There are a lot of difficulties when returning from religious life back into secular life. One that I hadn’t really expected, but that has become quite a challenge, is direction. When I was in the convent I thought I had my life figured out. I thought I had found my vocation. I thought I was living where I would spend the rest of my life with the people I would spend that time with. My direction was very clear and I knew I was in the Lord’s will.
And then I left. And I felt like my life was a mess and I had no direction. I fell into the trap of despair. I was sure there was no hope. But day after day the Lord has been faithful. He has been bringing me out of that trap.
By leaving I felt like I was leaving the Father’s will for my life, not at first, but I fell into that trap after being home a little while. I was consumed with trying to figure out a plan. I needed to figure out what my next career move was as well as my vocation. I wanted to figure every little detail out before I made any sort of move in any direction.
The reality, though, is that by leaving I was actually staying in the Father’s will. He called me out of the convent. I was listening to His voice when I decided to leave. And while that left me “directionless” in the eyes of the world, it really didn’t. It took as much courage and discernment to enter religious life as it did to leave. And both decision were made with the Lord.
I was reflecting/praying with the Gospel today and I realized I’ve been going about my return all wrong. Today’s Gospel is a passage we’ve all heard a million times, but the Lord used it today to bring me some new insight. Jesus addresses Thomas after he questions how they will know what direction they are to go after Jesus ascends into Heaven by saying,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
You see, I keep complaining about feeling directionless and like my life is a total mess. I want to know the future so I can make a move in some direction. But the Lord revealed to me today that I do know the direction to walk because Jesus is the way.
If I walk in Jesus then everything will fall into place because the goal isn’t to figure out what career I’m supposed to be in or what my vocation is. Don’t get me wrong, those questions are important, but they aren’t the be all and end all of this life. The ultimate goal of this life is to be in communion with the Father in Heaven. And Jesus tells me, and the disciples, in this passage that the way to the Father is Jesus Himself, not a specific career, living situation, or vocation. Our careers and vocations can help us get to Heaven, that is the whole point, but finding them and living them cannot be the ultimate goal. Then we lose sight of our purpose here on Earth which is to get to Heaven.
“Seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and all these things will be given you besides.” -Matthew 6:33
So while it is easy for me to fall into the trap of feeling “directionless”, the reality is that I know the direction I need to walk. I know the way because Jesus is the way.
Re-published with kind permission from Erin’s blog Arise My Daughter and Come.
May/June can be hard months for those of us still discerning our place in life. Weddings, ordinations, professions of vows, and entrances into religious communities are a painful reminder that another year has come without any such milestone in sight for us. We rejoice with our friends and families – do our best to put on yet another reception with love, and send yet another friend off to the convent/seminary with prayers. And sit through yet another homily about “celebrating a yes to the Lord and to one’s vocation.” And go to confession yet again for envy/self-pity/lack of trust in God.
Am I right? Or is that just me?
I read an article recently called “We said yes too” about the struggles of Catholic couples who struggle with a miscarriage or infertility. While those around them get celebrated for having many children, they often experience the implication that those who don’t have a wild 7+ member crew in tow “aren’t open to life” or “haven’t said yes.” The author goes on to explain how she and others like her have said yes – hidden yesses too deep and painful to share. Yes to giving back to God an unborn child gone too soon; yes to the surrender of hopes and dreams in the struggle with infertility; yes to allowing the gifts that God has given to be enough.
When I read her article, as a woman discerning her vocation who has hit many painful detours along the road, I identified deeply with what she said. Though my life and struggles are different, my heart leapt with bittersweet joy as every word resonated.
“I have said yes too,” I thought. Not the “yes” that gets celebrated during “vocation season.” Not the exhilarating “yes” of a vow to the Church or to another person to commit my life forever. But a silent, not-spoken-out-loud kind of yes, I had given.
The “yes” to surrender my will and my desires to God and trust him for the timing.
The “silent yes” to Him in not settling for a “celebrated yes” that I knew wasn’t His will for me.
The “yes” to being faithful in prayer even during the times where I was no longer sure who I was praying to. . .
As well as the little “yesses” too that can cost a lot at times. Yes, Lord, I will smile at my friend and share his/her joy right now even though I would rather run away and cry. . .Yes, Lord, I will bite my tongue and accept criticism in humility when a priest or leader in the church asks “haven’t I thought about my vocation?” (Believe me, I ‘ve thought about it!!! Too much maybe!”)
We, dear single, discerning ladies, have said our “yes” too. I am not arguing that these “yesses” become publically celebrated. Firstly, that would be awkward, but secondly, some yesses are meant to be hidden. As Christ lived the first 30 years of His life, so too are many of the yesses along the way to holiness, hidden – sometimes even disguised and misunderstood. Such is the brokenness of humanity and the mystery of God. But as I was reading this article and reflecting on my own “yes,” I realized how important it is to understand and treasure it myself . I think, in the future, it will help me to step back from others’ celebrations just long enough to pause, and pray. “I too have said yes, Lord and you know it. Give me the strength to keep saying yes, even when it is difficult.”
