Making the Path by Walking

My name is Lisa M. Cathelyn (pronounced: Catta-line 🙂 ). I am 29 years old and grew up in a town of 6,000 in western Illinois, have 2 older siblings, both married with children (favorite people, my 6 nieces and nephews!). I am a cradle Catholic and would describe my upbringing as Christian first, Catholic second – what I mean is that my closest friends growing up were evangelical Christian. My hometown of Geneseo, IL probably has 15 churches of various denominations! My family lived on a hog farm until I was 8 years old when we moved to town. As I reflect on those formative experiences, I am grateful for robust small-town parish that included 5 permanent deacons. I saw how they preached and cared for the congregation. While I could not have named it then as a child, I saw how “everyday” people were called to ministry. People with families, and jobs, and a closeness to the pulse of things. I was a lector in high school and got my first taste of what proclaiming the Word of God was like.

What made me decide on Marquette University? I had no idea what a Jesuit was and was slightly intimidated by the “big city” of Milwaukee. I went to a public high school and wasn’t really considering any Catholic schools. But, on Holy Thursday 2009, a permanent deacon preached. In the midst of my own discernment for college (I was agonized as only an 18-year old can be!) this deacon offered a homily along the lines of: we may have dreams, but God’s dream for us is far greater than we can imagine. We are called to accept and enter into that dream, and to let go of our own small dreams. I came home that night and signed the papers to go to Marquette, and I didn’t know “why.” There was a sense of God’s dream unfolding there. I was very involved with service and immersion programming and retreats. That whole notion of being a woman for and with others? That was so palpable.

At the outset of my junior year of college and after a semester abroad, my dad received a terminal cancer diagnosis. He died with dignity at home and with family on June 29, 2012. Watching my father take his final breaths, coupled with the death of my beloved aunt (his sister) 10 weeks prior, and later losses, has fundamentally shifted my sense of God. As Anne LaMott writes in Traveling Mercies, grief brought me a softness and illumination. My experiences of loss as a young adult have brought me a wisdom I don’t wish on other young people, but for which I am nonetheless grateful. This sense of doing the hard thing (burying a loved one) and surviving? It makes me move in the world with a lot less fear, and a lot more clarity. I am involved with an organization called The Dinner Party. My table in Milwaukee has been utter gift in the past 2 years and shows me what church can be.

I graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI with a degree in Spanish and minors in theology and women’s/gender studies. My time there holds many impactful experiences, particularly in walking alongside the poor and unhoused in Milwaukee, an amazing circle of friends, and a semester in El Salvador with Casa de la Solidaridad. My experience in El Salvador in 2011 grounds my spirituality, then and now in: accompaniment, communion, and the paradoxical yet profoundly true realities of grief, gratitude, and joy. I spent as a year as a full-time volunteer with the St. Joseph Worker Program in Minneapolis, MN and then another year working on the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid enrollments. Accompanying and sitting with hundreds of people seeking health insurance, though a “secular” job, honed my listening skills and deepened my faith conviction that God is One who accompanies.

I graduated with a Master of Divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology in May 2018 and also pursued a certificate in Women’s Studies in Religion from the GTU. My three-year stint in the Bay Area included tons of sunshine, grace, tears, and much learning. I truly believe the only way I survived seminary was with lay intentional community, of which I was a part for all 3 years. I lived with various individuals who grappled with the same struggles – how to pay bills and write papers, how to deal with the clericalism of classmates, how to survive being the only woman in a classroom.  I went to get my MDiv because I couldn’t not go. I wanted to dive in deep academically, and could not have anticipated how rich, and exhausting, it would be spiritually. I wanted what the boys had access to. My time there included involvement with in memory of her, a faith-sharing group where people brought their whole selves and how we reimagined a new church into being. 

Jesus was very close to me in seminary, and remains so, though I am currently experiencing God in the more ordinariness of everyday. One of my favorite passages that I have prayed with and imagined countless times is Jesus having breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with his disciples on John 21. This scene and experience of Jesus is new to me each time. in 2018 I participated in an immersion with JST to Israel/Palestine. Being on those shores was a highlight of my spiritual life.

To what am I called? More than any title specifically, there is a profound sense that God continues to offer this call to me: “Love my people.” While I definitely long for, at times, a more explicit call to a specific job, geography, or person, this is at the heart of my life. I would describe my sense of call as one of emergence. Various people, communities, and contexts have called forth gifts from me that I did not necessarily realize I had, or that I would not have otherwise claimed. The women incarcerated at FCI Dublin called forth gifts of preaching and bilingual ministry; the crucified peoples of El Salvador, and so many other places, compel me to be a prophetic witness to the Gospel. Am I called to ordained ministry? Yes. And, the current paradigm of priesthood is so broken (and I’m not “allowed,” which is ridiculous) I am not really sure I want anything to do with it. I am drawn especially to the ministries involved with the diaconate. I also long to be a part of communities that operate beyond the hierarchical, institutional, catholic church. I envision a church that is on the streets and ecumenical; one that is mult-racial, multilingual, and joyful.  I have a sense of call to minister to women of all ages, keep my heart and life close to the poor, and to become a more vocal leader in dismantling white supremacy. I come to this workshop hungry, on the cusp, seeking peer support and a chance for accountability partners in discernment. I arrive as a woman who makes many decisions based on her gut, and that I experience deep knowing in my body. I look forward to swimming in this container and together recognizing how the Holy Spirit descends and dances among us.

Saint to invoke: San Óscar Arnulfo Romero, ¡presente! His compromiso and closeness to the poor, and his gift of prophetic preaching to the powers of the world, challenge and inspire me. I attended his beatification in San Salvador in May 2015 and it was…increíble. In a similar vein, I wish to invoke the presence of the late Dean Brackley, S.J. who carried on the legacy of the Jesuit martyrs and helped establish and animate the CASA program in El Salvador, and whose homilies at the UCA grounded me while I studied there. He died of cancer in October 2011. Here is a foundational piece from him.

Books: Traveling Mercies by Anne LaMott; Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard, Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. these are re-reads for me over the years!

4 thoughts on “Making the Path by Walking

  1. thank you, Lisa! Holding with gratitude all you have written here. So grateful to be in this space with you. Dean Brackley is indeed a powerful voice – his book “Call to Discernment in Troubled Times” and the need for those from privilege to embrace humility, but the need for those in context of marginalization to embrace magnanimity as virtue is so significant for me.

  2. Thank you for your sharing. I am humbled by your courage in all that you have experienced. I don’t know that I could have done what you’ve done. May God continue to be present to you as you listen for direction.

  3. Dear Lisa, it is good to meet you and thank you for your clear, thorough story of these touchstones in your formation. I am excited that we are in a learning group together. It is awesome to hear about your call to theological education and your experience of support with the lay intentional community.

    I would like to know more about the paradox of the broken priesthood and your call to ordained ministry…how does the diaconate offer you an image or a way forward? Are the 5 permanent deacons from your childhood ever in your mind as you envision your own ordained ministry?

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