Four years ago today, I laid my bags out on the front steps of the convent and waited for my father to drive in and pick me up. Most of my memories of religious life are still vivid and immediate, but that day is broken up into fragments. I remember unfastening the cord that tied my postulant medal around my neck, and handing both to my superior. Checking and triple-checking the drawers in my cell in case I’d left anything behind. Getting in the car and seeing the sisters standing under the veranda to wave goodbye. That night, opening the farewell card they’d written for me, and wanting to frame it and tear it up all at the same time because it hurt to see their handwriting. It was a long time before I stopped expecting – hoping – to wake up in my cell in the morning and find that everything that had happened since then was a dream.
I once heard a line in a film: “When the past dies, there is mourning, but when the future dies, our imaginations are compelled to carry it on.” After I’d been out about two years, someone asked me whether I wished I’d stayed in the convent, and whether I would go back if I could. From memory, what I said out loud was something profound like, “Um… I don’t know.” What had actually shot across my mind without the need for thought was, In a heartbeat. My future in the convent had been cut off at the root, and my imagination couldn’t give up the idea of going back, trying to make it right, to finish what I’d started.
And now? A few days ago, the anniversary of the date on which I’d told my superior I needed to leave, I sat down and made a list of all the people I’d never have met if I’d stayed in the convent. Colleagues. Housemates. Mentors. Clients. Friends – people I knew both in person and online. The list went for nearly a page. Then I started on a second list, laying out in black and white the things I’d done in the last four years that would never have happened if I’d stayed in the convent. Publishing my writing online; preparing for a career; making a journey overseas and coming home feeling like an adult for the first time in my life. And a third list: the music I’d never have heard, the books I’d never have read, the foods I’d never have tasted, the conversations I’d never have had. Set out on paper like that, the richness of what God has given me in the last few years blew me away. I’d have loved to have been a sister, but to wish now that I had stayed in the convent would be to wish everything I have loved since then multiplied by zero. I couldn’t do it, in a heartbeat or otherwise.
Today is the first-class feast of Saint James the Apostle, which means I’ll need to make time, in between all the other things that have to be sandwiched into the next twelve hours or so, to sing the Te Deum. I want to make time to sing it properly: unhurried, and with real gratitude. In the Divine Office this morning, there was a reading from Saint John Chrysostom:
But nevertheless let us now look at how (the apostles) came unto Christ, and what they said.
Master, they said, we would that Thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire. And He said unto them: What would ye that I should do for you? Not, surely, that He knew not what their wish was, but that He would make them answer, and so uncover the wound, to lay a plaster on it.
That is what He has done in these last few days. I’ve spent far too long binding up the wound of regret and anger on my heart as though it were not serious, crying, “Peace! Peace!” when there was no peace (Jeremiah 8:11) and it must be time by now for Him to lay a proper dressing on it. I’ve felt a lot of grief in the time since I left religious life, but today I’m going to focus instead on the joys that have been given me throughout those years. The people I’ve known, the things I’ve done – everything God has given me to love. Four years to the day out of the convent in which I’d once hoped to spend the rest of my life, I am going to sing the Te Deum and mean it.