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Interview with Sr. Juana

September 12, 2007

Q1: Can you give us a little background about yourself? 

“I am from a small town in Michoacan, Mexico. There are twelve children in my family of which I am number 9. Growing up as a child, my faith played a role in my daily life, as it does for many Mexicans whose Catholic faith is very much a part of living.”

Q2: When you were a child was there anything that you did that relates to what you’re doing now? Or did you have any premonition that you would be a Carmelite? 

“Since I was very young I had wanted to be a Sister. Actually, I remember playing with my siblings and I would take my mom’s scarf and wear it as a veil like a Sister. I remember, from the time I was eight or nine, wanting to be a Sister. I think the first thought of it came from seeing some Sisters who came to my town to do a week of missions. I observed how happy they were, how they helped the children and the townspeople, and I wanted to be just like them."

“All of my vocation originated in Mexico. Even after they left it was still in my heart, I still had the desire to be a Sister.”

Q3: What is a Vocation? How would you explain it to someone? 

“The Vocation is a calling. Something that is set apart; it is a gift from God. Not only is there the vocation to the Religious life, but also to Marriage, the single life…We all have a vocation, a mission given by God. Vocation is like a mission to do.”

"However it is also gift. You can ask for it but ultimately God gives you the gift. If God has given the gift of the vocation to religious life, then you are called to live with Him, to love Him and to be close to Him, to serve the people and the Church. No matter if you are called to contemplative life or active ministry, we are all called to be with Him. For the single life you are called also to be with Him, but to serve in a different way; helping the poor, serving those that are ill, teaching children or consecrating yourself as a witness to Christ, working for the Church, to whatever God is calling you to do. For the married life, you are called to be the image of the relationship between God and the Church. Marriage is the reflection of what is going to be in heaven, the union of God and the soul. So, those that are married are living the reality of what each one of us is going to be living. They also raise children and bring them up to be married or to contemplate the religious life. It is, I think, such a beautiful vocation.”

Why would someone want to discern a vocation?

“It’s important to see what God wants you to do, because otherwise you’re never going to be happy, or completely fulfilled. You won’t be fulfilled as a person. You can have the position you want, the house, all the money you want, friends, promotions, anything. But, you’re never going to be happy, fulfilled. When you find your vocation, your calling, then you’re going to be whole. It’s going to make you fulfilled, happy…happy in a sense.  One can say, ‘I’m looking for happiness,’ but happiness isn’t really the right word for what we’re trying to describe; happiness, yes, but not a feeling. You will be fulfilled because you are doing something worthy, not for yourself, but for God. Many young people today enter marriage without thinking at all about if it’s God’s will or not and what is the end result?  In two or three years, when the feelings of love die down, they feel they don’t know each other and they come apart.”

Q4: How should one discern a vocation? Should they find a spiritual guide and seek outside advice? 

“Discernment has different stages. Firstly, you need to be open; open to what God wants you to do, remaining open. Second, look at what God has given to you. What He has put in your hands; through your family, your friends, your nature, through whatever is around you. Look for the signs; He is present. He always is giving little hints as to what He want you to do. So, we need to be open to see that. One way He does this is through others. Someone will tell us, ‘It might be a good idea that you go to the Seminary.’ Or, ‘Have you ever thought about being a priest?’ These are little hints God is giving us. Others will say, ‘Oh, you would be such a wonderful wife, a good mother.’ Then you begin to think, ‘Yes, I could do that. I like the idea.’ Sometimes it springs from what you like to do. For me, personally, I always liked to be in the church helping out. I loved to be around the Sisters, to observe them, to see what they were doing. I would watch even my Aunt praying the rosary and different things, and I just wanted to be doing that too.  Look for what God has given to you first. Then, when you know you are being pointed in a certain direction, you may think, ‘I wonder if God is calling me to this?’ Or, ‘I wonder if He is calling me to that?’ Then, the first step is Prayer. To pray. Have God in your heart. Be peaceful about it. Don’t get all freaked out, wanting to know NOW! And so forth… No. With time. You have to let it be, let it open. After this, I would suggest if you really want to know what God wants, to find a spiritual director. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a priest, it can be someone else, a friend you trust. But, it has to be someone you trust will tell you the truth. The truth about yourself, not just what will make you feel good. Someone who will say, ‘You know…I really think ‘this’ is best.’ Of course, this is to discern and see what God is calling you to do. But as a Christian, as someone who wants to live their Catholic faith, we all should have a Spiritual Director and if not, at least a confessor. It is not just for someone who is discerning a vocation, but for everybody who really wants to live his Christian, his Catholic faith.”

