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.
I’ve been following the work of Leonie’s Longing for a few years now, even though I’m having the opposite problem from many others who might read this: my circumstances mean that I am having a hard time *entering* a convent, rather than transitioning out of one. I’ve been discerning a call to consecrated life for 4 years and counting…what a wild, unexpected, eye-opening, hilarious, frustrating, love-filled adventure!
The soundtrack to much of it has come from one of my favourite artists: Audrey Assad. I donated to a crowdfunding campaign for her new album Evergreen a few months ago. Thanks to the behind-the-scenes glimpses she gave, I knew most of the words before it was released to donors at the end of January. (Now it’s available for the wider public – on iTunes, Spotify, and other major services.) I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate the lyrics, and have found them to be a blessing in this current “stagnant” season of my discernment. I’ve found myself asking “Is God working, when I haven’t seen any ‘progress’ towards His plan for me in months? Is He still there?”
I suppose it’s not that different “on the other side” of the convent…thinking that God’s plan was for you to live in a religious community, when, at least for a time, you’ve been called back out into the lay world with no idea of what’s next. As I wrestle with Him, I’m grateful to know that at least one other Catholic out there has admitted that faith doesn’t come easy for her. Kudos to Audrey for being been brave enough to share her story in a culture that expects faith to provide constant happiness and easy answers. I thought a song-by-song review of the album was the best way to pass on what her prayers have taught me.
#1 – Evergreen – The album opens with one of the most perplexing ideas of our faith: God on a cross – who would have thought it? This place looks nothing like Eden. And yet the Cross – and our God exhausted, suffering, totally spent as He’s on it – is what saves us and brings us to new life. We meet someone who has not completely worked through a trial in her faith yet, but is learning to find God in the strange, unknown, untamed places He has led her. Here in the wild, my hands are empty, and yet I’ve had all I needed. There is no drought out here in the desert; I’ve found a water that’s living. Out past the fear, doubt becomes wonder…rivers appear and I’m going under…” I get the sense that the struggle could have destroyed her, but didn’t. In having no other option but to trust God, she has learned that he can be trusted. Instead of asking whether God will provide for her, she is amazed to find out how. The tree of life is evergreen, indeed – remaining with us, showing us that divine life and love will have the final word, even when all seems lost.
At first, I thought these words were an odd choice to begin the album. Why start with a song about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel? But I’ve come to see it as encouragement from a friend, saying “I’ve made it through the worst part of this situation and grown in it. You can too.”
#2 – Deliverer – If you read the lyrics the way I did originally, you might be a bit shocked. You are not possessive; You respect all things. You are not invasive; You have no envy. You are not insistent…And then your mind, like mine, might ramble for a bit… “WHAT!? Aren’t You supposed to be…well…jealous? Aren’t You supposed to invade and ruin our ideas of what is good, right, true, and brings joy? One of the prayers at Mass says that we are ‘a people of His own possession!’ Didn’t my desire to orient every part of my life towards God bring me on this path in the first place? Didn’t I start traveling down this road because He asked me to consider it?”
Audrey wrote a blog post explaining her intentions here – God may rule over us, but as the song later says, He does not “force us” to love Him. Instead, His love “is freedom” and will always surpass our human impulse to make what we love into our own image. True callings from God – to religious life and elsewhere – are asked of us, not demanded. They include the possibility of saying no.
The best part, by far, is the bridge: In the ruins of my heart You preach to the poor, turning over stones to show me there is more – more than all I ask, more than I’m looking for in the ruins of my heart. Putting together all these realizations about who God is not, and what he does not expect of us, is painful. It’s so different from what we might be used to. Getting to the ruins of our hearts will have forced us to see our poverty and weakness…but all of it is met with such abundant love.
#3 – Little Things With Great Love – This song was first featured on the fantastic “Work Songs” album by the Porter’s Gate Worship Project (on Spotify here and iTunes here). Audrey was inspired by a phrase often attributed to Mother Teresa: This You have asked of us – do little things with great love.