Each woman can fill in what her “yes” has been. . .
“Lord, I said “yes” to entering the religious life, following you while my family thought I was crazy. . .and then, when you sent me back to that same family, I said “yes” again just as generously, although this time it was with tears. . . “
“Lord, I followed you out of the convent and into the world, not knowing where it would lead. I’ve accepted every bump in the road and being “a fool for you” as I adjusted back to secular life . . .”
“Lord, I desire marriage and a family, but I’ve said YES to waiting for it to happen in your time and in your way. . .”
“Lord, I do not know where I’m going, but I’ve said “yes” to journeying joyfully even when I feel desolate. . .”
“Lord, being at Mass right now only brings me pain, but I say “yes” to being here with you anyway. . .”
Each of us can find a lot of these “yesses” in our lives, and I have realized it is important to remember them. I believe that for me such remembrances will be the key place where I will find the power to rejoice with those who rejoice, and to walk in faith when I would rather see.
Of course, we are not alone in either the remembering or the resolving to do better. I hope it consoles you as much as it did me, to rediscover that no “yes” goes unseen by God. I think these yesses, that are the last to be thought of in this world, are the first to be remembered in His eyes, and the foremost to be felt by His heart. I think the more conscious of them that we become, the stronger we will be in remaining faithful to them.
God-willing, one day we too, will have the opportunity to make one of the “celebrated” yesses. But in the meantime, the silent ones are nonetheless real. Treasure your “yes” and allow the Lord to treasure you.
It was the day before I was due to leave Walsingham, England’s Nazareth, and head back down to London for my flight home. I’d hoped that by that stage I would have figured out some answers: do I have a religious vocation? If so, where? And when? My pilgrimage was almost over, though, and no clear answers were in sight. Instead, during my penultimate Mass in Walsingham, the priest gave a homily about waiting that has stayed with me for months.
“Some of you,” he said, “may have heard of a boy named Jack Cornwell.” A lot of the older people in the congregation nodded. “He was a Boy Seaman, First Class, on board HMS Chester in 1916. The ship came under heavy fire from four German battleships, and all the sailors who were on deck manning the Chester‘s guns were killed or fatally wounded within fifteen minutes. Jack Cornwell was in one of the most exposed positions on the ship, but he remained at his gun awaiting orders from his captain – and that’s where they found him after the battle, barely alive and with his chest full of shrapnel, but still standing at his post, quietly waiting for orders.” He died two days later, at the age of sixteen. The priest went on to add that Boy Seaman Cornwell was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the highest – and rarest – military honour in Britain, for “gallantry in the face of the enemy.” (According to Wikipedia, he was the third-youngest person ever awarded the VC.)
Jack Cornwell’s gun, aboard HMS Chester.
“I often feel,” the priest continued, “that I’m not doing a very good job of following God’s will – so often when I try to find out what He wants me to do, and to do it, I end up falling short. I want to push harder and try and force things to happen, but end up getting nowhere instead. You may find the same thing sometimes. But all of us – priests, laymen, religious – we are all called by God to stay at our posts, waiting for Him to give us our orders. Even when we’re wounded, that’s the way we are called to live: whoever we are, we are all standing where God has placed us, and quietly waiting for orders.”
The readings for the first Sunday of Advent, too, are about watching and being ready, “for no one knows the day or the hour.” Sometimes we are called to take action and make a leap of faith, but more often, we are called to wait: to remain alert and watchful, so that we are ready when the time comes and God calls us to move. I’m grateful to the priest for his openness about the sense of falling short in service to God, and for cutting through my own impatience with the reminder that we can’t force our lives forward, even in paths that might be His will, before His time comes. The greatest honour lies, instead, in remaining steady and awake at the post in which God has placed us, knowing that when it is time, His orders for each of us will come.
By J.E. Sigler
If you are one of those women who feels that her departure from the religious life means that God has rejected her from “the heart of the Church” and relegated her to “second-class holiness” in the world, you need to keep reading.
For a graduate course in the philosophy and theology of work, vocation, and calling, I am reading a wonderful volume called The Disciples’ Call: Theologies of Vocation from Scripture to the Present Day, edited by Father Christopher Jamison, OSB. The book is a collection of essays compiled from a conference of vocation directors and religious formators in the UK several years ago. It is a strikingly modern look at issues of critical import in calling and vocation today, and it is refreshingly frank in its discussion of “the hard questions” the Church is currently dealing with in this area.
What I find particularly interesting about this book are the two completely different, conflicting even, views of vocation that are constantly emerging in it. On the one hand, there’s the Thomistic view; on the other, the Ignatian. What’s the difference?