“No matter whether you are married, a mother, single, people need to teach, also, their children how to pray, to go to confession. It’s important to have a foundation. Otherwise, when the idea of a vocation comes up, you’re in the air and you don’t have any idea what it’s about. Additionally, have someone who you trust can help you. I had, for myself [a Father] and the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon. They helped me a lot, pushing me in the direction God was calling me, saying, ‘Yes. You have to do that.’ I also had a friend, Cathy- -she was the one who brought me here, to this Carmel-whom I would speak with about the way I was feeling, what I was thinking. She was a layperson who was very active in my parish’s Hispanic community at the time.  She feels like her vocation is to be a single lay person, helping the Church. We became friends and she helped me go forward with my vocation. So, you don’t necessarily need to have a priest, but just someone that you can trust, helping you discern what God wants."

Q5: How would you explain how to pray and what prayer is? 

“I think I will use what Holy Mother Teresa said, 'Prayer is a dialogue with the one whom we love and whom we know loves us.' It is being present with someone. Prayer doesn’t always have to be words, but love. When you’re with someone you love, there doesn’t always have to be words, sometimes it’s just a gaze. That’s the way it is with Christ at times; you are looking at Him, and you know He is looking at you. It is a conversation. We can think a conversation is like what you and I are doing right now. It is like that, but it is in silence. Silence in your heart. We must realize God knows what we need. St. Paul , I think, says that in the New Testament. God just wants us to be with Him. We just have to put everything into His hands. Prayer is a movement of trusting, hoping, and love. But most important is that relationship we have with Jesus, the Saints, the Blessed Mother...The relationship of always being present with Them. To be there, you don’t even have to 'say' anything. How to pray in this world… It’s very easy I think. The problem we have sometimes is that there is too much noise. And that noise isn’t made quiet. But, prayer…You can pray anywhere, everywhere and anytime. Because it’s just that turning towards heaven and being aware of God’s presence; looking at the mountains or a beautiful sunset is a prayer.”

So we should turn off the noise and make more time for silence.

“Yes, and that’s hard. You really have to get out of yourself. Sometimes the noise we make inside can prevent us from seeing simple things, like the smile of a baby. When children are playing joyfully together, see God in that. Or a beautiful couple, happily married, who love each other; it just makes you love God more. Someone who is ministering to the poor and living for others lifts your soul up and you pray. You can say little things like, ‘Thank You, God’, ‘I love you!’ or ‘Please help me Jesus.’ I remember when I was little girl, after I would take a test I would say, ‘Alright, Jesus, I did my part, now you have to do yours.’ That was a prayer. Of course it is good if we can have a type of structure. I grew up with prayer being a part of my daily life, the rosary, and…It is true that I’m from a different culture, but many people today do not know how to pray. Many think to pray you must say things, and you can, obviously, say prayers. One of the fruits of prayer is gratitude. When you are thankful to God for what He has done for you, that is a beautiful prayer. Being thankful for what He has given you, ‘Thank you God for this.’ Or ‘Thank you God for that.’ Just, ‘Thank you!’ That is a beautiful prayer.”

Q6: How do you know when you’ve received a call? Is it just that discerning of our gifts; similar to what you said before? Sometimes one doesn’t know which vocation God has made them for.

It is a gift that you receive and you will experience it when you are attracted to it. We will always experience an attraction to marriage because it is part of our nature. To the religious life, I would say, ‘If you’re attracted to it, look into it.’ Perhaps God has given you that vocation. Other times you will never have thought of that, but, suddenly, in your heart, you know that is why you were made. You can go and see, maybe you think ‘Oh, this is for me’ or ‘Maybe not.’ But when you say ‘maybe not,’ leave the door open for something else. But I would say if you’re a Catholic girl, you look into it. And then, if you feel excited about it, it can be like seeing someone you love. When you see them or sometimes when you just see their name, you get excited. The same thing happens in the religious life. When you begin to discover, and you see religious, and you say, ‘What a wonderful life!’ The second thing is to start looking at them, looking into the different communities. If the community is positive about your vocation, then go ahead. Keep going! When you apply to a community and they accept you then you have to say, ‘go ahead.’ Let yourself be led.  However, we can never, never, never, be 100% sure, because God wants us to walk in faith, like Abraham.  He was not sure he simply heard God tell him, ‘Go to the land that I have chosen.’ We can’t be sure.” 

