Profession as a Path to Holiness - A Letter from Isabella Contolini
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Not too long ago, I was sitting alone with Jesus in an adoration chapel, begging Him to reveal what He wanted me to do with my life. How many times have you found yourself in exactly this situation? If you’re anything like me, more than a few. For much of my life, I lived with a mild but ever-present apprehension about what God would call me to. As college approached, this question was foremost in my mind. Everyone I met asked me the dreaded question: “Where will you go to school? What do you want to do?” I hated to admit that I didn't know the answer, and feared that I never would. We live in a culture that defines our worth by what, and how much, we do. A “doing” that is usually embodied by a career, a profession. All adults are expected to have them, and as Catholics, this pressure is multiplied by knowing that not only do we have to figure out a job, but also a vocation. As Catholic women, we all struggle to reconcile the desires of our hearts with how God is calling us to love and serve Him.
"Everyone I met asked me the dreaded question: “Where will you go to school? What do you want to do?” I hated to admit that I didn't know the answer, and feared that I never would."
God places interests and desires in our hearts for a reason, and for as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the medical field. However, I always saw it as something too difficult, far-fetched, and above all, secular, to pursue. Holy Catholic women didn’t want to become doctors. They wanted to have babies, teach, or enter the convent. There were only a few paths to holiness, and an MD just wasn’t one of them. And so I never entertained it as a realistic possibility until, after weeks and months of begging the Lord in front of the Blessed Sacrament to make His desires my desires, Jesus gave me the courage to realize that He was the source of this deep curiosity and longing within my heart. My friends, what are the curiosities and longings within your hearts? What might that seed be that you have been carrying inside you for so long, and yet never wanted to acknowledge? I pray that you can find the courage to examine that bit of yourself with Jesus and determine its source. Understanding God’s will and determining our callings is not an instantaneous event, but rather a journey into knowing Him and knowing ourselves intimately.
"God places interests and desires in our hearts for a reason, and for as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the medical field. However, I always saw it as something too difficult, far-fetched, and above all, secular, to pursue."
One of the first steps to take is understanding the universal call to holiness as the ultimate purpose of all vocations. Most of us are not called to spend our lives in contemplative prayer and silence, and yet so often we see this as the “holiest” option and belittle ourselves for our seemingly ordinary lives. The truth is, our lives are all ordinary. It’s how we live and love that makes them extraordinary, that makes us saints! I also had to realize that medicine is a vocation. It might not be a “capital V” vocation in the sense that marriage, the priesthood, or religious life is a Vocation, but it is a way that God calls humanity to live out our love for neighbor and serve our brothers and sisters. I never saw medicine this way until I met some Catholic women physicians who were living out this profession as a vocation. This opened my eyes to see that all jobs can be a path to holiness, if we allow the Lord to guide our ways.
"I also had to realize that medicine is a vocation. It might not be a “capital V” vocation in the sense that marriage, the priesthood, or religious life is a Vocation, but it is a way that God calls humanity to live out our love for neighbor and serve our brothers and sisters."
Finally, you must have the courage to step out into the unknown. God can’t do everything for us—our “yes” must be made out of free will, and if we wait to know all the details before we agree to follow His plan, we will never begin. But as long as we remain open to him and sensitive to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, we do not need to fear taking the wrong path or making the wrong decision. Sisters, following our vocations is always a journey, one that I like to compare to walking in the dark with a headlamp. If you’ve ever been camping, you know that slightly disconcerting feeling of midnight bathroom trips, when your light only illuminates a few steps in front of you and your direction of travel is more of a guess than anything. Obstacles show up unexpectedly, and it’s scary not knowing what other hazards there might be in the dark that you can’t see. This is how the Lord works in our lives. He doesn’t show us what the end destination will look like, or how long it will take to get there. Instead, He illuminates just the next few steps at a time.
Since l started college two years ago, this metaphor has only become more pertinent. Becoming a doctor is a journey, and a difficult one. I am not perfect, and despite what my peers, advisors, and society say, there is no way to achieve this on my own. I can’t guarantee that I will get the score I want on the MCAT (or even on my next organic chemistry test), be accepted into medical school, or achieve this dream at all. I constantly find myself questioning whether I am, or will be, enough. I still have so far to go, but I have found that thinking my way too far into the future is nothing but a recipe for feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. Instead, I try my best to take things one day, one class, one quarter, one year at a time, stay humble, and trust that the God who loves me and only wants what is best for me will prepare the way. This is true for whatever endeavors the Lord asks us to pursue.
"My friends, whether you are just entering college or have been living out your vocation for years, I want you to know the beauty and source of your dreams and desires. We need not be afraid of the things God Himself put in our hearts."
