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.
By Cara Ruegg.
I breathe the wind
Into swollen lungs
Red eyes blink
And all is gone.
At least for a moment
Standing at the crossroads
Nervous and trembling
Do I even want anything?
There is no silent conviction
There is no conviction at all
There is nothing
My heart is torn
It is broken
It cannot decide
To be loved
In a special way
By a person I can see
And hear and touch
It seems much more real
Even if it’s not
Even if it’s in fact false
A fickle thing
This love of humans
Changes like the wind
God is eternal
His love infinite
And He gives me Himself
He gives me everything
Where is my gratitude?
The ground beneath my feet
The grass cannot be seen
Under this dirt
What do I want?
The world’s vanities
Make me shrink
But so does the cross
Of my Jesus
Covered in blood
And I want to be brave
I want to give Him everything
All of me
Not counting the cost
But I’m a coward
And I stand here
At the crossroads
He seems far away
I once felt His peace
Such a wonderful calm
There is nothing now
I am numb
The little children huddle around me
But do they really care?
In the end, they go home
And I’m not ever there.
My Sisters laugh and joke
But still a barrier I hold
My heart can’t get attached
Not to a human soul
I want a shoulder to cry on
A friend to wipe my tears
I want to be loved by someone
But I am here
Before a silent God
Who I know is before me
But who I cannot see
And cannot hear
And cannot feel
The romance of the cross
Should be enough
It should be all
But the crucifix
On the wall
He beckoned me
And I responded
I said, “Yes,
I’d follow His call”
Now here He is
I’ve crossed the ocean
I’ve left behind my home
I let myself be forgotten
Erased from memories of loved ones
Affections have gone cold
They have changed, gone old
But I am here, frozen
I still care…too much
And they don’t know.
I cannot tell them.
And will I be happy
In the world?
I cannot see over this picket fence
And do not know
If there is any grass there at all.
And can I give up the treasure
Of a baby I can call my own
Tiny hands and soft feet
Eyes that look like my own?
For God. For God. For God.
How dry and tasteless
Shattered in a silent way
I’m just not happy
Waves aren’t crashing
All about me
I cannot even cry.
I want Your will
By Rosemary Kate.
Dear Leonie’s Longing Readers, I feel like I have been keeping a secret from you, and that secret is this book. I first heard about Hurting in the Church through a book review, and my reaction was, “I have to read this book!” Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York with a history not unlike our own. He spent 34 years in religious life as a member of the Legionaries of Christ. This priest, I thought, will have something to say to me. He did.
Hurting in the Church is divided into three sections. The first section shares personal stories of the ways we, the lay faithful, hurt in the Church today. The second is a grouping of several chapters on personal healing, and the third speaks of the hope for healing the Church at large. The book masterfully draws you in with stories that anyone can identify with in some aspect, thus providing the authority for what Fr. Berg says in the following sections.
The first part is where Father Berg shares his story. If you are familiar with the recent past of the Legionaries of Christ, you will know that Father Berg left the community during a time of deep turmoil. In the end, though, his reasons and the circumstances for leaving were deeply personal and unique, just as they are for each of us. Father Berg courageously allows his wounds, like the wounds of Christ, to be a source of healing for others. He also assists in sharing the stories of others, including those wounded by the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. Later in the book Father Berg does not shy away from this topic, and contributes to the ongoing discussion of how the Church can move forward. But this review is not meant to focus on that piece. Ultimately, the connection between Father Berg’s personal journey and the journey of anyone who has left religious life gives this book a voice that particularly spoke to me, and I think could speak to you.
The second part of the book is where I found much food for thought. Father Berg continues to share anecdotes from his personal healing, and his words said to me, “what you are experiencing is to be expected.” I found in these pages a mirror of my own journey, a source of reflection where I could name my experiences and grow from them. One example is on page 110:
“One of the effects of suffering a severe emotional trauma such as betrayal is the sense that our life has been upended. Our compass seems to fail, and we lose our north. Long-held convictions about life, love, and purpose—once foundational for our own self-understanding—can be abruptly shattered. It can give us the terrifying sensation of being held to the precipice of an existential void. Anxiety attacks and depression are not uncommon responses to such interior turmoil.”
Yet all of this is written with the underpinnings of hope. A few pages later, Fr. Berg writes, “I rediscovered that, at my core, my life was anchored in that experience of the love of Jesus” (p. 113).
The third section looks at the universal Church. After providing guidance on how one can personally heal, Father Berg expands his vision and speaks of what the Church is, can, and will be if and when her members heal individually and help each other heal. I found the first section a draw into the book, the middle a “deep dive,” and the third a gentle exit to the reality of the world we live in as well as a roadmap of where it could go.
Hurting in the Church is a much-needed book for our time, and a great tool for anyone, as Father Berg masterfully explains in his note at the beginning. With its rich content, it took me a few months to read it; therefore, dear readers, I hope you will forgive me for not sharing it sooner. It was only published in 2017, so I have not kept silent for very long after all. Father Thomas Berg’s writing has been a much-needed companion, teaching me, as he writes, “the wound and how I chose to deal with it would have a lasting influence on who I would become from that point on in my life” (p. 109, emphasis in the original). I have left religious life, which, no matter how peaceful or not, created a wound in my life, and both that wound and my time in religious life will have a lasting influence on me. With Father Berg’s inspiration, that lasting influence will be a positive one. I hope he can assist you in coming to the same conclusion.
Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics, by Father Thomas Berg, published by Our Sunday Visitor – Website: http://fatherberg.com/
It’s been years now since I left the convent: I’ve passed through all those different stages of grief (or rather, bounced back and forth between them like a ping-pong ball) and finally come to something resembling acceptance. The pain is no longer raw and immediate, which is a relief. However, there’s a drawback: it’s harder to find inspiration than it used to be. How do I set the world on fire, as Saint Catherine of Siena exhorts, when my usual aspiration is simply to use a limited supply of energy to get out of bed and make it through a day at work? And how can anyone rejoice while holding on to the memory of religious life, or even sometimes the Catholic Faith itself, like the remnants of a parachute that failed to open?
The message of Advent is, “Stay awake and keep watch! He is coming, and we do not know the hour!” These four weeks have compelled us to be alert, both practically, as we handle the pre-Christmas rush at work and family duties at home, and spiritually, with reminders of the immanent coming of Christ and exhortations to be prepared to receive Him – and we’re tired.
The message of Christmas, however, is, “Rest.”
The Guest for Whom we were preparing is here, and has fallen asleep in the manger. Christmas is gentle, domestic: a young mother asleep on a hay bale beside her Son, surrounded by quiet beasts and watched over by her husband. We are weary, drained and battered in soul – so were they. They had walked a long way in uncertain times. At Christmas, though, they have reached a place of shelter, safety and peace, and they offer us the same.
It’s not easy to be Catholic, and the longer you make a sincere effort to be so, the harder it gets. God can seem distant to women who have left the convent, but every Christmas we remember how close He came to us, and in the gentlest, least imposing way He could: who could be afraid of a baby? A baby can’t answer the questions we most need answered – why couldn’t I have stayed in the convent? What am I going to do with my future? – but instead, simply looks up at us with the dark, solemn eyes that newborns have, and invites us to set aside our fears and be with Him for a while. We still seek God, and in this octave we remember that He also came to seek us.
If you’ve had a rough year, this is the turning point: a baby is always a sign of the future, and this Baby more so than any. May the peace of Christ be with you, and may you have a gentle, happy year ahead.
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
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.