Recently I have been involved with a mentor training program, in preparation for working with young Catholic women leaders in the coming year. As part of our training with Dr. Joshua Miller, we have been invited to reflect on “achievement stories” or “fulfillment stories.” When you review the whole course of your life, what is something that you have done that you think you did well, that was deeply satisfying? A fulfillment story doesn’t have to be about a brag-worthy achievement; simple every-day actions can also speak. As we reflect on these stories, we can hear the very particular nature of what fulfills us, what motivates us. If we listen well, we can hear the pattern underlying our own personal calling in life.
For example, I could describe how I used to spend days mucking out stalls of our family barn. It was satisfying physically to hoist pitchforks full of muck and to drop them into a wheelbarrow, to push or pull the wheelbarrow through the bumpy field down to the manure pile, to empty the stinky load, once, twice, maybe three times, maybe four.
When the stall floor was clean, I would drop flakes of sweet-smelling golden straw through the ceiling from the loft, and then spread the straw across the boards, judiciously, but thickly enough that if the animals wanted to lie down, they would have some padding. As I reflect on what was satisfying about doing this, I think about the physicality of the job, about how strong I felt, doing this job week after week. It was satisfying to take a mess and to make it a place of hospitality, to turn a stinky space into one that smelled earthy fresh. I cared about our animals, and I wanted to give them a comfortable place to rest.
Another example of an achievement story, from another end of the spectrum, would be a time I sang the music of St. Hildegard of Bingen in Saint Meinrad’s Archabbey Church. It was part of a little recital a few of us had put together as part of a chant workshop we were offering, and the audience was comprised of people who loved chant and wanted to learn more.
The acoustics of the church were perfect, made for this kind of music, made for my kind of voice. The music of Hildegard is some of the most ethereal, hauntingly beautiful stuff you’ll ever hear, and even after ten years of voice lessons, it is still some of the hardest music I’ve ever sung. As a soprano, I’m always looking for the melody, but Hildegard takes you all over the place; it takes serious focus not to get lost. The sheer range of her music goes from the very top to the very bottom of what I can sing. But I did it. While it was slightly terrifying in the moment, I sang her songs and let them live in that space. When I think about what made that experience satisfying, I think of the joy of creating such beauty, but also the grace of being welcomed to use the monks’ church space, the awe of the hearers, who somehow were transported to some other realm for a little while. I think of the satisfaction of being able to do something hard, but also the beauty and mystery of being able to make Hildegard live again, this amazing holy Renaissance woman of the Middle Ages.
As I think of these and other achievement stories from my life, I begin to see patterns of what I find fulfilling: creating order out of chaos, beauty out of nothing, a pathway where there seems to be no way, giving of myself physically in order to create something good for others. This pattern shows up in the different ways I live my calling in life, whether as a school administrator creating a smooth admissions process for students, or as a committee member trying to clarify the crux of an issue to be addressed.
As you think about your own life, consider your own “fulfillment stories.” Can you name something that you have done well, that you have found deeply satisfying? Just what has been satisfying about what you have done? Do you see a pattern in the activities that bring you joy?