Ride the Wave
When I was in college, discerning what to do with my life, my priest friend told me, “Sara, just ride the wave.”
Admittedly, I hated that advice. (I can’t surf! What if the waves don’t come or I get thrown off?!) I wanted answers now, and by answers I meant a clear-cut sense of what the next ten to twenty years would look like in terms of career and family life.
In the midst of that uncertainty, there were, however, two things I definitely did know: I did not want to go to grad school, and I did not want to teach. (Yes, as Mother Theresa said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans...”).
One day after my intermediate theology class with Dr. Larry Chapp—a class I was in due to the theology requirement, not because it had anything to do with my major—he pulled me aside and said, “Hulse, you’ve really got a knack for this stuff. I think you should go get your degree, and come back and teach for us one day!” Although flattered, I dismissed it: “Ah, thanks Chapp, but I don’t want to go to grad school, and I definitely don’t want to teach!”
Thanks to that intermediate course, theology had become a surprising passion of mine. However, I did not think it was a career path. The following semester I pursued what I did think was for me, namely, working in the performing arts industry. I took up two internships in Manhattan, the first at a talent management company and the second in the casting office of a major television network. They were, I thought, my keys to success! And certainly, they would have been major stepping stones, had I enjoyed them. The management company offered to pick me up as one of their talent and the casting office offered me an audition, both in exchange for the work I had done for them. Yet, through working there, I realized that the industry was not what I expected. Although it is indeed the path for some people, it was not resonating with me. I began dreading going into both offices, and when each internship came forth with their offers at the end of the semester, I turned them down. I actually missed that theology class, and the joy I felt there!
Being a senior the following semester, it was too late to major or even minor in theology. Instead, I audited several theology classes on top of my normal course load, so that I could enjoy the lectures but not have to do homework. Allowing my passion for the subject to lead me, rather than stress over grades, I took copious notes, which I still have to this day. Because I was not getting a grade, I let myself get caught up in the subject, and even read the assigned books just “for fun” (something I had never done before!).
Upon graduating, I decided to try a few different theology-inspired things, initially discerning as a postulant with a community of religious sisters, then working for two non-profits. Although these service-based paths were nearer to where I wanted to be than my internships, they still weren’t giving me the joy of that theology class years earlier. So, I got back in touch with Dr. Chapp, who advised me to go to graduate school.
Having very little background (since I was not a theology major) and lacking specific “career goals” when I got there, I felt like a fish out of water. But following my joy over the subject of theology helped me tremendously. When I stopped trying to figure out what I was going to do with it, or fretting over all of the ways in which I was behind, I began soaking up the education that the program had to offer, and growing at a rapid rate. When it came time for graduation in 2013, I emailed the chair of the DeSales theology department, seeing if he had any adjunct opportunities (since I didn’t know what else to do with a theology degree!). He told me that, coincidentally, just a few days prior, Dr. Chapp announced that he was retiring early, so he needed someone to come in for a semester to pick up Chapp’s classes. Although the adjunct opportunity did not make as much “sense” as some of the other job opportunities that came my way, as it was only for one semester, it was the option that sparked the greatest amount of joy for me. After some discernment, I took it. Long story short, that semester opened into several more, which opened into me pursuing my Ph.D., and the discovery of my vocation to teach.
Today, my office is Dr. Chapp’s old office, and my desk was his, which I vividly remember sitting on the other side of as a student, when I first learned about theology. I share this story because these years have taught me so much about discernment and trust. First, as my Dad always taught me, “follow your passion.” Trust your basic intuition and notice what brings you joy. If that is working on cars, or reading history, or starting a business, or being a stay-at-home-mom, as long as it is a good, do it. Second, be flexible. Theology hit me as a total surprise my junior year (coming into DeSales, I had never even heard the word “theology” before). Ride the wave of these surprises and see what they open up for you. Finally, trust God, and like Mary before the angel Gabriel, say yes. God wants to give us good things. Rather than grasping at them before their time, or pushing them away, assume the posture of active receptivity before the gifts of God in your life. You will find that he will even make your prior paths fruitful, even if they were “wrong.” As the Portuguese proverb says, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
In my own story, God used my performing arts background to help me become comfortable standing in front of a crowd, which is a necessary tool for teaching. All in all, be open, and pay attention to what sparks joy in you. Trust that doors will open, and that, as long as you are avoiding evil and seeking to do good, you are exactly where you are meant to be.