Ten years ago, God answered my prayer when I told him, “Ok God, I am not attached to any person, place or thing. I do not know where I should go or what I should do with my life. Show me where you want me to go, and even though I feel completely useless, I will do it.”
This was my resigned prayer to Him. I did think God would answer me with small signs, small clues – He would answer eventually, as He always does. But I wasn’t expecting such an immediate and powerful answer from Him. I have to remember that sometimes He does that as well.
I write this testimony for those who do not feel God has a purpose for their life – in many ways, they have a hard time believing that God even thinks about them, because they feel so abandoned by Him. In fact, the feeling of abandonment, and disappointment is so acute, that it’s easy to no longer believe God even exists.
I hope this testimony gives you hope that God does answer prayers. Sometimes it just takes complete abandonment to Him.
Feeling abandoned by God
How many of us thought our twenties were going to be the best years of our life?
After toiling in school and University, we finally are liberated into the real world where we can excel at the jobs we have been preparing for all our lives. We will earn pots of money so we can finally live the boujis lifestyle we have always dreamt about. At the time, my dream lifestyle was getting to go on island vacations with my friends, like in the ‘Sipping my Bacardi rum’ commercials. And finally and most importantly, we meet that partner who we will spend the rest of our lives in bliss with – including vacations lounging on the Bacardi rum beach.
If that is exactly how your twenties are passing – in pure and utter bliss – bless you. I am not being sarcastic, I genuinely say, if your twenties are everything you wanted and you are happy, bless you.
That was not exactly how my twenties went. In fact, I would say the mid-twenties was probably the hardest period of my life so far – and interestingly enough, because I got exactly what I wanted. On the outside, my dreams came true. Well, except for the island vacations, I never got around to them – though vacations in the south of France with friends are just as incredible. On the inside though, I was in total panic.
I had seemed to land the perfect job after my Master’s – one suited to my interests, and with a fantastic and smart group of people. However, after years of excelling in school due to strong work ethic and focus – it completely failed me at work. I constantly felt under pressure to deliver, but I didn’t feel I had the necessary focus to properly follow through. I managed to get things done, but I never felt I truly understood the subject matter I was meant to be an expert on – which is a bit of a problem when you are leading a team of people around the world. Since I had a hard time focusing and felt I was underperforming, I spent long days in the office and many weekends.
While I was not earning pots of money, I had managed to earn enough to live in flats in London that I thought could be homes. I had achieved the dream of living in London, but for the first time since I went off to University, I felt severely homesick for my parents and the community of friends we had. Another sense of panic – the idea of needing to create my own home away from what I thought was my real home.
And lastly, I had met the person I thought I would spend the rest of my life with. He was sweet, and he was kind, and we got along really well. We cherished each other, and we were making those pseudo- long-term plans that you make in your mid-twenties. While he knew my struggles with work and my draining confidence, I secretly feared he would fully realise how useless I was. I had always dreamt of being the captivating partner, and here I was struggling just to be competent. The more my confidence in my work drained, the more I depended on him for being my source of happiness.
He did try to be supportive as my anxiety increased – but there was only so much he could do. And it wasn’t easy for him either, who is also highly anxious about succeeding in life. Eventually, he withdrew, and then completely left. I would like to say it was a peaceful breakup but it ended up being messy, and it was brutal for me. I never knew a heart could shatter so completely.
My sense of self – between feeling incompetent at work and not at home in London and then heartbreak – well, I was shattered. I felt completely deluded by what I had been promised would happen if you worked hard in school: to have a perfect life after. It seems silly now, but I do think that is still the major carrot that is promised to many graduating students. No wonder so many students become disillusioned when they graduate and learn about the daily grind of life.
Yes, I felt disillusioned and burnt out by life. More importantly, I felt completely abandoned by God.
I remember there being a moment where I renounced God. I remember thinking, “Following God’s way is for suckers, the world is too cruel and cynical to follow the way of Christ.” We were one year into the economic crisis that started in 2008, it seemed that the whole world was going into despair at the uncertainty of the future, and nothing was going to get better.
Something within me snapped at that admission, and I finally caved into to a sense of nihilism. Life had become meaningless – that morass landscape of desolation that I read about once, somewhere. It would be simple to illustrate my interior life at the time: a grey fog where no rays of joy or hope could pierce. My entire body felt coiled in complete tension and disillusionment and shame. Shame that I had failed at growing up in life when I had been given every opportunity to succeed.
It was difficult for me to function in work, and quite frankly, I no longer cared. I had lost weight to the point that people thought that I was anorexic. They saw me eat, then thought I was bulemic. I was neither but I am guessing I suffered from hyperthyroidism. I had all the symptoms: racing thoughts, high anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia and sudden and excessive drop in weight.