My favourite saints tend to be those who see everything as an opportunity for love and holiness – St. Therese, St. Gianna, and yes, Mother Teresa, to name a few. Like them, Audrey reminds us that no flower grows unseen…No simple act of mercy escapes His watchful eye. For there is One who sees me; His hand is over mine.
The second verse is a bit more personal. When Work Songs was released, I had just found out that a childhood friend of mine was accepted as a postulant in a certain convent. Another of my best friends had already lived there for a year…and it was the same one that I’d been dreaming of since I was a teenager. It felt like the Lord was rubbing it in – “You can’t be there, so here’s your consolation prize!” Of course, God is not that cruel, and I needed Audrey’s words to remind me of the truth for the next few months. In the kingdom of the heavens, no suffering is unknown. Each tear that falls is holy, each breaking heart a throne. There is a song of beauty on every weeping eye. For there is One who loves me – His heart, it breaks with mine. He does not mock my pain and desperation…He shares it.
#4 – The Joy of the Lord – The first line sounds so much like the impasse I’ve reached. Mountains ahead of me and valleys behind – the road may be narrow, but your mercy is wide. Having to climb those mountains doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve gotten God’s will “wrong.” God’s love is with us no matter how lost or “off-track” we feel. And then the deepest truth: Sorrow may linger and last for the night but I am never alone. The joy of the Lord is my strength… I am on this path because of the Lord – because I have known His love and want to return it wholeheartedly, because that kind of answer will bring joy to my Love’s heart and my own. And as I gather courage to take the next step, I may be weak, but I’ll cling to the vine. I’m pressed but not crushed, for You are making new wine. Wounds may be opened and weakness revealed, but I will be healed in the fire. I am reminded of my weakness, and my need to trust that these obstacles have a purpose. (St. Therese’s attitude to her own delay in living her vocation comes to mind. She treated her period of waiting to enter Carmel like a “training ground” to grow in virtue. That image gives me such hope! I hope it does the same for you, no matter what your future holds.)
#5 – River (feat. Propaganda) – “River” isn’t as obviously connected to discernment…but the frustration and hope of people seeking justice, and God’s “reaction” to the movements of their hearts, will stand out. She could not even follow the Lord and live. ‘God will be with you just as you say he is.’
#6 – Unfolding – This is a cry of desperation. How do I grieve what I can’t let go? It’s got a hold on me. How do I mourn what I cannot know? It’s got a hold, it’s got a hold on me… None of us know what life with the communities we love and cannot remain with would have been. Having to grieve what might have been doesn’t always make sense, and can feel like a waste of time. At its deepest, it can lead us to question Who God is, how He sees us, and even make our own identity a mystery. Oh my God, I don’t know what this was, am I a child of your love or just chaos unfolding? How do I keep what I cannot find – I’m letting go, I’m letting go of You. (Well, not entirely, but getting rid of old, ill-fitting ideas of who God is and what He wants from us can be frightening at times.) I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, and neither does Audrey…but at least we aren’t alone?
#7 – Teresa – Mother Teresa is known around the world as an example of faith. It was only after her death that the decades of desolation she experienced came to light. Again, while I’ve only known small bits of this darkness, it’s not hard to see myself in the pleading questions she must have had for her Divine “Lover”: did you call my name just to plunge me deep into the darkness? I, too, find it hard not to listen to the accusers around me…whispering to me that I’m wilfully blind and clinging to nothing. If God has really called me to be His, wouldn’t He make it easier and more obvious? If you’ve just left community life, it must seem like even more of a betrayal. Does Jesus still love you if you were not meant to live for Him in this particular way?
Mother Teresa’s attitude towards His absence is an extraordinary. She wanted to admit her pain privately, but to hide it from everyone else she came into contact with. She wanted to smile even at Jesus – after all, I trusted your promise, I gave you my life. We should strive to imitate that perseverance and loyalty. At the same time, I find it comforting to know that one of the greatest saints also questioned His love for her.
