I remember reading once that, if someone in the Middle Ages recovered from a severe illness after having been given the Last Rites, popular superstition considered that his earthly life was actually over: among other restrictions, he was not permitted to marry, to make a will, or to eat meat. *
Without wishing to seem morbid, when I left the convent, I began to understand a little of what those people would have felt as they muddled around after their recovery, trying to make sense of a world with which they were supposed to have finished. While getting ready to enter the religious life months earlier, I had realised why a former colleague – now a nun – said that in a way it felt like preparing for death: once my date of entry was set, I stepped into some strange area outside the regular flow of life, knowing that I was on a limited time-frame. I’d look in shop windows at racks of clothing, and realise that even if I bought anything, I wouldn’t have a chance to wear it. At the supermarket, I’d buy the smallest possible jars of honey or peanut butter (even though it was more expensive) because that way, I’d be able to get them finished in time. Also, of course, I was hauling bag after bag of clothes and books to the op-shop, leaving my closet looking stripped and abandoned… and most of all, my friends and family were holding small parties to farewell me, knowing it might be a long time before they saw me again.
And then I left. And then I was back.
Good grief, the noise! I’d lost the ability to tune out background music, the chatter and footsteps of passers-by, the rumbling and honking of cars, the clattering signals at pedestrian crossings… I couldn’t believe I’d ever been able to ignore so much noise. Advertisements on TV and billboards seemed surreal: having barely handled money for over half a year, I couldn’t believe that I was once again being marketed to. Visiting the places where I used to live or work was more like walking into a memory than living in the present, and everything I read/watched/listened to was something I had consciously, willingly, given up for good. None of it made any sense.
Of course, true death to the world only occurs during the rite of final profession, as the religious lies beneath a funeral pall while the Litany of the Saints is sung. So, what about the rest of us, who didn’t make it that far but still feel as if we’re no longer really part of the outside world?
For one thing, the experience gave me a taste of what being “in the world, but not of the world” feels like. It’s probably a good thing to feel slightly distant from the things you’re shopping for, to be able to step back from the advertising and think, “Seriously? They’re trying to make me want this thing? Do I want it?” It’s definitely a good thing to be able to sit back while sending a text or surfing the net and say, “You know, I lived for half a year without this and didn’t miss anything important.” And it’s wonderful to put your arms around your grandparents in the knowledge that, in other circumstances, you might not have seen them again. Basically, the world becomes unexpected: having lived outside it, you can’t now take it for granted, and whether that’s ultimately good or bad is defined by your response to it.
*See The Catholic Encyclopaedia chapter entitled ‘Subject’, paragraph 3. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05716a.htm.
By Anela, reproduced with kind permission from her blog http://anelafindshervoice.wordpress.com
Sometimes it’s funny, being known around the office as “the ex-nun.” My coworkers and I will be having a conversation, specifically about work or about life in general, and one of them will let fly something a little off-color. They’ll stumble to a halt in mid-sentence, or a sentence (or an hour) or two later, when they realize just what they’ve said in the presence of “the ex-nun.” Then they’ll apologize: sheepishly, sincerely or even offhandedly. I take no offense at their slips, although I have felt a bit uncomfortable on several occasions. When that happens, I usually end up offering up a silent prayer of apology to Our Lord on their behalf.
It’s a strange thing, but I’m grateful for the awkwardness these moments bring, because the culture we live in today has become so desensitized to issues of modesty and morality. We live in a culture whose mantra is “Sex, power and no responsibility.” We’re bombarded with images and messages that harm us physically, emotionally and spiritually every single day… and the majority of people buy into the message simply because society tells them they should.
Maybe when the people around me pause in that moment of awkwardness, they’ll take a moment to reevaluate the lies that society has told them are true. Maybe they’ll come to realize that they’re truly worth so much more than society leads them to think they are.
And maybe, just maybe, this “ex-nun” will be reminded that, just because I no longer wear the habit, live in community or keep the daily horarium (Latin for “the hours” – a schedule of work and prayer), doesn’t mean that I’m not still a beloved spouse of Christ or that I don’t need to remember that I am called to “live in the world” but not be “of the world.”
We all are.
But I still miss wearing the habit. Imagine the self-censoring that would go on in the office if I suddenly showed up in one?