My parents were so scared about how depressed I was that they convinced me to quit and leave the UK and return home to where they worked in Saudi Arabia. Saudi was where I grew up and I often thought of it as my fortress of solitude – a safe haven of peace and sunshine and love that provided a very necessary respite from the intense pace of studying at University.
Peace was not coming in. Instead, hardness, bitterness, regret, disillusionment, self-pity. And panic. I did not recognise this shell of a person I had become. How could Jesus abandon me like this? What was I meant to do? My days seemed like a long series of meaningless vacuums that I was meant to fill for the rest of my life. Again, an intense sense of shame plagued me because I would need to rely on my parents – but how could I? I was meant to be an adult.
Moving forward blindly
My mother had convinced me to apply to a PhD program – just to give my mind something to do. I had missed the scholarships deadline already, but I had contacted my master’s professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), and we worked to put together a research proposal. I was about to submit my online application, but a glitch in the online system meant that I could not submit the scanned version of my transcripts. It seemed like a cosmic joke because LSE already had my transcripts on record. I took it as a sign from God.
My Dad took me to India to visit my grandmothers and receive some spiritual and psychological counselling from a priest in our family. It did help, but I couldn’t break the inner sense of nihilism, shame and bitterness.
While I was in there, I received an email from the LSE Online System telling me that I was so close to the final submission of my application, why not complete it? So I called my mother in Saudi and asked her to mail the hard copies of my transcripts to LSE.
I didn’t see the point of trying – without a scholarship, how was I going to get the financing to do a PhD? Besides after working in the private sector, I had seen how many key insights academia missed on what was happening on the ground. What was the point in being two paces behind what was actually happening in the real world?
Still, moving forward blindly was better than doing nothing at all.
Be careful of the promises you make to God – He holds you to them
My Dad then took me to visit my Uncle, Father Reggie. He is a Diocesan priest who led the development work on behalf of the Archbishop of Kolkata at the time. I had visited him twice before, each time to work on development projects in the West Bengal area as part of my Undergraduate field work. I thought I would join him, but this time to support him on doing work on solar micro-finance. In fact, my PhD proposal was based on doing research on this topic.
He gave me the task of putting together some funding proposals, but each time I sat in front of my laptop – I just couldn’t function. Father Reggie has always been a spiritual mentor to me, and after seeing me struggle, gave me the advice to not do any mental work, but physical work. He suggested that I volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity instead – the order Mother Teresa started.
So I went to Mother House and asked the Sisters which was the most challenging house in Kolkata to work in. I wasn’t asking from a false sense of bravado. I was actually hoping that seeing the most destitute people would finally snap me out of the tight snares of self-pity. She said, “Kalighat”, also known as the Home for the Dying. Mother Teresa’s first home for the destitute.
So on the first day of volunteering, I went for mass in the morning at Mother House, and had a simple breakfast of bread, tea and biscuits with the other volunteers. I joined the volunteering group that was headed to Kalighat.
As I entered into Kalighat, I saw the picture of Christ on the Cross with the words, “I thirst”. And I was struck powerfully by a memory I had four years earlier when I had entered Kalighat for my 21st birthday. It was my present from Father Reggie, to visit Mother House and Kalighat. And I had been so moved, so moved by the spirit of Mother and Jesus, and this outpouring of love they had for the poor.
I had remembered looking at that same picture of Christ on the Cross thinking, “I don’t care if I am working, or have a boyfriend, or am based in some other place. When I am 25, I will come and volunteer here. I promise you God that I will come and serve you here.”
Apparently I had forgotten that I had made this promise to God. Four years after making that promise, at the age of 25, God brought me back to Kalighat to serve Him. He obviously had not forgotten.
I would like to say that from that moment on, I relaxed and threw myself into the service of God, because I knew He interceded in my life – whether I liked it or not. I would like to say that I finally snapped out of my chains of self-pity, and in seeing the most emaciated people I had ever met, I was overcome with compassion and mercy to serve the poorest of the poor.
Sadly that kind of transcendence did not happen the moment I saw Christ’s thirst. I would say it was more of a slow unfolding.
One of the tasks I had in Kalighat was to work with Lokhi Rani, a woman who was half paralysed due to a sun stroke. I did physical exercises with her by moving her arms, limbs, getting her to sit up, and eat her lunch by guiding her hand to her mouth. She would fight me on this – not literally, but she would cry when we started the exercises, and say she wanted to go home. Even though I imagined it was painful for her, I would say to her in Bengali, “Do you really want to go home? How are you going to go home? Your legs needs to take you there. So let’s stop crying and do this.” Harsh, I know. But as I said the words to her, it echoed back to me.