“You can never be sure. You have to just take a big jump, throw yourself into God’s love and say, ‘God, what do you want me to do?’ How to do His will is be looking around, if the community accepts you, or says, ‘Oh no, she’s not fit for this life’, then you will know. You will be at peace, you will be happy. You will leave with that serenity knowing that God is not calling you to the religious life and that maybe you are called to marriage. Then you’re at peace and you’re happy. Otherwise you’ll never do it. You can go through life, get married, raise a family, and then in the future be able to say, ‘I’m so happy!’”   

Some people experience a specific moment when they feel called, but does that always happen? 

“I think for every Christian it’s going to be different, but some people can be very perceptive. We were just reading a book about a certain religious group.  One Canadian man said that he went into a Catholic church and there lit a candle. He distinctly remembers receiving his vocation there. So, some people are very perceptive and will remember, ‘yes, it was here at this place and this time, etc..’ Different people will have different experiences. For other people it is almost like they knew before they were born.”

Q7: Can you explain what it is to be a Carmelite; a little about your spirituality, your charism and just the vocation to be a Carmelite? 

"I’ll tell you the way it was explained to me. A Carmelite, sister, brother, whatever one may be, is to be a person consecrated to God, totally to Him, in Him and for Him. To Be with Him and to pray. A Carmelite prays especially for priests. Because when the reformation came about, Holy Mother Teresa was very distraught at seeing the lack of fidelity among the clergy. She felt the only thing she could do was to lift them up in prayer. Especially she prayed for the bishops. So, a Carmelite is a soul totally dedicated to God. I always like to say, 'It is like living in the tabernacle.' To be there, inside, with Him. No one knows where you are or how you are in there. Your prayer is like a grain of wheat, it goes everywhere. Our way of life, and the way we fit into the Church, is like imagining the Church as a big tree and we are the roots of the tree, down, under the ground, where nobody can see us. Nobody knows how they are living, no one knows how they are taking their nourishment, and yet they are sustaining the trunk. The church being the trunk and the branches, the faithful. Our life is a total dedication to Christ. That is the reason we have prayer all the time, although we do have to work. Like St. Paul says, ‘the ones that don’t work, don’t eat.’ So we need to work! But it’s how we do it that allows us to pray. We work in order to support our life of prayer. It’s not that we pray in order to work. Our work is to support our life. We don’t work all day, eight hours a day then go home. The work we do is what we have time for. We can be in the presence of God all day and all night; what we do supports that. Like the Sisters who work in the Altar bread room, it is a beautiful way to pray because you know what that host is going to become. It is done in an atmosphere of silence; well you can talk if it’s necessary, like you need to ask a question. So, you can pray while you work, not like daydreaming though. You have to concentrate. Being in the presence of God and doing work are not separated. It’s one thing. If you separate them then you will think, ‘I can not think of God until I’m doing ‘this’ and now I have to concentrate.’ For instance, I’m washing dishes but I’m doing that for God. In that way I’m united to Him. Or opening the door for a Sister to come in, I do it for God; trying to see God in my fellow Sisters. In the garden, I am trying to do something for God and for my Sisters. Or if you are the one cooking, you want to have everything nice for the Sisters and you for God. You are doing it because you want to be in His presence all the time. Our work supports our life of prayer. Sister Teresa of the Trinity had a beautiful saying, when somebody asked her about the life of a Carmelite; ‘Our vocation is to love and to suffer.’[1] Because everything that we do is love. Like I said, it doesn’t come with admittance to Carmel, you must work at it."

“That is why we are called contemplative, because we live in the presence of God at all times. Prayer is our contribution to the church.”

[1] Not a verbatum quote. 

Q8: Do you have a favorite experience as a Carmelite, or anything that you remember that was very helpful for you, that you can tell us about? 

“I think I have been blessed in many ways and God has given me so many gifts, walking with me all through life. I have seen people who go on a trip and come back so excited, and you say, ‘Why are you so excited?’ A big point, right now, is that God has come to give life, He has created me. For me, the experience that meant the most to me was being able to come here, and to make my Solemn Professions. When I was finally consecrated to the Lord.”

You enter as a postulant right? And how long is that for?

“Yes. We have postulancy for one year. Then, we get the habit and are in the novitiate for two years. Next, we make a profession for two years, and lastly our Solemn Professions. I think that when I entered the Carmelite, I just couldn’t believe I was already here, I was so excited! That day when I entered, the whole family came. Everybody came! There may have been one brother and a nephew who didn’t, but otherwise everybody, nieces and nephews, came. So, we drove two vans down from Portland and, all the way, I rested on my Mom’s shoulder. It is a wonderful memory for me. To have all of them come was very special, it was hard for them, but they did it. Their support was very helpful, having so many come."

