A Positive and Joyful Experience: One Volunteer’s Perspective

by Theresa.

You may have noticed a marked improvement in our social media in 2018. That would be because of our wonderful volunteer Cate. Not only did she post our blogs and help link to interesting articles from other sites but she also created beautiful graphic content for us. It’s been a pleasure working with her and to say thanks I thought it might be fun to interview her and learn a little more about her.

How did you first hear about our site?

I’m pretty sure I found LL through a link on another blog I was reading. It was during my first year back home after having discerned to leave my consecrated community, and I was searching Google on topics that would help with the transition.

What did you like about the site?

I liked that it was serving a need in the Church that I felt should be addressed. I had wanted to start a blog myself where I talked about my discernment journey, and thought of inviting others who had been in consecrated life. I only got as far as taking some notes and drafting up a few first paragraphs of potential blog posts before happily discovering that this type of thing already existed.

Did you find Leonie’s Longing helpful? If yes, how?

Yes, it was certainly helpful to feel solidarity with other women who had similar experiences. There were some blog posts that spoke to me in a particular way and gave me insight and encouragement as I navigated this new chapter. Perhaps one of the greatest fruits was learning to be patient with myself in the process. More difficult than anything was the guilt of possibly having made the wrong decision in choosing to leave. It helped to correspond with others from LL and express those feelings with people who could relate.  

What made you decide to volunteer?

I had written a couple of blog posts and had considered volunteering for a while, but my schedule always seemed too packed to add one more thing. However, when Theresa and I were emailing and she asked me if I would consider volunteering, the timing was right. It was during the slower winter months and in the midst of a rough time for me. I almost immediately knew it was right, not only because I could honestly dedicate time to it, but also because I saw that an opportunity like this would be a good outlet for me.

Cate & Theresa meet IRL!

What was your favorite part about volunteering?

Other than evening brainstorming chats with Theresa, which contained a fair amount of random chit-chat and laughter? 🙂 I enjoyed doing something where I really understood my target audience. As I looked for quotes and created graphics, and as I read articles and decided to share them, I knew that if something struck a chord with me, it would likely be helpful to others here.

Did anything surprise you?

I’m not sure that I expected it to be such an overall positive and joyful experience. I loved being part of the team and feeling connected other volunteers and those we serve.

What are you doing next?

I’ve discerned to do two years of foreign mission work with Family Missions Company. I’ll be leaving for training very soon and will receive my assignment in the next couple of months. Being a lay missionary feels like a great fit. It wasn’t an easy step, but it’s one that I’m very grateful to be taking. Thanks be to God!

If you knew someone who was unsure about volunteering what would you say?

Go for it! You have a unique experience to share with others. We need to use our own experiences to help one another. God will use it not only for the benefit of other women but for your own growth and healing.

Introducing Career Coaching!

By Ryan Haber.

“What do I do next?”

You might not know. To make things worse, you might not very good at much that the world is willing to pay for.

I felt that way when I left the seminary. I landed a decent job almost by dumb luck but didn’t really know what I was going to do next or even what I was doing in general. I was bored with work which seemed trivial compared to the grand vision that had been laid out before me during years of priestly formation. During one job hunting phase, I couldn’t get anyone to look at my resume. I sent out 200 resumes and got back not one response. How worthless can you feel?

I’m happy to report that more recently, Google and Facebook have approached me about jobs and I like my current situation well enough that I turned them both down.

How did that happen?

I do not have any magic. I have learned a few things over the twelve years since leaving seminary, and I’d really like to share them with you.

You can have a stable job that adds value to the world and that you enjoy. You can change jobs when you want, rather than getting chased out of them. You can have your own home and be confident in job interviews. You have something to offer. The “world” works by a different set of rules than the monastic community. The good news is that you can learn these rules and, without compromising your faith or morals, navigate the game of life.

I am not a career coach. I’m not an expert. But if you’re feeling lost and confused, I am probably just a step or two ahead of you and can relate. I’ve love to share what people have taught me.  Here are some of the things we can work on together:

  • Thinking and envisioning careers which may interest you
  • Figuring out potential next steps
  • Getting your resume and online profiles ship-shape
  • Learning how to network in powerfully effective ways
  • Getting job interviews
  • Being more comfortable with job interviews
  • Figuring out how to get along with secular managers and coworkers
  • Negotiating for salary
  • Strategies for decision making

There are no guarantees, and you’ll only get out what you put in. But if you’d like to chat with me about yourself, your career and what may come next, I’m very happy to share what I have learned so far.