The ID Card Saga and other Former Nun-People Problems
I am reminded of God’s sense of humor every time I pull out my license. Why? Because I got my license renewed two months before I left the convent, and haven’t gotten around to changing it – so as you can imagine every time I board a plane or go to a bar for a Theology on Tap I have to pull out my ID, with a picture of me very clearly in habit. I can only imagine the thoughts of the Airport Security and Bouncer. I’m sure they’re thinking I’m some crazy nun in cognito who jumped the convent walls for the weekend. Keep going sister, hop on that plane to Orlando! I won’t tell anyone! I once walked into a liquor store to buy champagne for a cupcake recipe, and a second later walked right back out because I couldn’t bear to show my license. I could only imagine! Here sister, I’ll put it in a brown paper bag so no one will know! Ginger ale would have to do! Now I can laugh about it.
These experiences also remind me that although I’ve left Religious Life, despite the shame and confusion that often comes with it, the Lord is not disappointed that I am no longer a Sister. I am the same in His Eyes even when I’m wearing basketball shorts and a t-shirt and am called by my given name.
I think many of us go through this crisis when we leave Religious Life and Seminary. We live a particular life with a particular order, and our identity can become wrapped up and intertwined (like DNA chromosomal strands) with the identity of the community. Then when we leave we feel like nothing. I remember thinking, “Who am I if I’m not a sister?” But I think we’ve had it all wrong from the beginning. At least for me, I was never confident in my identity. In this “create-yourself” culture, I thought- from as far back as I can remember- that I had to find it. Everyone seemed to have some defining characteristic, relationship, talent, etc. that seemed to define them. And I didn’t feel perfect at much of anything.
Being an identical twin also makes things complicated, especially when people ask, “Who’s the smart once and who’s the athletic one?” and other questions of that sort. She seemed to be better at most things, and some people thought I was her because they didn’t know I existed. The more I tried to be good at something, or find what could justify my being, the more restless, empty, and alone I felt.
In college, it was a whole new world, where I found wonderful Catholic friends who loved me for me! It was hard to be convinced, but the healing began! I could trust people a little, and for once I saw people look into my eyes and see God’s Presence in my soul. I couldn’t describe it as such then but I knew that they recognized my worth more than I did. The Lord led me to Himself slowly and beautifully and I discerned Religious Life, entering after I graduated college.
I was excited for everything about becoming a Sister. I thought I could leave everything behind including the old me, and start fresh. But history was repeating itself. I had done this before. In sixth grade I moved to a new school, and decided to change myself. I didn’t like who I was and how I looked, so I grew out my bangs, got contacts instead of glasses, bought a few new outfits (since my old wardrobe was almost entirely Land’s End – my mom’s favorite). This is when I started developing an eating disorder. It was just in my thoughts at first- I wanted to be different since I felt so invisible. It got worse in high school and my family was worried. My soul was crying out for help but was afraid to receive it, so I managed it, and was “okay” all through high school and college. It was an exhausting, never-ending search for self-acceptance and perfection. Even after all those years at “failing” to be perfect I thought I had finally found the one path that would make me perfect.
Just as I thought I could leave the old “me” behind in 6th grade, I thought I could now leave the 22 year old “me” behind when I entered Religious Life, including the eating disorder. I got rid of my clothes, my job, my car, everything! But it stowed away in the few possessions I brought to the Convent.
I managed pretty well the first year of Postulancy as I had for so many years. When I entered Novitiate I was so excited because I was genuinely excited, but also because I thought I was a new person. The habit covered a lot of my body but it didn’t hide my past. My new name didn’t take away the hatred I had towards my old self, since – shockingly – it was the same self! Shortly after entering Novitiate, my eating disorder got progressively worse and my Novice Director noticed the darkness I’d held inside me for over 10 years. I was terrified, but consoled to finally be able to let this disorder not control me and my life. I went through Counseling for a while but it became clear that I needed more intensive treatment. And so after two and a half wonderful, beautiful, and blessed years, I departed with two outfits and my nun shoes, feeling sorrow but great peace and clarity that it was God’s Will.
I knew when I left that, even in a community dedicated to proclaiming the dignity of life, I could tell anyone else they were a beautiful, unrepeatable gift of God, but I could not believe it for myself. I knew that God was going to help me know that I was beautiful and loved.
Misericordia works for her home diocese, is a caffeine addict, and loves swimming.
I don’t know how many of you watched the show Joan of Arcadia, but my family loves it. The show was only on TV for two seasons, starting in the Fall of 2003. The basic idea is that God appears (in human form) to Joan, a “normal teenager” who is understandably hesitant to believe that it is actually God speaking with her.
As Joan begins to trust God more, He asks her to do things, and she does, though often reluctantly. Many times things seem to go wrong, blow up, cause more harm than good, etc., and Joan questions why she was asked to do the task. Sometimes God points out the good effects (ripples) of her actions that she didn’t notice. But there is regularly a sense of mystery and you, the viewer, are aware that you still don’t really know the full story.