If two or three more tears spilled from Lokhi Rani’s eyes, I would look her straight in the eye and make a silly face. Without fail, she would immediately laugh. Humour works wonders.
In fact, I was amazed at the amount of the humour these wonderful ladies had – they were rather cheeky.
I remember we were distributing mangos for desert, and one lady, Agnes, told me she had not received her mango. So I asked for a mango from the Sisters, and as I handed the mango to Agnes, I saw two mangos roll from under her blanket and onto the floor. We both shared a chuckle as I handed over the contraband to her.
Kalighat is a home for the dying. It is meant to be the place where people are brought in from the streets, literally close to death. One woman had part of her skull bashed in. Another woman had a broken femur that was sticking out of her thigh, with a thin piece of skin covering it. A Finnish nurse volunteering there said she should have died from internal bleeding alone.
Amazingly, in the month that I worked in the woman’s ward, no one died. Instead, sheltered from the brutal elements of the Kolkata sun and pollution and traffic – and well, utter poverty, in here, they recovered. It was amazing to see people come back to life because they had a decent bed to sleep in, with regular meals, medical attention, medicine, baths, and care.
In the weeks I worked with Lokhi Rani, she went from being someone who could only lie down, to someone who could use the right side of her body that wasn’t paralysed to push herself to sit up, eat, and she gained movement in her left paralysed side.
God does heal. I saw it with my own eyes, and I am grateful to be a witness of it.
My month with the Sisters had settled into a daily routine. I would wake in the morning, go to morning mass in the upstairs chapel of Mother House, then go downstairs to have breakfast with the other volunteers. Then we would all disperse to our respective volunteering homes, and do our various duties for the morning. For lunch, I would go back to the Centre that my Uncle worked in, and where I was boarding, and we would have lunch together. I would try to have a lunchtime siesta (I was an insomniac at the time), and then walk back to Mother House at 3pm – when the Sisters reopened it. I would sit in front of Mother’s tomb trying to pray, write in my notebook, and try not to feel miserable, until we had evening service again. That was actually the daily routine of many of the volunteers – except the miserable part, though some of them had similar stories of trying to recover from burnout, heart break, or both.
One of the Sisters noticed me. She actually was a friend of Father Reggie’s. She asked me what was going on with me, and I told her the whole self-pity story, and how I did not know what to do.
I remember what she told me: “I think you are asking for something too specific. Do Mother Teresa’s novena, and just ask God, “Lord, I am not attached to any person, place or thing. Tell me where you want me to go, and what you want me to do. He will let you know.”
I didn’t quite believe her, but I knew my time in Kolkata was ending soon, so I thought I would give it a shot. I sat in front of Mother’s tomb and after the first day of her novena, I said, “Ok God, I am not attached to any person, place or thing. I do not know where I should go or what I should do with my life. Show me where you want me to go, and even though I feel completely useless, I will do it.”
The next day I did almost the same routine. The only two differences were that I was on my second day of Mother Teresa’s novena; and after finishing in Kalighat in the morning, I decided to join the other volunteers and go to where they normally had lunch near their hostels. After lunch, everyone went to their hostels to rest. I would have done the same but the Centre was too far away.
The Kolkata afternoon sun in May is brutal, so I was ducking under shop awnings to get some shelter and saw an internet cafe. I had avoided checking the internet or reading my emails – any screen time would make my body tense up, and my mind would go into hyper anxiety mode. But it had been over two weeks since I had checked, and I also knew there would be fans or an AC running inside the internet cafe.
When I opened my email, the first thing I noticed was an email from the LSE Geography and Environment Department sent the day before. I thought it was strange so I opened it up. This is what was said:
Date: Tue, 18 May 2010 at 16:58
Subject: LSE Application
Thank you for your application, we are about to hold a secondary panel meeting for the Geography and Environment Scholarship and I wondered if you require funding and would like to be considered, your application made it to the school in time and so you are eligible for consideration. If you can let me know asap that would be great.
I was confused. The deadline for PhD Scholarship applications was on 31 January, and my application would have only made it to them sometime in late April, once my Mum sent the final transcript. I was later to find out that while they had already assigned scholarships for those who had applied in time, the Department had suddenly discovered they had an additional pot of money from some kind of endowment and decided to put it into an additional scholarship.
Sitting in the internet cafe, I still wasn’t convinced I was capable of doing a PhD. But I remembered my prayer to God, and I replied saying that yes, I would need funding.