#8 – Irrational Season – More than anything else on the record, this one comes the closest to capturing the current state of my heart. I’m at a standstill, and it doesn’t make sense Nothing sensible has yet appeared in this irrational season…but the light is wilder here, out on the edge of reason. I may have a lot of desires, but I’m trying to have very few expectations. That way, God is almost “more free” to act. My plans won’t prevent me from seeing the radical love in His vision for my life, which expands far beyond my own. At the same time, I can see that Love burns bright and clear out where I cannot seize Him.
Again, we find that real Love does not want to possess or be possessed. I personally know what I am meant to do (Be His. Make self-giving service and prayer the point of my life. Tell other people how much they are loved.) The how is still a mystery. (Religious life? Consecrated virginity? Who knows!) To see God revealing a “destination” in the lives of people I love, while I am still traveling towards mine, is extremely frustrating…but it’s yet another call to cultivate trust.
#9 – Wounded Healer – I love the Celtic sound Audrey explores here! God may be mysterious, and His work might even leave us hurt and confused, but He is not distant. Pain is not foreign to Him. As Isaiah says, by your wounds we shall be healed. God’s power is not the brute force of a dictator, bending us to His unpredictable whim. Instead, its aim is to heal and unite us to Him in love. His arms stretched out not to part the seas, but to open up the grave. Blood poured out not for war, but peace and to show us God’s own face. His way contains no fire, no fury, just death into life. over and over, till all things are right. Knowing that he suffers with us makes it so much easier to say Wounded Healer, we give our hearts to you.
#10 – When I See You – Audrey has said that this song is inspired by the Prodigal Son. I can see two stages of his (and our) approach to the Father: You have loved me well, in a million ways, but my wounds are all I know. So I turn my head and I hide my face, too afraid to come back home. From where some of us stand, it might sound like “Why should I come to You with this wounded heart when my response to Your love seems to be the cause of it?” We might even wonder whether He’ll look down on us for thinking that way. The second verse shows the adventure we’re being called to: When my fear comes close, and it robs me blind, oh, how Your love provides for me. What a winding road, what a river wild, being Yours, becoming free! We will not feel abandoned, miserable, or captive forever. That’s not the state God intended for us. The once-paralyzing fear grows cold in the light of Your love once we see Him as He really is.
#11 – Immanuel’s Land – Depending on where you are in your healing, this will either be the easiest or hardest song to hear. Christ, He is the fountain, the deep, sweet well of love…fuller than the ocean, His mercy does expand…no problem there. I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved’s mine!? For most of my post-conversion life, I have believed that such intimate expressions of love belong only to…well, nuns! Not so. C.S. Lewis even embraced the term; the line “And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me Beloved.” is hidden towards the end of the Narnia series. We are the ones God loves, whether we’re in the convent or out, whether we’ve discovered our vocation and made a permanent commitment to love or not. Jesus, of course, does not give Himself to us halfway.
For me, the most important wisdom is found in the “bride’s” priorities. Love has revealed Himself to her, and so she eyes not her garment, but her dear Bridegroom’s face. She will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace – not at the crown He giveth, but on His pierced hand. None of the beauty around her is as captivating as its Source.
I am trying not to worry about my own “garment.” Will I swap shopping sprees for habits one day? Is a wedding dress completely off the table? I have no idea. At times I’ve found myself so distracted by thoughts on what might be that I miss what is. I’m not going to be an expert on love just because I’ve made some kind of commitment. The ways I am asked to love today will shape the ways I love in my permanent vocation. I should realize that now, and keep fighting the temptation to look in at myself all the time.
12 – Drawn to You – Plenty of Christian songs are inspired by the enthusiastic, all-consuming commitment of a new convert. Evergreen finishes with a similar profession of sorts, reflecting Audrey’s faith in its current stripped-down form. All my devotion is like sinking sand. I’ve nothing to cling to but Your sweet hand. No clear emotions keeping me safe at night; only Your presence, like a candle light. The “fragility” she faces is not so different from the setbacks we face in discovering our vocations. We can’t rely on our hearts alone to tell us what is true. Even the circumstances in front of us do not always tell us of God’s goodness as clearly as we’d like. As painful as the “refining” process has been, she has discovered how much she needs to rely on Jesus. After everything I’ve had, after everything I’ve lost, Lord, I know this much is true. I’m still drawn to you. Sorrow has become precious. Even her tears have been transformed into an offering of the highest praise. Most importantly, none of this is “accepted” in a grumbling, obligatory way. Audrey and her “offering” are welcomed by the Lord as-is. There is no need for perfection or masks with this God who sees and loves all the imperfections. Can we remain faithful to Him after everything’s been said and especially after everything love cost? (Think of two friends who don’t need to be caught up in conversation to enjoy spending time with each other.) Audrey’s experience proves that love transcending feelings may not always be pleasant, but it is possible.