First, let’s review what we already know: All Christians are called to holiness. By our baptisms, we are all consecrated to the Lord and required to live out some form of poverty, chastity (though not necessarily celibacy), and obedience (to God and, if married, to our spouse; if religious, to our superior and sisters; if ordained, to our bishop; etc.). On this point, all Catholics, even Saints Thomas and Ignatius, agree. The two views of vocation emerge when we ask: In addition to this first call to holiness that we all share, is there a second, additional call to a particular vocation?
St. Thomas says that there is not, and what logically follows from this is that the religious life is one response to the universal Christian call to holiness. It is a choice each individual makes, her personal response to the call God makes to everyone. But to St. Thomas, religious life is always the surer (i.e., the easier) path to perfect charity and salvation, and so, he argues, all who feel even slightly inclined to it ought to at least try it. St. Thomas believes that, basically, nearly everyone is capable of living the religious life, and since it is the most perfect (meaning, again, the easiest!) way to fulfill the original, and only, call to holiness shared by all Christians, we ought all to give it a go.
On this view, a lack of perseverance in the religious life is truly a failure to achieve “the better way,” and to return to the world is really to return to something “less than perfection.”
However, St. Ignatius says there is a second call to a particular vocation, in addition to the universal Christian call to holiness. And so, on his view, one ought to wait for this call before embarking upon any vowed state in life. St. Ignatius agrees with St. Thomas that the religious life is objectively a better path to holiness, in the sense that it makes the attainment of holiness easier, but subjectively, the religious life may not be the better path for a particular individual. And so he concludes that all Church-approved vocations ought to be given consideration by each person.
On this view, a lack of perseverance in the religious life is not necessarily a failure to achieve “the better way,” but more likely simply a sign that one was not “built” (by God) for that life (at least not permanently). And a return to the world is not a return to something “less than perfection,” but to one’s real (permanent, God-given) vocation.
As Father Joseph Bolin, in chapter four of The Disciples’ Call, points out, the Thomistic view is the traditional view of vocation and the one most often implied in historic recruitment materials to the religious life: “God is calling you, daring you to follow Him. Are you generous enough?” (p. 74). But this view places all the onus for perseverance on the individual’s will, and as Father Bolin sees it, this is a severe weakness of the Thomistic view: True, such an approach will increase vocations to religious life, and likely capture all, or at least most, of those “true” religious vocations, i.e., people who really are called to the religious life. But it also has the effect of capturing a lot of people who are not suited to the religious life by guilting or inspiring them to embark upon “the (objectively) surer path to perfect charity and salvation,” even if that path is not subjectively the surer one for them. The consequences of these “false positives” are potentially very dangerous, and well known to us.
“The Thomistic approach… will cause people who consider religious life, perhaps enter for a time, and then cease pursuing this vocation to have a negative self-image, perhaps to give up Christian life altogether, or at any rate to be satisfied with mediocrity in living the Christian vocation. For, if the will to embrace and follow the religious life as a way to love God is all that is necessary for a vocation, then leaving the religious life would seem to indicate a lack of love, an unreadiness to serve God without reservation. This lends itself to the practical conclusion that if one is not capable of attaining holiness in the easier and better way, there is really no hope of becoming holy in the lay state” (p. 80).
Of course, Father Bolin argues that this conclusion is patently false.
Many of us are familiar with these two views of vocation. But what, at least in my experience, many people do not realize is that we often conflate the two perspectives. And this, I believe, is where vocational distress begins.
Think about it: You probably felt that you had a second call to the religious life, an Ignatian assumption, as St. Thomas says there is only one call. But when you returned to the world, you may have felt, as many women do, that you somehow “failed” in or had been rejected from “the perfect way” and so are “less than,” a distinctly Thomistic assumption, as Ignatius does not hang the perseverance in religious life entirely on the individual’s will. On the one hand, you may have assumed that people are either built for the religious life, or they are not (Ignatian), and that those who are built for it love more, or are destined for more holiness (Thomistic).
But to collapse these two views is both wrong and harmful. Remember: St. Ignatius requires a second call, but he also strongly emphasizes the subjectiveness of the call to holiness, i.e., that there is a better path to holiness for each
individual person, and this path is not necessarily the religious life. On Ignatius’ view, some people are built for religious life, and others are not, and both are best suited to attain holiness in the ways God made them for. St. Thomas, on the other hand, emphasizes the objective superiority of the religious life, for all or at least most, but his view also entails that the choice of religious life is just one way to respond to the universal Christian call to holiness that we all share. Whether a person responds to that call by committing to the evangelical counsels, marriage vows, or whatever else, she’s still got the same call everybody else does: “The difference between those entering consecrated life and those who do not is not a difference in the degree of their love, but a difference in the ways they choose to grow in love” (Frather Bolin, p. 81).
