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.
I have always seen Advent as a beautiful season of hope and joyful expectation. I fell in love with Advent when I entered my religious community. There’s something about the quiet waiting of our Blessed Mother that has resonated so deeply with me.
For the first time in eight years, I am spending Advent at home with my family, instead of in the convent. I made the decision to leave the community six months ago, after more than seven years as a religious Sister. I chose to leave during a period of intense desolation, and looking back, I see that I acted in haste, without any true discernment. At the time, I was sure I was at peace with my choice, but my former postulant directress very wisely told me, “What you feel is relief, not peace.” I brushed her off as not understanding my situation, but after six months, I see the truth in what she said. I have yet to find the peace I thought I had. Instead, I came very quickly to deeply regret leaving the convent, and do not yet know if it would be possible for me to return.
This Advent, I find myself seeing Mary in a new way. I reflect upon her months of pregnant expectation, and for the first time, see more than just her joy. It must have been a time of great uncertainty for her, and also of learning whole-hearted trust in the God of the impossible.
How critical are hope and trust during the pregnant pauses in our own lives. In times of “limbo,” pain, or uncertainty, the temptation can be to fall into anxiety and even despair. Blessed are we to have Mary to guide us and be our example in these times.
As we enter the final days of Advent, I picture myself sitting alongside Mary in the later months of her pregnancy. The initial excitement has passed, and in the silence, perhaps Mary’s heart has begun to fill with questions of what the future will bring. I acknowledge the questions rising up in my own heart…questions of discernment, of God’s will, of doors that may or may not be closed before me. But rather than give in to the fear and uncertainty, I fix my gaze on Mary.
Very gently, she takes my hands in hers. She places my right hand over her heart, and the steady beating makes her hope, faith, and trust almost tangible to me. I cling tightly to Mary’s hope and trust, as I seem to have so little of my own right now. Then she presses my left hand to her belly, and as I feel the movement of the baby within her, I am reminded that times of uncertainty and waiting are really moments pregnant with God Himself. It is only by being faithful in the waiting that the sacred new life can be born.
If you, too, find yourself in a season of uncertainty, take heart. Hold tightly to our Blessed Mother, and know that something new and beautiful is in the waiting.
When I was in college, a good friend told me that we don’t have to find the saints – they find us. God places them in our lives at pivotal moments, to shed light on our own following of him. Since she said this, I have found it to be true on multiple occasions.
After six adventurous years of serving as a missionary, youth director, and other such exciting positions, I now work as a secretary at a church. I’ve realized God is calling me to a time of being still, and to use the advantages of a stable schedule to allow him to speak to me more deeply. While I am profoundly grateful for this position, and confident that God placed me here (through uniquely providential circumstances) I still feel that I am not doing enough. I miss my adventures. I am in tension between the peace that I am where He wants me, and yet a gnawing feeling of “not enough” that creeps in. I am happy to serve in the hidden tasks, yet can’t help noting the irony between the grandeur of what I did before (giving talks to teens, counseling others in their walk with Christ etc) and the exasperating minutiae of what I do now (fighting with the copier, spending hours on hold with Comcast!).
Underneath all this, is the ever-present tension that surfaces about what I am doing with my life in the long-term. I am at peace that I have given God all I can for now, but plagued by the same gnawing of “not enough.” I want to know the answer to the all-important question – what is my vocation, my purpose in life. I want to know why God will still not reveal it despite my earnest and faithful seeking.
Recently, into all these tensions, across the years, through a powerful thing called the Communion of Saints, came the perfect heavenly friend for me. While on hold yet again on a call for the parish, I was sorting through piles of paper on my desk and stumbled across an article about the life of a woman named Julia Greeley. I learned that her cause for canonization was currently underway, and was instantly intrigued. (For what is more fascinating than a canonization process currently underway in your own country?)
Julia Greeley was a Catholic, African-American laywoman who lived a poor and humble life. Her path to holiness was the epitome of the “hidden yes.” Recently recognized as “Servant of God” by her archdiocese in Denver, Colorado, Julia Greeley’s life was lowly and uncelebrated. She was born into slavery sometime between 1833 and 1848, and finally freed in 1865 by the state of Missouri’s Emancipation Act. Little is known about the intervening years, except that when she was a young child, she lost her right eye to the whip of an angry slave owner. Once freed, Julia made a living cooking, cleaning, and caring for children as a nanny.
In 1880, she became Catholic and was received into the Church at Sacred Heart Church in Denver. The Sacred Heart then became the central mystery and mission of her life. She would walk for miles to share devotional Sacred Heart pamphlets and medals with as many people as she could. She was also a dedicated servant of the poor. Though she herself lived in poverty, she gave of what she had, and also went begging for the needs of others. Friendship was a central characteristic of her life, in which she transcended the racial and societal divides of her time. White and black, Catholics and non catholic, rich and poor, old and young alike were numbered among her friends. Young children in particular were drawn to her and delighted in her presence. Her funeral overwhelmed her tiny parish church as over 1,000 people from all walks of life came to pay their respects.
She attended daily Mass faithfully, and in fact, died on her way to Mass, on the feast of her beloved Sacred Heart in 1918.