To get started, go to http://leonieslonging.org/careercontact/ and complete the contact form.

Soon afterwards, we will be in touch to make appointment for an initial chat.

Here’s what you’ll do in your initial 60-minute initial chat:

  • Get to know each other a little bit
  • Tell me where you are, what you’re doing, what you want
  • I’ll probably give you a homework assignment
  • Set up a time to talk more in-depth about one topic or another

After the initial chat, you and I will go on to the steps that make most sense for you. Each time we meet – whether in person at a coffee shop or across the country via video chat – just buy me a cup of coffee and we’ll call it even. That’s not much of a risk.

Ryan Haber is a Maryland native. Since leaving Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in 2006, he has mostly worked in software development even though his B.A. is in history and he has no other degree. He has worked in companies big and small to help document and explain technical software development tools to software engineers. Periodically they let him out of his cubicle to speak at conferences and workshops about similar nerdy things. Right now he works for Blackboard, Inc. In his free time, he hikes and camps and takes pictures and kicks his nieces around. Like you, Ryan has no idea what God has in store for him next.

Rejection and the Rosary

By Bernadette Monica.

Three years after leaving my former community it seemed like all the pieces in the puzzle of my life were finally coming together. I had found another community and everything appeared to be indicating that this was truly what the Lord had planned for my life. The community’s spirituality and charism resonated with my heart in a way I never could have imagined. With each faltering step forward I took, each time expecting to find myself falling flat or hitting a dead end, I was surprised to find myself filled with a peace and joy unlike anything I had ever known. The whole experience was so different to discernment the first time around – where formerly I had discerned out of external pressure, anxiety and fear, here instead I found freedom, beauty, and goodness. Even when facing the remnant fears I had from my previous discernment of religious life, I felt more exhilarated than afraid at the possibility of taking a leap of faith and placing everything in the hands of our Lord, trusting everything to His grace and providence. And so it was that, after spending 6 months or so discerning with the local mission of this new community, I found myself on a plane from Sydney to the US to visit the community’s Motherhouse, and discern if this was really where I was being called.

I half expected to arrive and feel like a fish out of water, having the realisation that I was not where I was meant to be, like when I had visited other communities in the past. Instead I felt completely at home, and fell in love with the community and their way of life. One of the postulants and one of the novices even remarked how well I fit in with the community and how they hoped to see me enter in a few months, God-willing. It seemed that the only obstacle remaining was that my family were not supportive, and even on this front I was sure that in time they would come around, even if there might be some challenges in the meantime.

Imagine then my surprise and shock on the day before my departure when I finally had an interview with the vocation director only to be informed that she didn’t think I would be able to cope with the demands of their community life. I always knew it was a possibility that a community might discern such, or that I might decide myself that it wasn’t the right fit, but her impression was so at odds with the peace and sense of belonging that I felt, and I wasn’t satisfied with the vague reason she gave as justification. Even so, it wasn’t an absolute no, and it was agreed that on my return home I needed to really take everything to prayer and discuss things with my spiritual director, and that I could continue to be in contact with the vocation director to discern a path forward.

After a challenging day filled with confusion and heartache I awoke on the final morning of my 12-day visit aware of the challenges that lay ahead, but also full of hope and trust that the Lord would remove this obstacle if it was His will. I returned home and it felt like I had a foot in each of two worlds. I prayed and sought spiritual direction, and after two months, though aware of the possibility of refusal or the likelihood of being asked to undergo a longer period of discernment to discuss and work through her concerns, I contacted the vocation director asking to speak with her again, and expressing that I felt I was being called to take the next step in discernment. We arranged to speak on the phone, and in the 20 minute conversation that ensued it was made clear to me (albeit in the kindest and gentlest way possible) that the door to discerning with the community was no longer open for me. In the space of a few minutes all the growing hopes and dreams I had treasured in my heart were dashed, and the Pearl of Great Price was pulled far from my reach. To say I was heartbroken would be an incredible understatement. I was recently struck by a line from Ted Danson’s miniseries adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels that seemed to sum up where I was at very poignantly:

“We love words, we humans; we use so many, so easily, ‘til they’ve lost all their meaning. But when I say as that last day dawned my heart was breaking – I have never known such awful pain and loneliness.”

I cannot describe my emotions and the testing of my faith over the past few months. I have never really dated, but I imagine that on some level this is akin to enduring a breakup of a longstanding relationship when from your own end you thought everything was going really well and were perhaps even expecting a proposal. After the traumatic experience of leaving my former community and all the growth and healing of the following years, to find a community that was healthy, vibrant, on fire with love for the Lord, and seemingly such a perfect fit for me only to be turned away even from applying felt almost too much to bear.