Personally, I am an Ignatian when it comes to discernment. Whatever you are, I hope that you can see how both views provide consolation for the woman who has returned to the world, provided you keep them straight: Either you have a second call to something other than religious life, and following that call is the best possible way for you to attain holiness. Or else you have the exact same call as religious sisters, and the degree of holiness you attain out here in the world will depend entirely upon how hard you work at it!
For the longest time after I returned home from the convent, I was afraid to move in a fixed direction or put down any roots. I didn’t want to commit to anything unless I was sure. Once burned, twice shy… that’s how it felt. I had given everything I could of myself when I was “living the life” in my community. I had committed entirely on an interior level, so when the call back out to the world came it hit me like a ton of bricks. The sense of purpose that I had prior to discerning out of religious life was a hard act to follow. Unless I could find a similarly purposeful direction to move in, I didn’t want to be tied down.
3 years after returning home, I moved out of my parents’ home and took out a lease on an apartment. I decided to allow myself to ENJOY setting up my new home. I went for uncluttered without being minimalist, with a few soft furnishings and bits and pieces to create a pleasant place to relax or to entertain… even a few prints of paintings by local artists of places to which I have travelled in my past… each one, a memory. It sure won’t be gracing the pages of any interior design mags, but it’s home.
Why is investing time, effort and $ in homemaking, even important, you might ask?
I’d invite you to pick up your Bible and flick to Jeremiah 29. No… not verse 11… that quote about a hope and a future that so many people explore on blogs like this one! Let’s have a look at something different! Go right back to the beginning of the chapter to where God addresses Himself to the exiles in Babylon.
He tells them to build houses, plant gardens, settle down, get married, seek the good of the society within which they are living. He told them that this exile was PART of His plan for them, that it wasn’t a thwarting of His plan. He reassured them that they were exactly where He willed for them to be, and gave them the confidence they needed to get on with living their exile well.
I’m still in the process of trying to work out how to do this well in my own context, and I dare say that this is going to look different for every one who has returned to the world from the convent. I know this much – putting my life into a holding pattern in the hopes that some wonderful life mission or purpose will materialise out of nowhere is not what He is asking me to do. Gabriel didn’t appear to our Blessed Mother in a waiting room. He delivered God’s message to her when she was at work.
So again, I invite you – sit down with this passage – and if possible, do so before the Blessed Sacrament. How is He speaking to you through this passage?
I pray you’ll find reassurance and peace!
Pictured Rocks, MI – captured by a local artist. It hangs on my wall to remind me of a wonderful memory kayaking under that archway with a dear friend of mine!
Q: What is “From My Inner Cell” all about?
A: From My Inner Cell: Conversations with God for convent-leavers
I call it almost-discernment: where you’ve been bruised by a brush with convent life and are in no particular rush to repeat the experience, but at the same time, the idea of becoming a sister is like a distant phone in the background of your life that never stops ringing. Like when you hear about a new religious community and think, simultaneously,
a) I wonder if that will be the community God wants me to join?
b) I hope not because I don’t really want to be a sister anymore,
c) but I wish I could stop thinking about becoming a sister. (That phone is starting to drive me berserk: Lord, I’d answer it if I could figure out where it is. Could You please either point me in the right direction, or make it stop ringing?)
Discerning a religious vocation the first time around wasn’t easy by any means, but at least it was comparatively straightforward. The explanation I came up with for my spiritual director was this: the first time you enter religious life, it’s like turning a compass slowly until the needle points north and everything falls into alignment. God is the magnetic pole Who draws you to Himself, and you need only keep your eyes on the compass and follow the path north to Him.
Leaving the convent is like dropping the compass.
Of course, you pick it up again, and it looks fine on the outside – the glass unbroken, the case undented – but when you try to follow it, sooner or later you’ll find it’s been jarred out of alignment. The needle swings back and forth without stopping, on any bearing, let along north. God is still out there somewhere, and you keep waiting more or less patiently for the compass to settle down and start pointing you in the direction He wants for your life… and when it doesn’t, there’s no option but to start walking regardless, because that phone is just going to keep on ringing until you do. Discernment the second time around means having the courage to take even a single step forward, knowing that you have no real idea whether you’re heading north or south-south-west.
My post-convent discernment path has been largely comprised of zig-zags, punctuated occasionally by an “oof!” as
my faulty compass guides me straight into a tree. (I went on a nine-day orienteering camp when I was fourteen. Didn’t like it. Can you tell?) Our Lord told us, though, to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking; without a functioning compass, the walk will take longer, but one day – in His time – the underbrush will part suddenly and a clear path to Him will become visible. And He asks us to trust that, when each one of us gets to heaven and looks back down on the times when we felt most lost and helpless, meandering pointlessly in the scrub, we will see only one set of footprints.