By Amanda, re-published with permission from her blog http://www.mariasmountain.net
The conversation shouldn’t have been an awkward one. That is, if I were normal, if I were like any 32 year old.
But I’m not, so instead, it turned awkward and I wanted to crawl under a rock.
I’m new to my work and we were all sharing details of our lives in the office, so an intern innocently asked: “So, Amanda, do you have any kids?”
“But you’re 32…do you just not want to get married?”
I will admit that I brushed this off as the intern being a young college student and not having learned the prudence I learned was taught in religious life.
“It’s not that.” Pause. All right, I need to give more details here or they’re just going to fill in the blanks. “Okay, so I was a nun and left just a year ago.”
After the initial “WHAT?!?!” and “WHOA!“, she paused and said “But it’s been a year already. You’re not married or anything. What have you been doing with your life?”
I know she asked this innocently (once again, young college student), but I was taken back. I mumbled something about things don’t happen that fast and I changed the subject. But I couldn’t get the question out of mind:
“But it’s been a year already. What have you been doing with your life?”
What have I been doing with my life? Have I been doing anything with my life?
I feared the answer was “nothing”.
I am no closer to finding out my vocation in life, no closer to marrying anyone (or even going out with anyone), certainly no closer to having kids.
I am closer to starting graduate school for my MSW…and by closer, I mean I’ve filled out most of the application. So really, not that close.
I am no closer to any kind of promotion or salary increase. I switched jobs twice this year and I’m now in a job I like, but one that won’t be my permanent career.
Everything has remained the same since the day I left – same apartment, same car, even the same friends.
Maybe it’s true, maybe I haven’t done anything in a year.
I won’t deny it; I sulked around with those truths for a few weeks, even through Christmas. I had a year and I did nothing. I felt as if I had failed myself, failed God who had this great plan for me, and, in a way, even failed those who supported me leaving the community. I wallowed in shame.
Life with the Daughters was so packed with ministry, prayer, meetings, conferences, etc. Every moment was filled with purpose. Now that I was by myself… was I just wasting my life because I didn’t have a “purpose” of being a wife or mother?
But, as I let myself reflect on it, I realized that while I may not have done the logical “next steps” or what the world would expect of me, there were some accomplishments this past year:
I am no closer to finding out my vocation in life, but I started writing again and am deeply in love with its pains and joys.
I am no closer to finding out my vocation in life, but I’ve gained some self-confidence, which can only aid in the search.
I am no closer to my MSW as of right now, but I have learned many lessons in ethics, motivational interviewing, etc by experience.
I am no closer to any kind of promotion or salary increase, but I’m happy in my job and isn’t that what counts?
Everything has remained the same since the day I left, but I have gained some great friends from church that I didn’t have a year ago that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Everything has remained the same since the day I left, but I’ve grieved my past and kept walking ahead.
I pray that, if that question comes up again, I can say with confidence: “Actually, I did a lot.“
Dear sister, may the love of God, the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you!
I write this letter to you, my sister in Christ, who has had the courage and love to respond to a desire, an invitation, and a mystery: to belong wholly to God. You prayed, you strove to discern if this was a call to religious life, and you took a leap of faith. Now you are at a new stage in your discernment, one which is no less a leap of faith. You have left the community in which you lived, prayed, worked, laughed, cried, loved, and have come back into the “the world.” Please do not believe that you are alone. I want you to realize that there is a community of women throughout the world who have also made this step in and out of the convent. For many, if not all, this journey to and from has come with great sacrifice.