Over the last month or so the initial intensity of emotions and the agony of rejection has ebbed somewhat, but I’ve been painfully aware that around this time is when sisters will be receiving the habit and professing vows, and that in a few short weeks a new group of postulants will be entering various communities.

Upon learning that the postulants I knew during my brief time at the Motherhouse would have received the habit and their new religious names in the past day, and that the novices will be making their first profession of vows tomorrow, I sat down this morning to pray a rosary for them. It’s a Saturday, so it seemed very appropriate that I should be praying the Joyful mysteries for them. I’m so happy for these women reaching these milestones in their own vocational journeys, but I was aware of parallels I could see with the mysteries I was praying and the experiences of these women, and how this contrasts with my own experience. My own discernment feels more suited to the Sorrowful mysteries. I took this to our Lady as I prayed, and she gave me some beautiful insights which I want to share in the hope that it might bring others a little bit of peace and hope in their own struggles and confusion.

Firstly, on the Joyful mysteries. Perhaps many of you can relate to how these seem to tie in with religious formation, at least as I was seeing it.

The Annunciation: That unexpected and surprising moment when the Lord first presents to a young woman’s mind and heart the possibility of a call to religious life. “How can this be…?” she might ask. But like Mary she is exhorted to not be afraid, and assured that nothing is impossible for God, and that it is through His power that His will will be done, if only she gives him her Fiat.

The Visitation: The vocation starts to become more concrete. A woman finds a community she feels drawn to, and her apparent vocation begins to be affirmed by others – friends, family, her spiritual director, members of the community. And with Mary, the woman rejoices at the marvels the Lord is working in her life.

The Nativity: A birth; new life. The time comes for a woman to enter her community and leave her old life behind. A time of change and growth as she starts out on the new road she has been called to walk.

The Presentation in the Temple: At the appointed time, the woman begins her formal initiation into the community. First she receives the habit and her religious name; later she will make her first profession of vows, offering her life to “be designated as holy to the Lord” (c.f. Lk 2:23) and having her gift accepted by Him through her superiors. It strikes me only now as I sit down to write this that it was at 8 days that our Lord was circumcised, given his name and was formally initiated into the Jewish community, and at 40 days that he was presented in the Temple and redeemed according to Jewish custom and law – there is surely a parallel here with the process of being initiated into a religious community!

The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: Perhaps some might tie this in with a woman’s final profession of vows when she becomes forever a bride of Christ. I see it as something a little more abstract – those moments perhaps years down the track when she grasps a deeper understanding of the mystery of her vocation, or reaches a more profound level of intimacy with her bridegroom. This might perhaps come after a period of spiritual dryness, just as Mary spent three days searching for the missing Jesus, and like Mary, on finding Jesus once again the woman will be filled with joy, and is left to ponder the mysteries of God’s workings, and the purposes He fulfils in all things.

In contrast to this I can see in my own recent experiences a shadow of the Sorrowful mysteries:

The Agony in the Garden: That fateful conversation with the vocation director where she initially questioned my suitability for the community’s way of life; my wrestling with this, questioning, “Why me?” and wondering what it was that she saw in me that she hadn’t seen in the others who did end up applying, or alternatively, what she hadn’t seen in me that she had seen in them; wondering if there was a red flag over my head because of my having previously been in a community; the confusion over how everything had seemed to lead to this point and everything seemed to fit so well only to have the shadow of doubt cast over it all; and finally, reaching the point in prayer of being able to accept the cup I was being asked to drink, and coming to an understanding that if this truly was my vocation then the Lord would remove all obstacles at the appointed time, and that if it wasn’t then nothing I could do on my part could it make it so.

The Scourging at the Pillar: The return home and the months of prayer and discernment. Grappling simultaneously with the very real possibility of rejection and the hope that things might still work out; having others affirm that they thought I was on the right path, while knowing the odds were stacked against me. The feeling of flesh being torn from my side as I prepared to speak with the vocation director once again, laying my heart on the line while knowing there was a very real possibility that I may not receive the answer I was so desperately hoping for.

The Crowning with Thorns: That definitive moment of having the door of what I had hoped to be my vocation closed and bolted on me. Being prepared for the possibility did little in the moment to ease the pain of having thorns pushed cruelly into my flesh. In the hours and days that followed that fateful phone call it felt like there was a ring of thorns around my heart, slowly shredding it to pieces.

