From Religious Life to Family Life, Local Couple Embraces the Sacred in All Their Callings
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News Story by Cassy Benefield | FāVS News
“Something of the monk exists in every one of us.”Father Theophane Boyd
Christi Ortiz experienced several sign posts in her early life that pointed her toward monasticism.
The co-owner of Harmony Woods Retreat Center in Spokane and an occasional poet for FāVS News, Ortiz was raised by a former nun, who lived as a monastic in the Carmelite tradition for a season. This monasticism draws from St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila and their lineage of mysticism known for its charism (spiritual gift or personality) for prayer, she explained.
“There’s so many different types of monasticism within the Catholic church,” Ortiz said.
When she lived in Snowmass, Colorado, she remembered celebrating Mass at St. Benedict’s Monastery along with the chants of the monks. She recalled their homemade bread and cookies, and their way of life represented by the motto “Orare est Laborare, Laborare est Orare” or to pray is to work, to work is to pray.
Very sensitive and shy as a younger person, she seemed to always have an awareness of the spiritual.
One day, as she was setting up items for her first Communion at the age of 9, Ortiz told her mom, “Heaven came and visited me.”
“That was the words I had for it,” Oritz said.
She also remembers reading books by Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit Catholic priest born in India whose writings, and others like his, she began reading at the age of seven and continued to meditate on throughout her teens.
She admired his use of other religions in his teachings, from Quranic verses to Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, peppered within Catholic teachings and Scripture.
“Originally, I was going to be a missionary, and I went to college to go into the medical field so that I had something to offer,” she said.
However, a different call came.
A New Vocation
During her freshman year at the University of Idaho, while reading a Bible passage and practicing adoration — what Catholics identify as silent prayer — she felt God speak to her.
“I felt this call of God saying to me that I want you to be closer to me than you’ve ever been before — to give yourself to me,” Ortiz said. “I don’t use this term now, but there is the language of being the bride of Christ — of really committing yourself to God.”
She felt it was true because it was so out of the blue. And she felt the only way to follow this call was to be a monastic.
“I couldn’t do it out in the world alone,” Ortiz said. “It would be just too hard for me to live by my values … you’re just bombarded with so much.”
As a nun, she thought it’d be easier to live her beliefs with the support of a community around her with daily activities tightly structured around communion with God alongside others on a similar path.
So, before what would have been her sophomore year, she gave away everything she owned and gave up her full-ride scholarship to join a monastery.
As she made plans for the monastery, however, she met her future husband, Fernando Ortiz — a former priest in training.
“I remember saying to a friend, ‘Man, if I wasn’t meant to be a nun, I’d love to marry this guy,” she said.
Christi and Fernando Ortiz had met for the first time three years after he had a crisis of faith, a sign post, if you will, that pointed him in a new direction.
Fernando Ortiz and His Spiritual Journey
“My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was only 39 years old,” he said. “And that was a crisis of faith, a crisis of identity in many ways.”
He chose, instead, to continue his interests in counseling others. He thought here’s another calling, another vocation, where he’d be out there exercising compassion and making a positive influence in the world.
“Psychology or psychotherapy was fascinating for me, obviously, and maybe, existentially that was in response to my grief to my crisis of faith at the time, you know, being able to talk to someone who in many ways is also in a helping role,” he said.
Like his future wife, Fernando Ortiz grew up near monastics, only outside the U.S. Originally from Mexico, all his education was religiously-affiliated with the Franciscans.
“Here I am as a young boy, going to Franciscan school admiring these role models, who are educators, evangelizers, who are people who live very interesting lives,” he said.
During this time, he also discovered a passion and love for reading.
He said he would bike a half an hour one way on dirt roads to eventually read the whole collection available at the little library associated with the school.
“I still remember fondly some of the friars,” Fernando Ortiz said. “For example, there was this one specific one who used to come into our classes always carrying a book … he was so passionate and so engaging, and for me, he became a role model of the lifelong kind of learner or thinker or reader.”
These years provided him the fertile ground from which he wanted to discern his call into the priesthood, that is, until his mom died.
The Franciscan Way
Christi Ortiz was also very inspired by the Franciscan rule of life, and soon after she met Fernando Ortiz, she left for a Franciscan monastery in Illinois.
She said the Franciscan tenant or charism of perfect joy and peace through not being attached to worldly things attracted her. She specifically liked how this type of monastic community focused on simplicity, poverty and the teachings of the interbeing-ness with all creation and all people.