Dear sister, the Lord knows your sacrifice. The Lord knows our going and coming and He accompanies us on each step. Psalm 121:8 “The LORD will guard your coming and going both now and forever.” The journey you are on may be sorrowful or joyful—either way, the Lord intends to journey with you. “For the Lord will not abandon his people nor forsake those who are his own.” (Psalm 94:14).
Recently, my spiritual director shared with me about an article he read wherein a novice mistress sadly described the wounds that women carry when they leave the convent. She noticed that for many, who believed that they were to become the “bride of Christ,” leaving felt like a divorce, a rejection. The pain of this wound can be felt so acutely, it leads women out of the Church.
I would like to say to these women: your grief is real, your wounds are real, but please do not confuse your pain with how Jesus feels about you. Please do not believe that He no longer cares. Jesus does not reject anyone who comes to Him (even if it may feel like it and even if you say: well, I have left Him). Sometimes we may be tempted to imagine ourselves as that “ideal sister” we thought we were called to be, to the point of losing our own identity. We compare ourselves to that image of a “fervent aspirant” or “generous postulant” that was ready to do whatever God asked. Then, at some moment along the way of our discernment, we realized that we cannot live up to that ideal. What do we do with this realization?
A major moment of insight and growth came to me in prayer one day (after I had already left the convent) when the Lord lovingly revealed to me that my offering to Him was lacking something. I didn’t understand at first, thinking I had given up everything. But He told me that my offering lacked something personal. As I pondered this, I realized that I wasn’t being authentic with Him because I had been striving to live up to what was asked of me as a sister, while not offering everything that was really happening inside my mind and heart. I was burying the real me in favor of an image of who I thought I should be. What I was trying to offer to God was something other than me.
When Jesus said in John 6:37, “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me,” He did not intend this statement to be true only if you become a nun. Jesus said two very important words: everything and anyone. Can you exclude yourself from this invitation to hope? So, if you feel rejected, alone, and are struggling (I totally get that—I cried every day for two straight months when I realized I was leaving the convent), please reach out to someone you can trust. Jesus did not give us the grace of courage and love to enter religious life, only to abandon us and expose us to useless pain. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:29). Please, do not lose sight of what you have received in Christ.
In Baptism, you are a beloved daughter of God, a temple of the Holy Spirit, called to intimate communion with the Most Holy Trinity and all the members of the Body of Christ. You are beloved and you belong. You are called by name and have a real family that prays for you throughout the world. God has a purpose and a mission for your life which is a secret of His love and Providence. In Confirmation you were sealed with the Spirit with an eternal seal of love.
So please remember, Bride of Christ, that your soul remains His. As a member of the Body of Christ, you remain His Bride. You are that betrothed, chaste virgin spoken of in St. Paul’s letter (2 Corinthians 11:2). Not wanting anyone to be led away from the love of Jesus which remains and endures forever, I share in the sentiment of St. Paul because I too love you, my sister in Christ, and I pray that you may continue to know the love of God and the peace of Christ “that surpasses understanding” (Philippians 4:7) as you continue your courageous and loving journey into the arms of God.
– Aimée Dominique
When I was in college, a good friend told me that we don’t have to find the saints – they find us. God places them in our lives at pivotal moments, to shed light on our own following of him. Since she said this, I have found it to be true on multiple occasions.
After six adventurous years of serving as a missionary, youth director, and other such exciting positions, I now work as a secretary at a church. I’ve realized God is calling me to a time of being still, and to use the advantages of a stable schedule to allow him to speak to me more deeply. While I am profoundly grateful for this position, and confident that God placed me here (through uniquely providential circumstances) I still feel that I am not doing enough. I miss my adventures. I am in tension between the peace that I am where He wants me, and yet a gnawing feeling of “not enough” that creeps in. I am happy to serve in the hidden tasks, yet can’t help noting the irony between the grandeur of what I did before (giving talks to teens, counseling others in their walk with Christ etc) and the exasperating minutiae of what I do now (fighting with the copier, spending hours on hold with Comcast!).
