Sr Anna Marie McGuan of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, tells of her journey from the US Army to Edinburgh religious sister.
By the time I was ten years old I had stopped believing in God. Totally. I hated the Church and wanted nothing to do with it.
Prior to that, when I was probably seven or eight, I decided that I wanted to go to the United States Military Academy at West Point. It was just a goal. I saw a postcard of it. I was intrigued.
When I graduated high school, I went there. When you graduate from Westpoint, you become an officer in the United States Army. Military formation was totally new to me. You’re beaten down, that’s part of the deal. You’re at this elite military college, but everybody here is elite, so you’re not special. That’s how you learn to be a good soldier.
It was a very good year in many ways and a very difficult one too. Slowly but surely, I came to realise that this thing I wanted my whole life was not what I was supposed to do with my life. Then you ask, well then what? I didn’t believe in God. It was a very dark time.
It was that questioning that led me to leave the academy. The more secular answer is to do what makes you happy, settle with pleasures. There was something in me that rebelled against that, that wanted to commit myself to something greater than myself. It was the same thing that led me to the academy in the first place.
You get told on all fronts that you’re good enough as you are and there’s nothing else. Living for myself wasn’t enough. The reason I don’t believe that is because I have an interior conviction that I am here for a reason. I think everyone has that. I didn’t know what that was at the time.
It was like a torment. Really, really intense.
I had done everything I thought would make me happy, and I had it completely wrong.
That’s what brought me into that church.
I pulled over. It was a Friday night. The church was unlocked.
I sat in the very, very back pew. As far away from the tabernacle as I could – because I grew up Catholic, right?
I just sat there, looked at the tabernacle, and said: I don’t know if you’re there. But if you are, God, I would like to know what to do with my life. I’m listening, maybe for the first time ever.
The light I had not seen before
So, I was leaving. As I was, I saw a light on that I had not seen before. It was the parish office.
There was a priest who answered the door. I recognised him, but I didn’t know his name.
I remembered he had given his homily at a church that I had been to with my parents that wasn’t our regular church about seven years earlier.
In it, he had said: I just want to talk to all the young people in the church tonight. I just want you to know that God loves you, I love you, and we want you to come to Mass.
Of course, I had been complaining about going to Mass as usual, the whole thirty-minute drive there.
I basically said to him: Father, seven years ago you have this homily. If you meant what you said, I’m here now and I need to talk to you.
I didn’t know he would be there; the memory just came back like a freight train into my mind. It was one of those moments of Divine Providence where you just ask: How is that possible?
I later asked him why he gave that homily, because it changed my life. He said: You know, it’s a funny thing. I remember preparing that homily. And I have never been so fearful to stand up and give a homily in my life than when I gave that one.
But he did it anyway. For this reason, I am a big fan of unlocked churches. It probably saved my life.
We sat together in his office for about-two-and-a-half hours. I told him I had three questions and then I’d leave him alone: Does God exist; Is the Eucharist real; How do you pray?
I don’t know where those questions came from. That’s the grace of the Holy Spirit at work: when you open yourself to God, He will work.
Outside of the faith dimension, I had this drive to know what is the most true thing? How should we live so that what is most true and most good about ourselves comes out so that it can be shared with everyone? I wanted the truth that I could make my life correspond to.
After this beautiful conversation with this priest, the reasonableness of Catholicism shone through so well. We went through Saint Thomas Aquinas’ proofs for the existence of God: Yes, there is a God; Yes, you can know He exists; Here’s how.
From there, Christology: We know Jesus existed, how can we know He is God? How can we at least come to that threshold where you can make that act of faith?
And then prayer, he gave me a book. The Way of the Pilgrim.
We met every couple weeks. He basically became my spiritual director. But at the end of that first meeting in October, he said to me: I think you might have a religious vocation.
I thought: no way.
In coming back into the orbit of Grace through the Sacraments you’re living a different life. All of a sudden, I would hear: ‘I think you might have a religious vocation!’ on repeat. It wouldn’t go away.
I went back to him because it was incessant.
He gave me three convents to visit on a piece of paper in the December. After Christmas, I picked it up and tore-off the bottom two and threw them away.
I said to God: I’ll give you one chance. And that was The Sisters of Mercy.
I visited on the Friday. I was pretty convinced on the Saturday. By Sunday, it was as clear as day. I remember it was the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
In the gospel reading at Mass, the heavens open, the Holy Spirit descends, and the voice of the Father is heard. He says: This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. I knew it was meant for me and that I was being called in the call of the Son.
It’s not that everybody has to be a sister or a priest. But as Saint Augustine said, I knew a peace that I had been looking for my whole life. I had found it. And I have never looked back.
And as he puts in the beginning of the Confessions: You have made us for yourself, oh Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in you.
Sr Anna Marie of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, is originally from Gary, Indiana, and came to Edinburgh in September 2020. She currently serves as catechist for the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh.