by Lindy Morrelli

It was happening again.

I bared my soul to reveal my spiritual restlessness, my desire for a place to belong. And again someone was telling me I should be satisfied with what I had. After all, I was a baptized Catholic, therefore an integral member of the church, and I had been permitted to take private vows approved by the bishop. Why could I not be grateful for the graces I had received? Though sometimes unspoken, that was the question everyone asked.

If only it were as simple as that.

Due to an accident at birth, I lost my sight completely. Although my family did their best to give me a sense of well-being, my parents divorced when I was young. As I grew up, I felt alone and abandoned. In my misery, I turned toward God. Somehow I understood that life was empty and purposeless without him. While my heart ached for peace in so many ways, I found immense fulfillment in God. Contemplative, But Not Cloistered

By the time I finished college, I felt called to a religious vocation. The next step was to find a religious community where I could belong, a place to live with and among others who shared a similar vocation. I felt called to a vocation that combines contemplative prayer with active service to the poor, so I sought out communities that practiced this way of life. In the mid'80s, I contacted more than 100 communities to find out about their communal life and ministry and how I might fit into it. For many years, I searched for an opportunity to fulfill my vocation, but the answer was always the same. My lack of sight was simply too big an obstacle for these communities. How would I get to locations for serving the poor? What if I needed transportation to medical appointments? I never saw myself as disabled, but clearly these communities did not feel they were set up to accept a blind person.

In 1990, I spent time with a community in Italy. How I wanted this to be the right place for me! I would have gone anywhere if I thought I could fulfill my vocation. However, the way of life in that particular community did not match what I felt called to, because there was no time for solitude, and no active ministry.

The disappointment broke my heart. I felt so earnestly that I had a true calling from God, but for 20 years I have not been able to find an adequate way to answer God's call. I was repeatedly cut off in such a dismissive way. Did these wellintentioned people realize they were cutting right through my heart? Few ever acknowledged the injustice and pain of the situation with any real empathy. They truly couldn't understand my plight - or perhaps it was just too unsettling to them to consider what my presence in a community might mean. Some people even said I should just forget about religious life altogether and find someone to marry. While I certainly don't disparage the vocation of marriage, I didn't feel called to that and was offended! Why was it so simple for them to decide what my life should be like?

Others reminded me that God accepts my vows as they are, and said that should be enough to fulfill me. Were they even listening to what I was saying? Was it just easier not to hear my heart's desire because I had a disability? These people who no doubt considered themselves well-intentioned nevertheless took the unequivocal position that I - and all other disabled people - have no value for the church, and that it was acceptable to discount our desires to serve.

Several times I went to our local bishop. Though he was always kind, he had no solutions. There was no place for me, and the fact that there would never be a place for me, or for anyone else who is disabled, filled me with despair. I was devoted to the church, and I wanted a connection, a blessing from the church. Why would God give me a calling that I could not fulfill?

Since the beginning of my search, the only option I have consistently been given is to go into a cloistered monastic community. Several of them would have accepted me; one in particular had been formed specifically for people with disabilities. But after spending time there, I became convinced that my vocation was not to be found in a cloister. I have always longed to give solace to the poor, and by this time, I had been deeply involved in prison and hospital ministry, working as much as I could to bring comfort in those dismal situations. A cloistered way of life would not have provided opportunities to use my Godgiven gifts. Convenience or Calling?

While I can understand the practical concerns that would make a community hesitant to take in a disabled member, I couldn't help wonder if the decision had more to do with the convenience of those who have no disability than the welfare of those who do. Not having a person with a disability in their midst would spare the community of having to deal with challenges the disabled face on a daily basis. They could just wrap up the disabled in a neatly packaged arrangement that, in their estimation, provides us with ample opportunities to serve, a place we should be satisfied with because it's better than nothing.

By and large, disabled people with a vocation for the church have not been given the chance to serve in community. Even in our modern society and church, people are generally unaware or not open to the capabilities of people with disabilities. They don't see the need to belong to a community on an equal basis of vocation. Why can't all people be evaluated according to actual abilities? Why does calling not carry the same weight for all people?

The disabled are not a separate class of people markedly different from the rest of the population. We are people just like everyone else, with gifts that can enrich specific communities. For communities to accept the disabled, they would have to stretch and grow, to become more trusting and generous. In assuming that they already know what our limitations and needs are, they underestimate and misjudge our potential. If people could open their minds enough to learn from each individual with a disability and each situation, we could share in community and grow together. But for this to happen, communities would have to face the fears we face. They would have to be willing to be inconvenienced. They would have to take the necessary steps of faith in order for us all to live together. They would have to get out of their comfort zones to make room for those with special needs who are seeking genuine community. Carmel and Community

With the passage of time and after much prayer, discernment and soulsearching, I have finally come to terms with the anguish of my thwarted dreams. I have found my true vocation at last. I have come to recognize myself in the Carmelite writers and have found my life's purpose in Carmel. The writings of St. John of the Cross, in particular, have given me strength, guidance and clarity. St. John of the Cross teaches us that, through pain, God purifies us, and that as we are purified, we become one with God. I have come to realize and accept the real purpose of my life: what really matters is that I grow in union with God, that I grow in love for God and for neighbor. It is not of such importance that I accomplish my own dreams or agendas, or that I reach some external goal, or that I have everything I think I need, like being in community. Rather, what matters is that I grow in holiness. In realizing this, I have come to a place of freedom and can finally say to God, "Your will be done."

While this interior struggle was going on, I was graced in other ways by my work with the poor. In trying to identify with them in every way, in their feelings, their struggles, their burdens, I found immense fulfillment and a purpose for my life. In the '90s, I developed a grassroots ministry that provides a day center and residential facility for the poor. They can come in and find hospitality, guidance and a new start. This work has brought me great happiness, but has become virtually impossible to do alone, since my duties range from administrator, program manager, fundraiser, counselor and so on. I would like to find other committed people who feel called to work with the poor, so they can join me in this ministry. And since I feel my first priority is contemplative prayer in the Carmelite tradition, I want to share my life of prayer and love for God with others who feel called to a deep prayer life and union with God.

I don't know if God wants me to establish a community in the church, but the thought has certainly crossed my mind. Others have suggested it to me as well. I feel inadequate and ill-equipped for that task, but if God wishes that of me, I'll do it. I envision a community where dedicated people live together, sharing a life of contemplative prayer, love for God and neighbor in serving the poor. At present, I am living out that way of life alone with a daily structured schedule of prayer and ministry. If others came to join me, I envision the disabled and nondisabled living together, helping each other to reach their fullest potential. My vision is that the disabled, together with those who have learned the special gifts of compassion and empathy, share with those God sends to us, giving them sound guidance and loving welcome. I am strongly convinced that those of us who suffer from physical disabilities or from deep inner poverty of spirit are equipped and called in a special way to bring love and peace to those whom God places before us. Our life together would be primarily a life of contemplation and prayer, according to the Carmelite tradition. Then as a fruit of prayer, my hope is that we would continue this ministry while living with the poor and making a home for them, helping them to rebuild their lives.

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