:12-13
I slammed the Bible shut. I did not like where this was going!
After the second week of wrestling with the Lord, I stopped praying. I didn’t like what He was saying. I was sure He had gotten the wrong girl. I was only 18 years old! Too young, too inexperienced, too much of a wimp, not tough enough. My excuses sounded good to me.
So I threw down a fleece (like Gideon did in Judges 6:36ff). “Lord, if you are really serious about this, speak to me through Sister.” Sister Mary Virginia Clark was a Daughter of Charity who co-led the apostolate with Fr. Rick Thomas. She had an authentic gift of prophecy and would share inspired words at the prayer gatherings. That week at the prayer meeting, she stood up and said, “I have a prophecy for the young women from Steubenville.” That got my attention. I don’t remember anything she said, except for the words, “Follow the example of the women in the Old Testament.” Ouch! I thought immediately of the reading in Ruth I had received in prayer.
“Okay, Lord. This is getting too real.” So out comes another fleece: “If you are really serious, have Sister Mary Virginia say something to me directly.” There, I thought. That should end it.
Sister used to speak individually with all the visitors who came through the Lord’s Ranch, so it was not unusual that she asked to meet with me that weekend. We had a nice chat, with her asking me about my family, my background, what led me to the Ranch, etc. She said a prayer at the end of our conversation, and I got up to leave. “Whew, dodged a bullet,” I was thinking, when suddenly she asked, “Have you ever thought about staying here?”
My heart sank. I couldn’t respond so just nodded yes. All she told me was, “I’ll pray for you.” And I sadly walked out the door.
I went outside to get some air. I headed for the small, man-made lake at the Lord’s Ranch. I had grown up on an island surrounded by the ocean so to be near water was always comforting and familiar to me. This small catfish-stocked pond was an oasis in the desert where I could sit and soothe my troubled soul.
I cried, I pleaded, I argued with the Lord, trying to convince Him that there really had been some divine mix-up. “I know you’ve got the wrong person, God. I don’t have what it takes to live this life.”
Silence. The sky as if bronzed. No movement or stirring.
Sitting there alone by the peaceful water, fluffy white clouds floating overhead, I calmed down. I started to reflect on my life. I had always felt close to God since I was a little girl. He was my closest friend, my confidante, my rock. I knew He loved me. I knew He had my best interests at heart and would never harm me in any way. I also knew that I wanted to do whatever He asked, no matter how distasteful it was.
So I grudgingly gave in. “Okay, God. You win. I’ll stay.”
At that point I heard in my heart, “I don’t want a resignation. I want a cheerful, joyful yes.”
“What! Now you’re pushing it, Lord! I just gave in, but that’s not enough?”
More silence. More inner struggle.
Then I prayed for the desire to be here — something I had avoided asking for all this time. “Lord, if this is truly Your plan for me, please give me the desire for it.” Instantly, I felt like roots shoot out of my feet, grounding me solidly here, and I knew I was home.
This was home. This was where I was meant to be. Unasked for, unwanted, unattractive to my human senses. Not at all in my script for my life, but God’s choice for me.
As I continued to sit there, it was as if scales fell from my eyes. I started seeing the beauty in the desert — the mountains that frame the Lord’s Ranch, the desert plants, the wild ducks that were sharing this watering hole with me that evening. Everything looked so different, so striking to me.
I got up to leave knowing that there had been a dramatic shift in me. I was a different person — with a new perspective, a new purpose, a new mission. This was to be my life. Time to start embracing it and living it to the full.
That was 40 years ago. My life has been nothing like I envisioned it would be in my teen years. God’s plan for me swerved in a dramatically different direction than I thought I was going in. But I am so glad and grateful that I followed His path and not mine. I’ve been stretched and pulled way out of my comfort zone and what I thought I was capable of; and I know the challenges and lessons are not over yet. But the people I’ve met, the deep friendships I’ve formed, the experiences I’ve had, the skills I’ve learned, have enriched me far beyond what I thought was possible. And even though I initially resisted God and His crazy plan for my life, now I can’t imagine living any other way.
What a full, vibrant, challenging, and joy-filled life it has been! Thank You, Jesus.
Ellen Hogarty is a spiritual director, writer and full-time missionary with the Lord’s Ranch Community in New Mexico. She blogs at cacklescorner.com.
A few months ago, during a conversation about a “difficult” colleague, my immediate superior remarked: “If I am not able to be a source of solace to such people in my team, then all my spirituality is in vain.” It was a wake-up-call; I had often been in the habit of judging this colleague, so this left me in shame. I realized how badly I had failed to be a true witness to my faith, at my workplace. All of us are surrounded by difficult people, maybe in the form of a nagging spouse, an envious neighbor, an irritating colleague, or a domineering boss. In fact, Jesus dealt with difficult people on a daily basis, giving us the perfect example of compassion. This Lent, let’s be thankful to God for all these difficult people in our lives. Instead of judging and avoiding them, let’s try to be like Jesus. Let’s do to them what Jesus would have done for them if He was in our place. And let’s not forget that it’s not the good people but the difficult people who purify us.