After the internet cafe, I went to Mother House and sat in front of Mother Teresa’s tomb, and said, “Ok God, you know I feel completely dumb and stupid. You know how miserable I was in London. But if you want me to go back, I know I will go back to teach students. I know I will go back to let them know that there is more to life than grades. To listen to them, to believe in them, to help show them there is a purpose to their lives.” I had this insight with utter clarity – if I got this scholarship and went back to London, it was to teach.
And if I didn’t get this scholarship – well that was an answer from God too to give up on any academic pursuits. I would leave this up to Him.
The next day the same usual morning routine, except I was onto the third day of the novena. I only opened my email after lunch at the Centre.
Date: Wed, 19 May 2010 at 17:26
Subject: RE: LSE Application
Just to let you know that you have been awarded the Geography and Environment Scholarship, at this point in time we have to wait for your application to be processed but once that has gone through I will be in touch with more details, congratulations.
I sat stunned. I had received a full scholarship to my PhD – even before LSE had formally accepted my PhD application.
But that wasn’t the main reason for my joy.
God had answered me. When I cried out to Him, He answered me. Immediately. Resolutely. Abundantly.
The miracle of the last moment
I would like to think I kept my promise to God. When I returned to LSE, I stayed attuned to the Holy Spirit, and served in any way He prompted me to. I found joy in service, in a way that I never had found in my previous academic achievements.
I was a vastly different PhD student to the one I had been in my Master’s. Not at all as diligent with completing things in time. Most of the time I was just trying to keep my head above water in terms of making some kind of intellectual progress. I empathised with Moses – God had given him the miracle of helping the Israelites escape from Egypt, and now he and they were wandering in the desert trying to find their way to the Promised Land.
But I always knew I would complete my PhD – it was an inner knowing that I was onto something that no one else had adequately explored in the way that I wanted to. I was investigating a phenomena I had observed and anticipated would happen in the ‘real world’ while I was working in my old job – I just had to find a way to investigate it. I had changed my research focus and found my key research question only in my third year – one that I came to after deciding to audit a class in a completely different field from mine.
Again, even with an original breakthrough, I still struggled to bring everything together in a coherent whole. I was blessed to have my PhD supervisor – who had to bear many trials to get me to stay on track with my PhD.
Because I was elected to represent PhD students at LSE in my fourth year, which was another part time job, I had received a four month extension to submit my thesis. On 31st December 2014 – almost a month before handing in, I decided to not try and rework my original drafts, but started all over again with a new abstract. Something happened in that last month that had not happened in the 4.5 years before – I had mental clarity on how to approach the thesis coherently. And started writing steadily.
It is worth noting that right before deciding to rewrite, my parents – now retired in Toronto – had driven to St Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, and amongst different things, made sure to pray for me to complete my thesis on time.
About 80% of the words that ended up in my final thesis were written in that last month. My friend helped format my thesis five hours before the deadline, and I submitted with four hours to spare. My miracle of the last moment.
My PhD supervisor says it was like I had pulled a rabbit out of a hat. My explanation for this miracle was divine intervention after I abandoned myself to God. God lifted the anxious paralysis that had made me second guess myself throughout most of my PhD, and finally brought together all the random intellectual wanderings I had forayed into a coherent whole.
While writing my thesis was a struggle before then, once I submitted it, I knew my Viva would be an utter joy – and it was. There is something wonderful in getting to explore ideas you have managed to bring together with two examiners who are experts in your field. I was awarded my PhD exactly a month after my Viva, and almost 5 years to the date I was emailed about my PhD scholarship. I also ended up graduating with the classmates that I started with in my PhD program.
Yes, God does answer prayers. That doesn’t mean life suddenly becomes smooth sailing. I find that I am most often in choppy waters when I think I feel I am entitled to something. After several frustrating moments/weeks/years, I remember to abandon myself to God and ask Him what He would like me to do. He may not always answer me as immediately as He did in Kolkata, but He does show me an alternative route to follow – one I didn’t think I was capable of doing. But I have learnt to trust Him, and it always turns out that He is right, this was the better way to go. Turns out He knows me better than I know myself.
May God bless you
If you have managed to get all the way through reading this story, well done. I truly and sincerely hope my testimony gives you hope for your own life.
Abandon yourself to God. He does answer because He made you for a purpose – something truly greater and more fulfilling than what you could have ever imagined or wanted for yourself.
May God bless you, and keep you, in His Heart and the palms of His Hands. May you know His Love, and His Mercy. Always.
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”Isaiah 43:1
A wonderful testimony. Thanks for being brave enough to share it!
Maria, you have such a powerful testimony.
A very powerful testimony Maria… I too have experienced God’s Hand in my life… very true God has a purpose in life for everyone..