There was so much that I did not know when I gave my “yes” to Jesus in Adoration that day. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I still don’t! And I know that that is true for you as well, no matter your current circumstance. If we knew all that lay ahead of us—the suffering, hard work, and frustration that is inevitably involved with following God’s will, we would not have the courage to boldly pursue Him with all abandon, in whatever way He has called us to Himself. Since we don’t, we have the freedom to live each day in joyful hope and expectation of the future that God is preparing. My friends, whether you are just entering college or have been living out your vocation for years, I want you to know the beauty and source of your dreams and desires. We need not be afraid of the things God Himself put in our hearts. He would not do that unless He intended to fulfill them! I pray that you can discover the ways in which Jesus is calling you to greatness, and overcome the fear of what letting those seeds blossom might mean, so that like St. Joan of Arc, you might confidently say, “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.”
Your sister in Christ,
Tell us a little bit about yourself!
My name is Isabella Contolini. I'm 20 years old and from Lakewood, Colorado. However, at the time of publishing this letter I am actually working at a Catholic summer camp for girls in New Hampshire called Camp Bernadette! I love to swim (the best form of exercise), reading, playing music (oboe and piano mostly these days), and roughing it in the beautiful Colorado mountains. Words can't even express how much I love Colorado... it will always be home for me. I'm a half-Italian smeller of books, drinker of mint tea, nature lover, extremely sentimental ISTJ, keeper of chickens, collector of rocks, trail mix fanatic, terrible but enthusiastic dancer, a peaceful relocator of insects and arachnids, an ardent supporter of the Oxford comma, and most importantly, a lover of Jesus! My dearest wishes as a child were to attend Catholic school so I could wear a uniform and to live within walking distance of a library. These days my dearest wish is to get accepted into medical school...and living within walking distance of a library is still pretty high on the list.
As a single woman, what does your calling to serve in medicine look like on a day-to-day basis?
At this point in the journey, a lot of studying! Even though I'm not practicing medicine yet, I also try to see every circumstance as an opportunity to prepare myself for a life of service as a doctor. Even small things like going to Mass, serving the homeless at lunch in the park, and babysitting are chances to build good habits, grow in discipline, and learn skills I will need in medical school and as a physician. Finally, especially significant to the premed student is the constant struggle of trying to balance between living in the present with planning for the future. I have to check myself in this every day.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given on discernment of a career?
One of my camp counselors once told me to pray this prayer: Jesus, make your desires my desires! Praying this in front of the Blessed Sacrament has been especially powerful for me.
You mention that your experience with Catholic women physicians led you to see medicine as a vocation of a service. What about your experience with them led you to see medicine this way?
When I was in high school, I attended a summer camp called Camp Wojtyla. In 2014, the summer before my junior year, for the first time they had religious sisters join us for the week of camp. I had never spent any time with religious sisters before, and was kind of intimidated by them at first, but because of their presence I made a beautiful discovery about vocations that summer: we are all called to service of God's church in different ways. This was a completely new way of seeing vocations for me, and it made the soil of my heart fertile. Coincidentally (isn't it funny how God works this way!), they had also managed to find a Catholic pediatrician to stay and take care of the campers all summer. Having always been fascinated by doctors, I observed her from afar all week and was so surprised by the extent of her service. She gave up her entire summer to work without pay for this camp, totally going out of her way for us and making herself very present and available for whatever we needed.
Before that, I had always seen the medical profession as kind of cold and aloof, but Dr. Laura totally shattered my perceptions about that. It occurred to me that doctors spend just as much time in training and formation as priests and religious sisters do. Shadowing her, and another Catholic OB/GYN later, only confirmed this for me. I saw that medicine is not nearly as glamorous or thrilling as TV and the movies make it out to be (at least most of the time), and to my surprise this attracted me to the profession far more than any glamour or drama ever had. I found myself longing for something that before had seemed so secular and distant, because God gave me the grace to see it as He does.
To the Catholic woman who is called to a career that’s typically more male-dominated, what insight would you lend her?
In many ways, the natural gifts of women are very well-suited to the medical field. While qualities like intuition, empathy, and sensitivity are certainly not nonexistent in men, they tend to come more naturally to women. God created men and women complement each other, and the more we work together to harness each others' unique gifts, the more beautiful the end result. Women physicians add a new dimension of care and warmth to a profession and field that is often seen as lacking exactly that.
"While qualities like intuition, empathy, and sensitivity are certainly not nonexistent in men, they tend to come more naturally to women. God created men and women complement each other, and the more we work together to harness each others' unique gifts, the more beautiful the end result."
Fill in the blank
My favorite liturgical holiday is…
definitely the season of Advent! I love the anticipation and preparation for Christmas, and find it to be a really good time to reassess the state of my spiritual life. The last few years I have renewed my Marian consecration during this time, so I definitely look forward to that as well.
A saint I identify with the most is…
St. Joan of Arc. Her strength and conviction to do God’s will at such a young age, even though it meant going completely outside of her comfort zone and doing something so unconventional for a woman of her time have always amazed me. She was a fierce warrior, but was also deeply sensitive and emotional, and I’ve always felt that these seemingly contradictory qualities exist in me as well.
My favorite quote is…
“There are places in the heart that do not exist until they are born into existence through suffering.” Leon Bloy
I feel most at peace when…
I am out in nature, marveling at God’s Creation!
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