I think it can be like that with our time in the convent: We do not even recognize the influence we may have had on others or that they have had on us. And too often, when we don’t see these things, we try to fill in the gaps of situations – the “whys” that we can’t see yet – without knowing the full story. We think we know, but the truth is we can’t even imagine.
That reminds me of another show I just discovered, Once Upon a Time. The main character is Emma, who believes that her parents abandoned her on the side of the road 28 years ago. You eventually learn that her parents actually sent her from a fairy tale land to protect her, in the hope that she would one day be able to save them from an evil curse.
What would it be like for her to learn her real story and realize that everything she thought was true actually was not true at all? 28 years of anger, hurt, and bitterness about being abandoned -then suddenly you find out Truth – and that changes everything.
Could it possibly be the same for us? We may feel hurt, betrayed, abandoned by God, perhaps by our former communities, the Church, etc. We may think we know what happened. But do we really know? Do we really know God’s plan? What will it be like when we really, truly know?
I know: It will be like HEAVEN.
Until then, all we can do is speculate. So, what if:
Your time in the convent helped free you from a pattern of sin?
Your entering the convent inspired someone to re-examine their relationship with the Lord?
You let go of some possessions that someone else really needed?
God just wanted to see if you would say yes, like Abraham, and give Him everything, so that He could build something even better with you?
You inspired another sister to endure in her vocation while you were there?
Of course, it could be that none of those things was “the reason” you entered. We could very likely have the story all wrong. In the convent I was told to not judge the motivations behind other sisters’ behavior. It was incredibly hard. But there is such wisdom in that. We need to do the same with God: Trust that He has a plan. Trust that He knows the entire story. Trust that He really knows what is going on. And consider that perhaps we are at times blind to see it.
Whatever you do, don’t let the evil one lie to you and say it was a waste, and don’t be discouraged!
I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.
But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth.
By Joan d’Arc
Joan was in the convent for a time before finding herself suddenly back in the world. She enjoys reading and hanging out with friends. She also makes really good popcorn. Seriously good.
Was it just me, or did returning from the convent leave you feeling like a turtle standing there without a shell?
|awk.ward (ak-werd)-Not graceful; ungainly.-Not dexterous; clumsy.-Clumsily or unskillfully performed: –Difficult to handle or manage:-Marked by or causing embarrassment or discomfort:
For me, the only thing more awkward than sitting in the airport on my way home wearing my knee-highs and clunky “nun-shoes,” with no one to talk to and nothing to make me look distracted or less lonely than my breviary and rosary, was facing EVERYONE…because even though people are understanding, nobody understands.
Why am I awkward? Let’s face it, I’ve probably always been a bit different. The fact that my idea of the perfect life was vowing and embracing the evangelical counsels; the exact opposite of that which the world tells us will make us happy, attests to this. Sex, money and power anyone? No thanks, I could really go for a life long commitment of chastity, poverty and obedience… What?
The thing is, the more I became graceful and comfortable living the religious life the more I became clumsy and uncomfortable in the secular world. In some ways I think it just had to do with the fact that I wasn’t used to being exposed to the world anymore. I was used to modesty, silence and prayer, study and recreation, a schedule and a community of women striving for holiness and love. All of a sudden I came crashing into the immodest, noisy, chaotic and selfish world that I had previously escaped. All of a sudden I felt scandalized and uncomfortable by everything around me.
However, now that I’ve been back in the world even longer than I was in the convent and now that I’m well exposed to the world and I don’t feel scandalized and embarrassed at every moment, I think that it’s still important to be awkward. We should be graceful and skillful women of Christ but awkward to sin and the secular world. Lets not get comfortable with that which the world offers but rather keep striving for chastity, poverty and obedience according to our state in life.
Be the woman who is modest in speech, dress and behavior. Be the woman who lives simply, tithes and gives to charity. Be the woman who lives the Gospel and is obedient and docile to her priest or spiritual director and to her employer. Be the woman who holds mankind in her heart and offers her life in love for the salvation of souls. Be the awkward light that catches the attention of sinners and makes them feel uncomfortable. Be the light that makes the roaches run and scatter. Be the light that awakens the sleeping. Be the light that expels darkness.
