| | |

Sr Isabel Kelly FMSJ – A Quirky Reflection on Doing God’s Will


The coronavirus pandemic has stopped my going to the hospital. also having been diagnosed with secondary cancer just before the arrival of coronavirus, it makes me a bit more vulnerable and bound to 12 weeks of self-isolating.

We never think that we are doing their will. We trust that they know better than we do, we trust them, so we do it.

 When we get to school age, our teachers tell us what to do. Children in higher classes tell us what to do. We live a life of doing what we are told. Sometimes we were told we hadn’t done what we were told and we didn’t know why. We just accepted it. “I disobeyed my parents” was a regular sin for me in confession! in later years it was, “I used to disobey my parents”!  Never did we think that we were doing their will.

In school we learned the 10 commandments – what we should and should not do. Again, the saying ‘God’s will’ didn’t appear in the vocabulary. Nobody’s will did!

For me, I think doing God’s will began when I was called to the religious life. It was a very strong feeling – one I didn’t like at all. I knew nothing about Nuns. I wasn’t good enough or clever enough so I would just be sent home useless.

 I was in the WRENS (women’s royal naval service) when the “Call” invaded my world. Again, we had rules to obey. I suppose there is security behind rules. There is organization – black and white. This “call” had no rules, no plans, no security, no safety. It was a completely unknown territory and absolutely terrifying. Joining the WRENS was a huge leap of faith for me – leaving home. However, I was going to do office work – something I was familiar with. I could leave after two weeks if I didn’t like it or after six weeks.

I knew nothing about Convents. I thought they spoke a foreign language! I felt I would be the very first person to be told to leave for being useless – nothing to offer! I took the plunge. I left the Wrens which I loved. I left home which was all I had ever known and went to a place in England – a foreign land(!) – to a place i had never heard of, namely Altrincham. That’s where the words ‘God’s will ‘ came into play. Doing God’s will was really important and we did that through obedience. Anyone in authority spoke for God. What they said was what God wanted of us.

 Doing what I was told was always a big part of my life and I really treasured it. Yet from a young age I knew when a grown-up was wrong and I was right! When I was 8 or 9 years old, my mother took me to Aberdeen with her. I think she was helping someone out. There was no Catholic Church in the area so we couldn’t go to Mass that Sunday. when I went to confession and the priest was giving me a lecture on not listening to what was said from the pulpit i.e. find out before you go away and if there’s no church “ don’t go.” young as I was, I was thinking  “speak all you like. If there had been a church we would have gone.” I knew I had done nothing wrong!

I had only renewed my vows once when I was allowed home for three days before I went to Borneo, supposedly for fifteen years. I was told to travel with my hands up my sleeves and my eyes cast down and to speak to no-one! We were sitting in a carriage for six people – three seats at one side and three at the other. I thought, “ how can I go all the way from Manchester to Glasgow and ignore people?” so, I chatted all the way, telling everyone that I was going to Borneo and I had three days at home before I went. Again, I knew it was the right thing to do.

 When I was in the novitiate, I read about a very holy sister who was a teacher. when she died, she was put forward for canonization – of being made a saint. I shall never forget that she never became a saint. It was discovered that when she should have been teaching, she was in church praying. She was not where God wanted her to be and not doing what God wanted her to do. She may have been praying but she should have been teaching. She was not doing God’s will.

 Doing God’s will is the most important thing in my life. If I am doing that, everything will be fine.

 For religious, who take a vow of obedience, doing God’s will is essential to all that they do. In my 64 years as a religious, I have never said “no” to an appointment – being asked to do something or go somewhere. I have never asked to do anything, not to do anything, not to go anywhere. I have challenged God more than once and He always rises to it! The way I reacted to all my challenges has given me the complete trust that I have in him.

 I have discovered that there are religious in the world who say “no” when asked to move to another place or are asked to do something. There are also religious who train for one profession and then ask – sort of demand – to train for something else. What follows is my experience of always saying “yes” in spite of my feelings of fear, insecurity, uselessness and sure failure.

