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Carmelite prioress relies heavily on trust in God

By RENEE WEBB, Globe editor
(Email Renee)

For the new prioress at the Carmelite Monastery in Sioux City, calling upon God for his grace and mercy has become a daily ritual.

“I think of how God has worked in my life and I know he is always there,” said Mother Joseph of Jesus, who was elected prioress in October. “I tell people to trust – God hears your prayers.”

Mother Joseph, born Marilyn Rich, attended Catholic grade and high school with her sister Michelle in Massillon, Ohio.

“I was taught by nuns and at that time I was very drawn to them and wanted to be one myself,” she said.“Going to Mass every day at school, I was also feeling drawn to the Lord and wanted to give myself to Jesus.”

She acknowledged, however, that she didn’t grow up in a devout Catholic family.

“There was a little dysfunction like there probably is in most families,” said Mother Joseph, who noted that her mother was an alcoholic. “My parents would take us to church, but they didn’t go.”

As a child, she often would worry about her parents and prayed that they would return to church. She now believes that this was the beginning of her vocation and the desire to pray for others.

By the time she was in high school, however, she began drinking and hanging out with the wrong crowd. After high school, she took a secretary job and as the drinking continued, slowly she began to drift away from the church.

“I bring this part of my life up because it speaks of God’s grace and mercy,” Mother Joseph said.

In time, she joined the U.S. Foreign Service, working as a secretary that took her to a different country about every two years. The travel afforded her the opportunity and possibly the excuse to drink in exciting new locations.

“I don’t know how it happened, but I stopped going to church all together,” she said.

At age 36, she went into rehab for drinking.

“As I reflect on it, I think of how God’s grace was at work,” Mother Joseph said. “God used the weakness of the addiction and that life to draw me closer to him. One of the steps of AA is that you make the decision to turn your will and life over to the care of God, which is what I did.”

Toward the end of her drinking, she said she had felt a desire to go back to the church but she didn’t really have the strength to do so. Knowing God’s mercy and grace was with her solidified her resolve to do so.

As she was coming back to church she made a confession and she will never forget the words of the priest. The priest quoted Jesus’ last words on the cross as he forgave the thief: “This day you will be with me in paradise.”

Right then, it was as if God’s graces flooded her soul.

She not only returned to Sunday Mass but began to want more and more. In Washington D.C., as she worked for the state department, she regularly attended daily Mass and other special prayer services such as the Stations of the Cross during Lent.

“I just felt like I couldn’t get enough and I could feel my desire to become a nun coming back,” Mother Joseph said. “I gave myself six months and said if it didn’t go away, I would seriously pursue it.”

She stressed the fact that “God doesn’t rush us. He gives us freedom, but I think he is always there drawing us. He is looking for any way to get into your life. Through this weakness, I can see it now that the desire for the drink became the desire for God. He uses our struggles and addictions.”

Knowing she wanted to discern her vocation for six months, she took an assignment through the state department in the Dominican Republic. She was only there a few weeks when she received word that her mother was dying of cancer and had only six months to live.

Mother Joseph became a Eucharistic minister at the parish and this allowed her to take Communion to her mother who had recently returned to the church. At that parish, Mother Joseph saw an advertisement for the Carmelite Monastery in Sioux City.

Her mother died in February and she came to the monastery for a live-in experience in April. But she wasn’t quite ready to commit and opted to take an assignment with the state department working in Israel for two years. Her call to a religious vocation didn’t go away.

In 1991, at age 43, she entered the monastery.

“I felt called here, but I still struggled and had doubts,” Mother Joseph said. “I was afraid that I might not be able to live this life but in the end God gave me the grace.”

Some of the struggles in discerning her life at Carmel came from that little voice within that was telling her she couldn’t live this cloistered life forever. But, she added, God doesn’t necessarily “ask us forever – it’s a day at a time. Stay in the present moment. Eventually I knew I wanted to be God’s forever and ever.”

The two happiest days of her life, she noted, were when she put on the habit and when she professed her vows.

“To me, it was like a miracle that God chose me,” she said. “I felt so unworthy – but we are all unworthy. God calls everyone to holiness – he just wants to be a part of everyone’s lives.”

While the cloistered life is a life of prayer, silence and solitude, Mother Joseph said Carmel is also a balance of sisterly community and charity.

“It is a joyful community life with Christ,” she said. “Our cloister helps us to become detached from exterior things so that we can detach ourselves interiorly from everything and that way God can become everything in our lives. It’s for union with God but it’s also for the church and service.”

Much of what the Carmelite Nuns do is pray for priests, the needs of the church and all God’s children.

“People call us for prayers because I think they know our lives are dedicated to intimacy with God,” Mother Joseph said.

She continues to marvel at how God leads people to religious vocations. While the path is different for everyone, she said she believes her addiction helped bring the vocation to light.

“It’s really all of God’s doing,” said Mother Joseph, who encourages others to pursue a vocation if they believe that God is calling them. “Do not be afraid. God gives you the grace for the moment.”

Through sharing her story, the Carmelite nun said she wants to help others find hope and know that no matter how bad things might look or feel “God’s grace is bigger than any sin or mess. God wants us to hope and trust in him. Ask for his help. He is there.”

Trust, however, doesn’t always come easy even for Mother Joseph. When she was elected the prioress she told a priest that she felt so inadequate. The priest offered a response that brought comfort. He told her that God wants inadequacies because “in our weakness it shows the glory of God and it is a reminder that God is bigger than us.”

Another example of God’s greatness and glory was when her father came back to the church upon his death bed.

“Still today it is a day-to-day trusting in God,” she said. “For me, every day I ask God to help me do his will and what it pleasing in his sight. I need his help. In many ways I am still that little girl back in Ohio who needs his help.”

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