Lord, give us the grace to be awkward! Amen
by Cora Cantata
I spent 10 years as a convert in Judaism and 5 years as an immigrant in Israel. Then I left it all. But 10 years of my life, the most formative years of my life, were still all bound up in Judaism and the Jewish homeland. When I “made yeridah” (“went down” from Israel, returning to the US), I returned to West Virginia. In West Virginia, nobody cared where I’d been or what I’d done or what I’d been through.
It was lonely. I needed to process it all: all my experiences, all my changing beliefs, all my transforming self. But when you go away for a long time and return, all people want to do is update you on what you “missed.” It was true: America had changed a lot in the time I was overseas. But I honestly could not have cared less about that at the time. I needed someone to listen. For a long time. And I just could not find anyone who was interested in hearing about Israel and my conversions and all my confusion about God and turbulent feelings about Jews for hours and hours and hours. You know how when someone comes back from a trip to Europe and all they talk about is Europe? And everyone starts to complain, annoyed, “All she ever wants to talk about is Europe!” That was me. So in order not to be annoying, or to be perceived as the snob who wanted to rub in everyone’s faces how much time she’d spent overseas, I just kept it all to myself. Real lonely-like.
On top of needing to talk about what I had been through, there was what I was going through at the time: what cultural scholars call “re-enculturation,” the process of readjusting to one’s native culture after being away from it for a long time. No one but another West Virginian who had converted to Judaism and immigrated to Israel and returned to West Virginia at exactly the same times as me could understand what I was experiencing. And how many of those are there?
One. So far as I’m aware.
Double the loneliness.
Then there was the fact of all the stereotypes and misconceptions people have about life in Israel. A typical conversation went like this:
“Oh my gosh! Erin! I haven’t seen you in, like, ages! Where have you been?! What have you done?”
“Well, I converted to Judaism and immigrated to Israel. I just got back.”
“Whoa, that’s intense. [Enter stereotype:] Was it really scary there?”
“No.” (It was really hard for me to keep my patience at this point.)
“I mean, what about all the bombings and the missiles and the war and stuff? Wasn’t that, like, really intense?” (Yes, I know what you meant!)
“No. People go on with life. It’s not like it appears on CNN.”
“Oh. Well, hey, we’re going over to so-and-so’s house tonight for a bonfire.”
And that was it. That was the end of their interest. Despite the constant tidal wave of emotions and thoughts churning inside me, I felt reduced, on the outside, to a 10-second myth-debunker. That’s all people wanted to know. From my side, it felt like they weren’t interested in me. Because I had so much I needed to say. So much I needed someone to listen to.
I imagine that leaving the convent is a lot like this. Especially if you were there for a long time. Especially considering all the misconceptions people have about being a sister. Especially if you’re in a place that’s not heavily Catholic.
Honestly, I’m not sure how I got through that period of my life. I know that not having anyone to listen to me forced me to turn to God. We worked it out, “processed everything” together, on our own. And I guess that’s the way it should have been. After all, my travels were spiritual travels (much like yours, I presume), and though being around a bunch of people who don’t understand or aren’t interested can make me feel like I traveled “that road and this one” very much alone, the truth is that I was never alone. I had a Fellow Traveler. And He was always interested. He always understood. He was always willing to listen. Even for hours and hours and hours.
It can become really easy to get bitter at other people’s lack of interest in where you’ve been and what you’ve been doing and what you’ve been going through all these years. It took me over a year to finally find some compassion for them. Because I was so wrapped up in myself, trying to process what had happened to me, what was happening to me, it took me that long to see things from their perspective: Just like my life had gone on in Israel, so had theirs in my absence. I couldn’t just show up again and dump 10 years of spiritual and cultural turmoil on them. It was, as they said, too intense.”
After about four years, I finally met someone who was interested in hearing the whole story. The weird thing was, when the opportunity arose for me to spill it all, I was the one who gave the Cliff’s Notes version. It just felt odd at that point to talk about it for hours and hours. Because at that point, I had finally gotten past it all. I had processed everything that needed to be processed, expressed everything that needed to be expressed. But I’d done it slowly, over time, with my Fellow Traveler, rather than in one great big sudden dramatic dump with someone who wouldn’t have been able to understand anyway. I think it worked out better that way. More naturally, at least.
If you have someone who is willing to let you dump it all out on them, consider yourself hugely blessed. If you don’t, and you really need one, this ministry is for you. Reach out to your fellow former-sisters in the Comment boxes. Share your experiences, and be willing to listen, too.
But if none of those things is an option for you, then know that, as time goes on, you’ll work it all out anyway. Slowly, over time, with your Fellow Traveler. Until one day, it will just feel strange to make such a big deal out of it. Because life will have gone on.
By J.E. Sigler.