First published by Catholic Volunteer Network, February 5, 2020
Wind rushing through my hair, crunching snow below, and the surrounding sights of sharp cliffs; at last, I have made it to the summit! Nothing can describe the thrill of seeing the view at the top of a mountain I struggled to climb. The beauty takes my breath away as I recall the memories along the journey to the top. It was full of many switchbacks and even a couple forks in the road where I used my best judgment to choose the correct path. The snow did slow me down around that one bend, but it eventually gave way to a vista of twinkling snow-covered trees. Hiking a challenging trail and experiencing moments like these are some of the best of life’s adventures. Recently, while traversing the unexpected twists and turns leading to the summit of a mountain, I was reminded of the journey I’ve taken through a year of service.
The initial step in any mountain hike is to first choose the trailhead. Upon thinking about all the potential Catholic volunteer programs I could participate in this year, it was necessary to commit to one that seemed to be calling me; one that I hoped would give me the thrill of working for a cause I strongly believed in. The program that struck my heart most poignantly was the St. Joseph Worker Program of Orange. As a Registered Nurse with a passion for social justice and serving the most vulnerable in a given community, this program offered opportunities for just that. I was thrilled to be gifted with the opportunity to serve as a community health nurse in Mission Hospital, a hospital founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange. I would be engaging in the Sisters’ promise to “ease the way” of patients and to “serve the poor and vulnerable” as Jesus did. This seemed to be the perfect trailhead for me!
Sometimes along the journey of a hike I will question whether I am strong enough to make it to the top. After all, my breaths have deepened and my legs are beginning to burn soon after hitting only 2,000 feet of elevation gain. This also has happened while serving alongside the Sisters of St. Joseph at Mission Hospital. I will begin to question whether this decision was prudent after I just graduated nursing school. Why did I move to a new city in which I knew nobody? Why did I give up making such a good starting salary my first year out of school? Will I ever make progress with patients who suffer from many additions and chronic medical conditions? These doubts sometimes cloud my vision of the “summit,” but I have a learned of one tool for the journey: prayer and inspiration from the Holy Spirit. When I am aware of the ways the Holy Spirit is working in my heart and I engage my patients with joy and excitement, I tend to feel a sense of fulfillment once again. I am rejuvenated with the prospect of the mountaintop even through the discomfort of doubts and trials with my clients.
Furthermore, having been entranced by the beautiful scenery on a hike, sometimes I realize that it has been nearly a mile since I have seen the trail makers, colorful blazes on the trees, which show me I am on the correct path. I do not know whether to continue into the unknown or to turn around; my guideposts seem to have vanished. When encountering moments such as this in my year of service, it is comforting to know exactly where my trail markers are leading me. The trail maker for my year of service is the mission statement of the Sisters of St. Joseph: “…to bring all people into union with God and with one another, serving them according to their needs and their own various gifts, in all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy that may be within the power of the congregation” (Sister of St. Joseph, 2019). In some circumstances it is not possible for me to heal a patient’s physical needs. In these moments I appreciate the mission statement of the Sisters, for I am reminded that it may not be only physical healing that is needed. Quite possibly a patient is yearning for a relationship with God and I can assist in bringing that union to fruition. After listening to the patient’s story and making an appointment with the hospital chaplain, the colorful blazes are once again in sight.
Another one of my favorite parts of a hike is coming upon an unexpected vista or waterfall before I reach my intended destination. These little surprises boost my morale especially after a series of seemingly endless switchbacks on a trail. In my year of service there have been some unanticipated joys along the path. One such experience was the opportunity to share my Italian culture with the Sisters during a dinner. After presenting on the meaning of my culture and sharing homemade pizzelle cookies, I felt a sense community with the Sisters. The sense that comes from sharing a bit of myself and opening the conversation for the Sisters and St. Joseph workers to share about their own culture. The result was a beautifully unexpected outcome.
Through writing and hiking, I am able to reflect more fully on my time within this year of service. There is a goal I have in mind for this year—to acknowledge each person I meet, patient, Sister, or friend, as a valued person worthy of dignity and compassion which Jesus showed us in the Gospels. This goal is broad, but that’s the way I think it should be; for it allows for adventures in finding the trailhead, courage in the doubts, hope when I feel lost, and joy in the spontaneity. After the journey of this year, I can’t wait to see the view from the summit.