The Carrying of the Cross: The weeks and month following my rejection have involved a long process of coming to terms with the situation, working through my emotions, and trying my best to keep moving one step at a time, to get back up when I’ve fallen, to accept help from the Simon’s of Cyrene in my life, and to place myself at the foot of the cross. I’ve had to learn to see this as a way of becoming more united to Him, and to trust more and more in His plans, even when they make no sense to me. I’ve had to make a conscious decision to trust in His promises and to believe that He is indeed working for my good.

The Crucifixion: I can see here an invitation to lay down my life in a radical way to the will of God. An earlier Leonie’s Longing blog, Sacrificing Sacrifice, has proved very helpful in coming to an understanding that, where I had hoped to lay down my life for God through religious consecration, perhaps what is more pleasing to Him and sanctifying for me is accepting His will and choosing to trust even when it proves painful, or when I’m being asked to let go even of the truly good and honourable desires of my heart. Like Christ on the Cross we are invited to place our lives completely into our Father’s hands, accepting and trusting in whatever His will might be.

On another level I can see in the Sorrowful mysteries parallels with the experience of leaving my former community. Perhaps you may relate to some of these:

  1. Troubles, doubts or difficulties in the lived experience of community life
  2. Perhaps a difficult conversation with a superior, or some painful growth in self-awareness
  3. The experience of actually deciding to leave, or particularly of being asked to leave where that has been the case
  4. The aftermath of leaving your community and readjusting to lay life
  5. Learning to accept and surrender to God’s will, and for those who have left dysfunctional communities, healing and learning to forgive and let go.

While praying the rosary I had a few insights from our Lady in light of all of this which I found comforting and encouraging. Firstly, she affirmed to me that the Sorrowful mysteries don’t make sense on their own. It is only in the light of the Resurrection that our Lord’s Passion and death have any meaning or salvific effect. Without the Resurrection and the Glorious mysteries, none of the other mysteries take on their full meaning and power. Without the Resurrection the Sorrowful mysteries would also cast shadow, doubt and confusion on both the Joyful and Luminous mysteries, as well as these mysteries not making any sense in and of themselves. What could be the purpose in the Nativity by itself for example, let alone if it was all only to end in our Lord’s painful and humiliating death on the cross?

The Resurrection gives us hope, and is a promise of things to come. Perhaps we are now in a luminous period in which we are slowly having the Lord’s will revealed to us, and through which He has something to teach us and areas in which He wants us to grow. In the meantime we can look to the Glorious mysteries as a promise of the hope that is surely to come. I am reminded that, after all, my vocation is not the final destination but only a pathway to aid me in reaching it, and if the Lord is allowing a few detours en route I can still trust that in the end He will bring me to the final destination of perfect union with Him, and that we will be united all the more closely through the times He has allowed me to carry the cross alongside Him through the sorrowful mysteries of my own life.

Hurricane

By Windy Day.

In 2016, I went for a walk with a colleague when Hurricane Matthew was striking the United States. We couldn’t help but talk about the weather because it was such big news. He shared that he was in Virginia for Hurricane Bertha and said it was “only a Category 2.” He then described his experience:

“The sky was pitch black; the wind howled nonstop for hours. The eye of the storm passed by at around noon, which I recall vividly because it provided just enough time for us on staff to go out for lunch — we sat outside at a local sandwich place under beautiful, peaceful blue skies and sunshine! Then, no sooner had we returned to the office when the deafening, dark tempest began roaring again. The contrast in so short a time was surreal and impressive.”

We were discussing this on a beautiful Autumn day, knowing full well that in other parts of the world people were recovering from devastation, experiencing devastation, or awaiting devastation. It was a strange feeling. Enjoying the beautiful weather and yet knowing not everyone in the world was experiencing the same thing.

If that can happen with weather I would suspect that it can happen in the spiritual life.

Does it sometimes seem that your experiences and feelings are casting a cloud over everything? It’s easy to deduce that everything is awful when we feel awful ourselves. But our current feelings and experiences aren’t an all-encompassing reality (or they don’t need to be). Have you heard St. Therese’s analogy of the little bird looking at the sun when the cloud passes in front?

“With bold abandonment, he remains gazing at his Divine Sun. Nothing can frighten him, neither wind nor rain; and if dark clouds come to hide the Star of love, the weak little bird will not move away, for he knows that on the other side of the clouds his Sun continues always to shine.”

To me that analogy made sense. But the way I had been reading it made it seem fairly tame. However, if we think about a hurricane completely blocking out the Sun so that midday looks like midnight, that is something very different.

Have you felt this way? I know I have.