"Originally, I wanted to enter a Carmel in Mexico, but when I applied to that Carmel they advised me that it was better to enter a Carmel here. For the reason that my family was here and the Sisters thought they would be a great support and they have proven right. Even if they don’t understand sometimes, they are still supportive. I remember now another experience. It’s not necessarily related to Carmel, but it is related to my vocation. One obstacle to come to Carmel was that I was in the country illegally. The Sisters if St. Mary of Oregon encouraged me to go back to Mexico and get a religious visa. At that time I was able to get one because I was going to go and discern with them. From the very beginning, I told them that I wanted to be a Carmelite. They said, ‘Well we’ll see what God wants.’ But I think they knew that I wanted to be a Carmelite. So, my brother drove me down to Mexico. We were at the border when he asked me, ‘Are you sure you really want to do this? Because you know once you go over it’s going to be hard to come back. What if they don’t give you the visa?’ I told him, ‘No. Go ahead. I want to do this. I know that God will protect me.’ The Sisters of St. Mary’s were praying for me as well as many others. I said, ‘Everything is going to be okay.’ Then we went to Mexico.”

“Actually he [brother] lives in Mexico. So, when we got there, we went to the Consulate in Mexico City. There was a lot of people there, as there always is, and we didn’t know if we would be seen or not. And I was not a religious, I was just aspiring to be one. After two or three hours, I got to the counter and the woman said, ‘Oh, yes, follow me.’ She took me to see someone so it would be more personal. I went and saw the person, explained to them what I was doing, and they said, ‘If you just wait in here we will give it to you in a couple of hours.’ I was overjoyed! I just started crying. People were looking at me and they had no way of knowing what it meant to me. It meant that now I could go ahead and could enter. That is how God arranged it. That was such a special moment for me. I knew it was God’s way of taking care of me. Now I continue to work on getting my citizenship. That way I won’t have to renew my Green card all the time. A special moment was also during my profession. One of the readings was from the Book of Ruth, and it was when Rachael was telling Ruth to go back to her homeland, but she said, ‘No. I am going to follow you and wherever you go I will go. Your God will be my God. Your people will be my people.’ I feel that way. At that time I told the Sisters, ‘Your country is now my country. Your people are now my people.’ And, well my God is the same God. I always say on that day I became a citizen, now we just have to make it legal.”

Q9: What is your vocation story, how did you discover your vocation? 

When I was young, I always said, ‘I want to be a Sister,' but my parents would say, ‘Oh, no. When you get older you won’t care about that any more.’ They didn’t take me seriously, my family would tease me, etc. A Sister, when I was 10 or 11, came to my town to talk about vocations. I ended up telling her that I wanted to do that. She said, ‘Do you want to study with us?’ I said, ‘Of course I do!’ So, she sat me down and she asked how old I was, what grade I was in-I was in fourth grade. And, she said ‘when you’re in sixth grade we will come for you’. So, I knew that she was going to come for me. I went through fifth grade and in sixth I was waiting for her all the time. I would say, ‘She’s going to come for me.’ There was this boy, a neighbor, and my sister would say, ‘You know he likes you a lot!’ And I would respond, ‘I’m not interested, I’m leaving soon anyway.’ I was very convinced I was going to go. However, the Sister never came back, and I was very disappointed. I went to a new school and some Sisters came to do a mission. I went to talk to them, at that time I was fifteen going on sixteen in my last year of school. I thought they could help me. I wrote to the Mother General and she never answered me. A few months later, the Sisters returned to my town and asked me if I wanted to go with them and see how they lived. I told them, ‘Yes. I want to do that!’ I started to work with them at discernment on tasks every week. That’s when my family realized I was serious about it. My brother knew something was going on, and a month or two months before I ended school, he said to me, ‘You do know about other Sisters?’ I said, ‘Well I’m not really sure.’ So he said, ‘I have a friend whose sister is a Sister and I could arrange for you to talk to her.’ I went to meet her and she was a Carmelite. Not a Cloistered Carmelite but an Active Carmelite. I was enthralled with her, she was so wonderful, and when I got home I said, ‘What should I do now?!’ One day I talked to the Carmelites and they said, ‘You are very young and we can offer that you do high school with us and that way you can go out and be alright, you have to be prepared, solid if you’re going to be an apostle.’ Now, the other order was going to have me enter right away as a postulant. So, I decided to go to the Carmelites.”

For the Faith 
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