As a postulant, five of our group of eight were asked to help out at convents outside of the Novitiate. I wasn’t one of them. so, I challenged God on this at Mass on the morning of their departure. I told him it was obvious that he wanted them. I wanted a sign that He wasn’t making a big mistake in calling me to the religious life. I wanted a sign that very day. After mass, the postulant mistress told me to pack my bag – I was going to Didsbury because the father of the postulant going there wasn’t well!!!! strange to say but all five of them actually left the congregation at different times. I then asked God to give me snow on my first profession day to show me that all was well. That morning, I looked out of the kitchen window, it was frosty outside. I said to God, “at least it’s white so I will let you off.” during Mass, it began to snow and snow and snow! It never stopped. As it lay thick on the ground, I knew, that no matter how useless I felt, He wanted me as an FMSJ. that was a great grace. I never doubted from that day onwards, but it didn’t stop me challenging Him!!!! or Him challenging me!

Imagine having had three years of secondary school and then leaving school to get a job to help support our family of six. those were the qualifications I had, plus typing, when I joined the FMSJ. Eighteen months after my first profession I received a letter telling me that at the beginning of October, I would be sailing to Borneo with another Sister. I was going to teach in a secondary school. I was absolutely terrified and had no desire whatever to go. My solution was to pray that the boat would sink!!!! when all went well, all I could do was tell God that I would share my faith and the rest was up to him. While every other trained teacher had one class for English, I had two!! That meant a lot of corrections with almost 50 girls in each class. After the first term test, the results of my classes were regarded as “normal”! After just over 13 years, having taught and been headmistress in two schools, I was asked to return to the UK to do some training. As it turned out, that didn’t happen until eleven months later when I had to do five ‘o’ levels (GCSES) by correspondence in 8 months! God did his job again and got me through it. Thus, I was accepted for teacher training at the age of 41. again God led me to surprise choices! instead of doing English and religious education, I specialised in French! This was all “by accident”! little did I know that God was loosening my tongue to learn some Swahili for Kenya and then to work using Spanish in Ecuador! None of these was my choice. I was led by God in doing what He asked of me through my congregational leaders. I did things I had never even dreamt of. My life began at 50 in Ecuador, having been graced by the deep silence and nothingness of Marigat in Kenya. Every move I had, meant leaving people and places I knew and loved, for the unknown. None of this was easy but knowing it was God’s will – not mine – I was blessed with faith and trust.

Having spent more than 33 years abroad, you can imagine the pain of being asked to return to the UK for good – forever! I was almost 64 years old – too old to teach and too fit to retire! I was sent to Blackburn to look for a job! I had never lived in Blackburn and knew nothing about it. I had always wanted to be a nurse but was sent to teach. After two months in Blackburn I had contacted the hospital chaplain, had an interview and a medical and started work as a hospital chaplain! that was 22 years ago! the coronavirus pandemic has stopped my going to the hospital. also having been diagnosed with secondary cancer just before the arrival of coronavirus, it makes me a bit more vulnerable and bound to 12 weeks of self-isolating.

I have been blessed in so many ways and learnt so much about myself and others – learning about the horrors of human trafficking and raising awareness of it, writing poetry for use in the hospital, giving talks on human trafficking, the religious life, growing old and sharing humour. Add to all that, taking up crown green bowls, playing in the men’s team, taking part in entertainment nights with the lady bowlers – life for the past 22 years has been very varied. I have travelled all over England raising awareness on human trafficking and giving talks to mothers’ unions. Even the Rotary club, Probus and the Soroptomists have invited me to speak to them and as you can imagine, I have met many wonderful people and chatted to thousands of patients.

In all this, I have been doing God’s will not my own. I firmly believe that nothing we do bears any fruit unless we are doing what God wants.

 There will be suffering, misunderstandings and even persecution but our God is there beside us to carry us through. Perhaps a new mantra could be “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

On reading this, some might be thinking “That was then. this is now. The world has changed. We have moved on. We are now in the modern world. What applied to you is outdated now. We have moved on.”

 I agree, it is a different world, but God’s will isn’t different! What God wants of us is the same – to do His will. Years ago if a child was punished by the teacher and he told his parents, they would say, “you must have deserved it.” Nowadays, if a child tells his parents he has been punished by the teacher, the parents very often go to the school and either attack the teacher verbally or physically or both. Which do you think is right? which would God approve of? It is not the times that have changed but rather people and their attitudes. so, I stand by my thoughts on doing God’s will.

 You may also be thinking that god has also changed. he used to be a god to be feared – a god who watched us – spied on us! God hasn’t changed. He has always been a God of love – a God who watches over us – protects us. No, it is the world whose attitude must change – not that we change to the attitude of the world.

May God guide us in all we do and give us peace.

Written by Sister Isabel C. Kelly, Fmsj