Since returning to lay life I have felt to varying levels of desolation and spiritual torment. These are hard to reflect upon, let alone describe, especially when you’re afraid to scandalize others. It feels as though everyone expects you to have your life together because you were a religious. And to make it worse, we often expect that of ourselves.

Instead, I think it’s more realistic to anticipate and expect at least some darkness, if not extreme darkness, at this time. We are vulnerable and the evil one always looks for weakness in our defense (see 14th rule in St. Ignatius’ Rules for Discernment of Spirits*). It is quite likely your relationship with the Lord has been strained or challenged and this gives Satan an “in.”

How can we combat this darkness? Here are a few thoughts:

First, recognize this possibility and, “Be not afraid!” Fear can easily dominate us and cause us to feel powerless. Try to manage your response and any other things that you can control. Remind yourself of the truths of the spiritual life. Once again, Ignatius’ rules may help.

Next, don’t be surprised, offended, disappointed or take it personally. It magnifies things and only makes everything feel worse. This is a great opportunity to find hidden pride. If you are shocked and upset, you most likely had an unrealistic image of yourself (mea culpa!).

Finally, consider praising God in all things and thanking Him for this opportunity. View this truly as an opportunity and not a barrier. How can this be true? A few ideas:

You can learn more about yourself.

You can depend on God more.

You can turn to Him.

You can grow.

 

These are all good things that God wants for you! And you can always ask Mary to help you. Keep reminding yourself that, as St. Therese affirms, on the other side of the clouds his Sun continues always to shine.

 

What suggestions do you have? Please share in the comments below!

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*http://www.discerninghearts.com/catholic-podcasts/14-rules-discerning-spirits-different-movements-caused-soul/

Plain Without, Shining Within

By Gertrude Heartwood.

In Fr. (now Bishop) Robert Barron’s video series Catholicism, he points out that Our Lord Jesus did not have any religious status in his society.  He was not a member of the priestly class and was neither a scribe nor a Pharisee. He was a manual laborer, a member of the laity.  So now are we, who once had “religious status” as members of a religious community, counted among the laity.

All states of life were elevated by him, for although he was a regular working man, he also was the model for all in religious life, living poverty, chastity and obedience; and he is the Eternal High Priest.  We know that all priests derive their priesthood from His; that all religious follow him more closely in the evangelical counsels; yet he is simultaneously a lay person.

Reflections like these can comfort those of us who pursued religious life and left, but we can never get away from the fact that we no longer remain in what is considered by the Church to be the objectively more perfect way of life which persons in religious vows have been called to live.

Lay people are not called like priests and religious to a supernatural vocation.  We may be chosen for the married state of life, or for some ministry in the Church, but this is not the same sort of call that a priest or religious receives…a summons to a way of life that can only be lived because of the grace that is available from the Redeeming Act of Christ.  Prior to Christ, the celibate priesthood and the consecrated life did not exist. These are possible only because of the new economy of grace brought about by the Blood of His Cross.

So here we are, just regular folk, living a regular type of life.  Some of us are single, some of us are married. But our states in life are nothing new, nothing particularly Christian.  All cultures and religious traditions have married people and single people. We are just plain Janes.

And yet, are we really?  

In the purely lay state, having no Church status to rely upon, we can show forth the essentials of the Christian gifts, the changes that Christianity brings to human beings.  We look, dress, talk, live like secular folk. But we have the Holy Trinity within us. We have a mother in heaven who watches over us. We have a guardian angel. We have grace upon grace upon grace.  We are new creations. Furthermore, if we are married, we can live that state in life at a higher level, at the level of grace, because it has been elevated to a sacrament.

These hidden treasures of grace we possess within are like jewels sparkling out quietly from within us, upon a world that is inhabited by darkness.  People will catch the sparkles if we remain in His Love, and be drawn to Him too. And that is all we have. Those sparkles of grace. We don’t have a habit, or religious vows, we don’t have a collar, we aren’t set apart.  When people look at us and interact with us, it is as persons just-like-them. The only things we have to rely upon to draw people to Christ is His grace inside of us and our cooperation therewith. No one will look at us in a habit and be moved to think of God.  But if we wear a smile for them, they may see that they have dignity and that they are loved. If all our interactions with them bear the Light of Christ, the heaviness of their darkness can be lifted from them, if even for a moment.

At the same time, we see the goodness in them, these regular folk like us…though not Christian, they can make us marvel at how they too reflect God’s goodness.  His goodness in us, His goodness in them…we and they, regular folk, yet carrying too, the wonder of God’s generous presence.

Learning Curve: Discernment, the Second Time Around

By Cinnamon.

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.