Some time ago, I had a conversation with a friend who, like me, left a religious community during formation. We were light-heartedly discussing which communities we would think about entering if we tried again, and she mentioned one which is famous for educating all its sisters to an extremely high level.
“I wondered about them…” she began.
“Me too…” I said, and then in unison:
“But I’m not smart enough.” (In the ordinary course of things, getting a couple of former Dominicans to admit to that would necessitate the pulling of teeth.)
Not long after that, I started reading David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. While exploring ways in which underdogs throughout history have been able to turn the situation to their advantage and beat apparently stronger opponents, he asks whether it’s better to be a big fish in a little pond, or vice versa. One interesting case study is a brilliant young science student who opted to go to one of America’s most elite universities, attracted by the excellence of its science course and the prospect of being surrounded by equally intelligent and committed peers. Within months she was flailing desperately in her studies, convinced that she was stupid, and ended up dropping out of the course in despair. How, Gladwell wonders, does someone who would have been at the top of the class almost anywhere else become convinced that she is not only backward, but hopeless?
And what does this have to do with religious life?
For me, it was an important insight into why I ended up leaving a community that had seemed to be exactly right: devout, traditional, monastic, academic – everything I wanted. Before I discovered Leonie’s Longing, I’d had trouble finding biographies by former nuns with whom I could identify, mainly because they seemed to have left religious life largely for moral or spiritual reasons: conversion to another religion or even to atheism, dissatisfaction with the Church’s teaching on priestly celibacy, women’s ordination, Humane Vitae, or something else along those lines. That wasn’t me, though. I left the convent for a single, purely human reason – because, when I was there, I felt like a failure. Having prided myself on getting high distinctions at university, I entered the convent to find myself failing one essay after another and being placed in a scaffolded writing program. In choir, in the refectory, and in my chores, it wasn’t any better. And I kept wondering, how on earth was this happening? I wasn’t stupid or crazy… was I?
Here’s where Gladwell’s point comes in, and it applies in a big community or a small one: any group of people will have a bell curve of ability, and in an elite institution some highly intelligent and capable people are going to end up in the bottom quarter of that bell curve. Here’s how it might work in a religious context:
Option 1. A young woman joins a postulant group of, say, twenty. She’s warned from the outset not to compare herself with her companions, but she hears others in her class making insightful comments about concepts that she hasn’t yet fully grasped, or she starts getting essays back with marks lower than any she’s ever had before. She makes more mistakes than they do, or feels as though she does. She starts to worry about getting weeded out by the superiors. In an environment where no-one is average, an above-average sister gets shuffled down to the bottom of the class while, actually, producing work of a quality that would excel anywhere else. She becomes the bottom of the top.
Option 2. Or, perhaps, the young woman joins a small community in which she is the only postulant or even the only one in formation, and the curve gets even steeper. In theory, nobody expects her to keep up with sisters who are years ahead, but if she’s the only one who can’t perform a simple task in the proper way, she’ll stand out – and the danger then is to start accepting any and every correction or criticism as the truth, the better to try and fit in. She, too, starts to worry about her place in the community. She, too, becomes the bottom of the top.
You know that truism we’ve all heard, that “religious life is not about what you do, but who you are”? When a young sister is having difficulties, it’s perilously easy for her to flip that around into the negative and think that she is therefore failing not at what she does, but at what she is. If any cup ever bore the label poison, that would have to be it. A nun who deliberately chose to live selfishly would fail at what she was (as Mother Mary Francis, the late Poor Clare Abbess, says), but not the one who tries to press on in love through and in spite of suffering until, finally, she can’t.
Therefore, if this was you and you think you failed in the religious life, what I’m saying straight out is that you didn’t. Chances are that you were at least above average – both in intellect and in generosity – when you entered, and got shuffled downward by the environment in which you lived. (How much heartache could have been prevented if we’d been warned about this possibility beforehand, I wonder?) On that note, Gladwell points out that Yale has introduced a program in which elite athletes whose marks are lower than the usual cut-off are admitted to academic courses, so that, even if they become the bottom quarter of the bell curve, they have an alternative outlet for excellence and don’t burn out trying to compete. He also notes that the top students in average universities score higher on an objective measure of success (publication of research papers) than students who are considered ‘average’ in elite institutions like Yale, largely because they haven’t been subjected to the psychological carnage which comes with that sense of across-the-board failure. So, how to apply this to discernment, the second time around?
Awareness of the psychological factors that may affect someone in religious formation could help in adjusting to life in the right community in the future (or at least, reducing self-flagellation over having left the wrong one in the past), but it’s only the beginning of discernment. That God’s plan for each person’s life is the most important thing of all goes without saying, but this leaves us with the difficult task of finding it – and if grace builds on nature, then our main duty is to develop our nature into a firm foundation for it. I’m not a doctor (and nor do I play one on TV), but here’s a pertinent quote from someone who is:
“If a young woman’s sense of worth comes from being a good novice, she must cling in desperation to her façade of obedience and piety, lest she let slip from her grasp that which she has never really held securely” (from Conflict in Community by Dr Robert J. McAllister, 1969, p.27).
I don’t know whether or not that was you in religious life, but it was definitely me – and when I found myself unable to keep up, that sense of worth collapsed and I fell out of religious life and back into the secular world. What went wrong?
“It is characteristic of a woman to want to belong to someone and be responded to. She wants to be recognized for herself. Sisters used to say they belonged to Christ, but there must be a psychological gap in such a relationship for those who are still in the purgative way. Sister must have felt this remoteness… perhaps (she) now needs to belong to herself so that she can keep herself not fragmented by people and activities that see her in parts, but entire and intact so that she may grow in a kind of internal expansion of charity that flows to others without losing herself or her value in that process” (p.64).
So, how to find that way forward, to become whole enough to serve God and to receive His graces, in order then to share them with others?
“The person entering religion gives herself to God, but the needs which she brings with her are a sort of divine dowry which God gives the community. This uncut and unpolished stone may have many flaws, or it may be a jewel of great excellence. It comes from God; it is the product of His hand. But the process of polishing it remains that work of the individual and the community. Only God knows the potential for perfection of each stone” (p.102).
If your community didn’t recognize your talents as something it could use, and you crashed and burned while striving against your nature to become something that it could, then perhaps – as Gladwell suggests in a more secular context – look again at a community or a way of life that wasn’t your first choice, and see whether there’s something there. There is truth to the cliché that it takes all kinds to make a community, but not every community will have the right place for every talent. One convent loses a novice who was told off for being too slow and cautious in her work – and another ends up, thirty years down the track, with the silver jubilarian who’s the only one they trust to manage their accounts. One community values academic excellence and lets go of the one who didn’t quite make the cut – and so she takes her compassionate nature to a secular nursing home or a childcare facility instead. Another woman finds herself empty and lonely in religious life, but ends up five years later happily chasing around after the children she never expected to have. Hard as it may seem to believe it sometimes, there’s a vocation ahead of each of us that will make us saints in heaven, and God is helping us grow toward it.
All of our talents were given by God, and He asks us to put them at His disposal. Our first vocation is our baptismal one, to serve the God Who loves us – and wherever He guides us, to meet Him there. I couldn’t enter the religious life again now (good Lord, no!) with any chance of staying, but thankfully He’s not asking me to just yet. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready (Romans 3:2). Perhaps one day He will ask, but first, there’s work to be done.
In His love, may He put the pieces back together and build us all into vessels – even clay ones – to contain His grace. Let’s pray for each other.