There is a regrettable interpretation of the Cross that has, unfortunately, infected the minds of many Christians. This is the view that the bloody sacrifice of the Son on the cross was “satisfying” to the Father, an appeasement of a God infinitely angry at sinful humanity. In this reading, the crucified Jesus is like a child hurled into the fiery mouth of a pagan divinity in order to assuage its wrath. But what ultimately refutes this twisted theology is the well-known passage from John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world, that he sent his only Son, that all who believe in him might have eternal life.”(3:16) John reveals that it is not out of anger or vengeance or in a desire for retribution that the Father sends the Son, but precisely out of love. God the Father is not some pathetic divinity whose bruised personal honor needs to be restored; rather, God is a parent who burns with compassion for His children who have wandered into danger. Does the Father hate sinners? No, but he hates sin. Does God harbor indignation at the unjust? No, but God despises injustice. Thus, God sends his Son, not gleefully to see him suffer, but compassionately to set things right. Saint Anselm, the great medieval theologian who is often unfairly blamed for the cruel theology of satisfaction, was eminently clear on this score. We sinners are like diamonds that have fallen into the muck. Made in the image of God, we have soiled ourselves through violence and hatred. God, claimed Anselm, could have simply pronounced a word of forgiveness from heaven, but this would not have solved the problem. It would not have restored the diamonds to their original brilliance. Instead, in his passion to reestablish the beauty of creation, God came down into the muck of sin and death, brought the diamonds up, and then polished them off. In so doing, of course, God had to get dirty. This sinking into the dirt—this divine solidarity with the lost—is the “sacrifice” which the Son makes to the infinite pleasure of the Father. It is the sacrifice expressive, not of anger or vengeance, but of compassion. Jesus said that any disciple of His must be willing to take up his cross and follow the Master. If God is self-forgetting love even to the point of death, then we must be such love. If God is willing to break open his own heart, then we must be willing to break open our hearts for others. The cross, in short, must become the very structure of the Christian life.
Q: My Protestant friends say that Catholics believe we need to earn our salvation. They say that salvation is by faith alone and that we can’t add to anything that Jesus already did for us on the Cross. But don’t we have to do good works to make it to Heaven? A: This is a pretty big misunderstanding for both Protestants and Catholics. It may seem to be theological minutiae, but it actually has a huge consequence in our spiritual life. The truth is this: We are saved by living faith—our belief in Jesus Christ that is lived out in our words and actions. We must be clear—we do not need to earn our salvation, as if salvation was a prize if we reach a certain level of good deeds. Consider this: who was the first one to be saved? According to Jesus, it was the Good Thief. While he was being rightly crucified for his evil deeds, he cried out to Jesus for mercy, and the Lord promised him: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) So, salvation consists in that radical faith, trust, and surrender to what Jesus did on the Cross to purchase mercy. Why is this important? Because many Catholics think that all we have to do to be saved is ‘be a good person’—even if the person doesn’t actually have a living relationship with the Lord. I can’t begin to tell you how many people tell me something like: “Oh, my uncle never went to Mass or prayed, but he was a nice man who did many good things in his life, so I know he’s in Heaven.” While we certainly hope that the uncle is saved by God’s mercy, it isn’t our kindness or good works that save us, but the saving death of Jesus on the Cross. What would happen if a criminal was put on trial for a crime, but he said to the judge, “Your Honor, I did commit the crime, but look at all the other good things I did in my life!” Would the judge let him off? No—he would still have to pay for the crime he committed. Likewise, our sins had a cost—and Jesus Christ had to pay for them. This payment of the debt of sin is applied to our souls through faith. But, faith is not just an intellectual exercise. It must be lived out. As Saint James writes: “Faith without works is dead” (2:24). It’s not enough just to say: “Well, I believe in Jesus, so I can now sin as much as I want.” On the contrary, precisely because we have been forgiven and become heirs to the Kingdom, we must then act like Kingdom-heirs, like sons and daughters of the King. This is very different than trying to earn our salvation. We don’t do good works because we hope to be forgiven—we do good works because we are already forgiven. Our good deeds are a sign that His forgiveness is alive and active in our lives. After all, Jesus tells us: “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15) If a husband loves his wife, he will seek concrete ways to bless her—giving her flowers, doing the dishes, writing her a love note. He would never say: “Well, we’re married, and she knows I love her, so I can now do whatever I want.” Likewise, a soul that has known the merciful love of Jesus will naturally want to please Him. So, to answer your question, Catholics and Protestants are actually much closer on this issue than they know! We both believe that we are saved by faith—by a living faith, which is expressed in a life of good works as a sign of thanksgiving for the lavish, free gift of salvation that Christ won for us on the Cross.
“But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6) Do you remember hearing these words as a child? They seemed simple enough—just go to your room, close the door, and pray. I remember hearing them and being confused. Simple words, yes, but it just didn’t make sense that we could only say prayers, in our room, by ourselves. But my child-like faith told me to believe these words. As I grew, so did my faith and understanding of this Scripture. I came to realize these beautiful, profound words meant I could go into my room, turn my heart to the Lord, anytime, anywhere. My prayer life blossomed. How wonderful to spend quiet time with our Father and receive His love. Every time I hear these words from Matthew’s Gospel, I appreciate the Lenten season even more. It’s a reminder of God’s love and how much He desires our friendship. Love heals. For me, that’s the reward when I go into my room and pray.
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