Underneath all this, is the ever-present tension that surfaces about what I am doing with my life in the long-term. I am at peace that I have given God all I can for now, but plagued by the same gnawing of “not enough.” I want to know the answer to the all-important question – what is my vocation, my purpose in life. I want to know why God will still not reveal it despite my earnest and faithful seeking.
Recently, into all these tensions, across the years, through a powerful thing called the Communion of Saints, came the perfect heavenly friend for me. While on hold yet again on a call for the parish, I was sorting through piles of paper on my desk and stumbled across an article about the life of a woman named Julia Greeley. I learned that her cause for canonization was currently underway, and was instantly intrigued. (For what is more fascinating than a canonization process currently underway in your own country?)
Julia Greeley was a Catholic, African-American laywoman who lived a poor and humble life. Her path to holiness was the epitome of the “hidden yes.” Recently recognized as “Servant of God” by her archdiocese in Denver, Colorado, Julia Greeley’s life was lowly and uncelebrated. She was born into slavery sometime between 1833 and 1848, and finally freed in 1865 by the state of Missouri’s Emancipation Act. Little is known about the intervening years, except that when she was a young child, she lost her right eye to the whip of an angry slave owner. Once freed, Julia made a living cooking, cleaning, and caring for children as a nanny.
In 1880, she became Catholic and was received into the Church at Sacred Heart Church in Denver. The Sacred Heart then became the central mystery and mission of her life. She would walk for miles to share devotional Sacred Heart pamphlets and medals with as many people as she could. She was also a dedicated servant of the poor. Though she herself lived in poverty, she gave of what she had, and also went begging for the needs of others. Friendship was a central characteristic of her life, in which she transcended the racial and societal divides of her time. White and black, Catholics and non catholic, rich and poor, old and young alike were numbered among her friends. Young children in particular were drawn to her and delighted in her presence. Her funeral overwhelmed her tiny parish church as over 1,000 people from all walks of life came to pay their respects.
She attended daily Mass faithfully, and in fact, died on her way to Mass, on the feast of her beloved Sacred Heart in 1918.
Fast-forward to June 2017 – nearly 100 years later – her remains were recently transferred to the Cathedral in Denver. She is the very first person to be buried there. As the bishop, Jorge Rodriguez, who presided over the ceremony pointed out “[Julia Greeley] will be the first person buried in Denver’s cathedral. Not a bishop, not a priest – a laywoman, a former slave. Isn’t that something?”
The humble are exalted. The last shall be first. Even to this day, few people know about Julia Greeley. In her life, she served in the lowliest (and even despised) roles. She had no “status” in secular society. In the Church, she was never a religious, theologian, or leader. And yet, it is her, whom God has lifted up and placed before our eyes.
Her life intersected with mine at just the right moment, to teach me what truly matters. Not only are the hidden yesses more powerful than we realize, but they are enough to bring us to Heaven. Julia Greeley’s life was all about the hidden yes.
The “yes” to forgive the grave wrongs of slavery and physical abuse that she suffered. . .
The “yes” to lead a joyful and charitable life in the midst of an unjust and still-segregated society. . .
The courageous “yes” to enter a Church in a time when there were few to no Catholics of her culture and racial background. . .
The “yes” to literally walk across the societal divides of her time. . .
The “yes” to travel miles on her errands of mercy and evangelization despite painful arthritis . . .
(this particular “yes,” in fact, remained hidden until the very recent examination of her bones during the exhumation process for her canonization!).
And the overarching “yes” to be the love of the Sacred Heart to all whom she encountered.
She has given me a different perspective. Everything has value. Where I am now could, as I believe, just be yet another stop along the way to where God ultimately wants me. Yet even if eternity were tomorrow, it could be ENOUGH to make me a saint. If I but choose to respond.
So, I now try to make jokes, when I finally get through on the Comcast call. Their customer service agent is a person too, whom Julia would have seen as a friend. I win my fight with the copier, knowing that I’ve made the pace of life smoother for everyone else even if they never know about it. And when anxiety about the future creeps in, I try to whisper, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in You!”
Servant of God, Julia Greeley, Pray for Us!
Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!
Former slave Julia Greeley first to be buried at Denver’s Cathedral
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.