“It’s very similar to a Buddhist concept of it is actually our attachments that bring suffering,” Christi Ortiz said. “It’s basically the peace beyond all understanding and the joy that cannot be given from things but it’s from the love of God that when it’s so rooted in that the attachments and aversions don’t have that same pull.”
She loved being a nun and planned to remain one for the rest of her life. But another signpost pointed her out of her community about three years after joining it. She became very sick.
“I needed to leave for health reasons, and then the longer I was out, I just ended up never going back,” she said.
Looking back now, she thinks some of her monastic call stemmed from youthful naiveté at 19 years old.
“I was young, and I was impressionable and not strong enough I think to devote myself so fully to the gospel that I could live in the world but not of it by myself,” Christi Ortiz said. “So it was more out of this feeling of weakness that I couldn’t do that in the world and not get caught in all those superficial values.”
What Monasticism Is Not
Yet, she found monasticism such a beautiful life where her love of prayer became such a way of being.
“I think there is a gift in the silence and the structure that does free the soul to a deeper encounter with God, because there is so much noise and distraction,” Christi Ortiz said.
She doesn’t want others, however, to think that monasticism is about navel gazing or sheltering oneself from the world.
“Monasticism looks like withdrawal or rejection of the world, by the nature of it. But talk to any monastic, and they’re infusing themselves into the love of the world,” Christi Ortiz said.
She’s surprised this kind of life is declining within the Catholic Church.
In fact, the number of seminarians, priests and men and women in religious orders declined in 2021, according to the Vatican’s Central Office of Church Statistics, which released its latest numbers March 3.
For example, the Catholic News Service reported the number of religious brothers decreased 1.6%, moving from 50,569 in 2020 to 49,774 in 2021. The number of religious women similarly decreased at 1.7%, from 619,546 in 2020 to 608,958 in 2021.
Christi and Fernando Ortiz Meet Again
Christi and Fernando Ortiz reconnected after she left her Franciscan community. This signpost pointed toward marriage and family, proving her words to her friend that Valentine’s Day when they first met true.
“We starting getting to know each other and dating, and then the rest is history,” Fernando Ortiz said.
While that history has not included a literal religious life within the Catholic Church, their spiritual callings continue. This includes their respective careers, their family life and their recent calling to open Harmony Woods Retreat Center, a space they offer others for hope and healing.
Christi Ortiz currently practices as a marriage and family therapist and manages their retreat center.
Fernando Ortiz oversees Gonzaga University’s Counseling Center as its director, where he helps seminarians discern their callings to the religious life.
They are raising two children, who are being similarly educated as they were, within a Catholic education and tradition.
And for Christi Ortiz, becoming a mother has been much more spiritually stretching than living as a monastic.
“It’s messier, and it’s harder … it breaks you open,” she said. “I feel like that’s what motherhood has done and it’s helped me grow tremendously.”
For Fernando Ortiz, he finds his background discerning his own vocational callings helpful in being able to walk with others at Gonzaga do the same.
“No one goes into this with 100% certainty,” Fernando Ortiz said. “It’s like marriage, right? Or any other long-term commitment. We all go through phases and crises, or turning points and high points. And, so, I think humanly speaking, psychologically speaking, we want to listen to you and be companions on your journey.”
Continuing Their Sacred Vocation for Others
For both, living close to God — a presence they now often refer to as the divine, a higher reality or the mystery — continues to draw them. And this pull inspired them to open the retreat center so others can experience their own communion with the sacred.
“Harmony Woods Retreat Center expresses some of those initial callings that we had: the calling to service, the calling to being an agent of transformation in the world, being a compassionate presence to others,” Fernando Ortiz said. “In many ways, I would say that those longings are now being expressed through this community that we’re trying to build up here in Spokane.”
One way they do this is through hosting Intentional Community Gatherings one Sunday a month at their retreat center for those who feel spiritually homeless but are seeking a spiritual community.
This month’s gathering will take place on Sept. 17, from 1-4 p.m.
In that space, the Ortiz’ weave their various life experiences along with many spiritual traditions into the fabric of a community longing for connection and belonging.
And they want others to know they are welcome.
Cassy (pronounced like Cassie but spelled with a ‘y’) Benefield is a wife and mother, a writer and photographer and a huge fan of non-fiction. She has traveled all her life, first as an Army brat. She is a returned Peace Corps volunteer (2004-2006) to Romania where she mainly taught Conversational English. She received her bachelor’s in journalism from Cal Poly Technical University in San Luis Obispo, California. She finds much comfort in her Savior, Jesus Christ, and considers herself a religion nerd who is prone to buy more books, on nearly any topic, than she is ever able to read. She is the associate editor of FāVS.News.