Fast-forward to June 2017 – nearly 100 years later – her remains were recently transferred to the Cathedral in Denver. She is the very first person to be buried there. As the bishop, Jorge Rodriguez, who presided over the ceremony pointed out “[Julia Greeley] will be the first person buried in Denver’s cathedral. Not a bishop, not a priest – a laywoman, a former slave. Isn’t that something?”
The humble are exalted. The last shall be first. Even to this day, few people know about Julia Greeley. In her life, she served in the lowliest (and even despised) roles. She had no “status” in secular society. In the Church, she was never a religious, theologian, or leader. And yet, it is her, whom God has lifted up and placed before our eyes.
Her life intersected with mine at just the right moment, to teach me what truly matters. Not only are the hidden yesses more powerful than we realize, but they are enough to bring us to Heaven. Julia Greeley’s life was all about the hidden yes.
The “yes” to forgive the grave wrongs of slavery and physical abuse that she suffered. . .
The “yes” to lead a joyful and charitable life in the midst of an unjust and still-segregated society. . .
The courageous “yes” to enter a Church in a time when there were few to no Catholics of her culture and racial background. . .
The “yes” to literally walk across the societal divides of her time. . .
The “yes” to travel miles on her errands of mercy and evangelization despite painful arthritis . . .
(this particular “yes,” in fact, remained hidden until the very recent examination of her bones during the exhumation process for her canonization!).
And the overarching “yes” to be the love of the Sacred Heart to all whom she encountered.
She has given me a different perspective. Everything has value. Where I am now could, as I believe, just be yet another stop along the way to where God ultimately wants me. Yet even if eternity were tomorrow, it could be ENOUGH to make me a saint. If I but choose to respond.
So, I now try to make jokes, when I finally get through on the Comcast call. Their customer service agent is a person too, whom Julia would have seen as a friend. I win my fight with the copier, knowing that I’ve made the pace of life smoother for everyone else even if they never know about it. And when anxiety about the future creeps in, I try to whisper, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, I trust in You!”
Servant of God, Julia Greeley, Pray for Us!
Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!
Former slave Julia Greeley first to be buried at Denver’s Cathedral
By Maid of Orleans.
There she stood in an ocean of tears;
The flood of memories return in a flash.
Sorrow, suffering, and pain appear;
The untold shame of the deeds of her past.
They haunt and they pierce, these memories bleed;
The time is now gone, high was the cost.
A voice of warning calls her to heed;
Battle-weary, yet still not lost.
On she must fight, the war will wage;
The passionate cry for courage will sound.
A fresh chapter begins as she turns the page;
A new path to travel must now be found.
Hearts are broken, yet there is still Light;
Am I willing to follow, can I believe?
Hope and Faith in Him will set me aright;
His Truth and His Goodness will never deceive.
By Mater Dolorosa.
Of course I believe it, right? As we begin the Easter season we have just heard it proclaimed: Jesus died and rose from the dead! I believe it intellectually. I profess it in the Creed and it is a tenant of our Catholic Faith.
But what does it actually mean for my life?
Christ suffered grievous wounds and rose from the dead… but do I believe He can and would bring about that kind of restoration for me? What about for my seemingly dead vocation? I died to the world to enter religious life and I died to my hopes and dreams for that life when I returned to the world. I have “died” twice to be where I now find myself. Can He truly breathe life into this dark place?
Recently I’ve personally witnessed miracles. For example, for years I had joined groups that prayed in front of abortion facilities. I prayed because that’s what you do! Life is important and you want people to choose life. But then something happened: the facilities in town started closing one by one. WOW! When I heard the news, my first thought was, “No way!” I didn’t realize that I doubted this would ever happen until it happened. I hadn’t even dared to ask in prayer for these places to be shut down because I didn’t imagine it was possible. These events forced me to realize my lack of faith and recognize that God can make the impossible happen.
Now I wonder: Can He do the same for me? Does God really answer our prayers? Does He really raise the dead? Can He truly and completely heal these deep wounds in my heart?
Do you ask similar questions?
I have found that openly and honestly examining my beliefs and feelings with Him in prayer is a great start. Then specifically invite the Lord into those places. In a gentle and gradual way, He has indeed begun to breathe life into these hurts and wounds. A tiny crack of light appears on the horizon because “in the tender mercy of our God, the Dawn of Compassion will shine upon us, and guide us into the way of peace.” This hope is real and palpable. I have the joyful privilege of sharing with you this hope, and inviting you to have confidence that it will get better!
We all have our doubts and our bad days. As a result, I really recommend that you find people who can remind you of your hope in His Resurrection, and often. Close friends, family, and other young women in this wonderful community of those who have been open to religious life in the past only to discover that He was calling them elsewhere. Community is so important. Surround yourself with people who will truly edify and support you and please do the same for them in return!
If you don’t think you have anyone, or even if you do, Leonie’s Longing has a contact us page. Community is vital and you don’t have to be alone.
How do you act out your belief in the Resurrection? How do you support others in their trials or how have you been supported? I would love to read your comments below.
You are in my prayers during this blessed and beautiful season of Easter. God bless you!
My God, I am Thine for time and eternity. Teach me to cast myself entirely into the arms of Thy loving providence with the most lively, unlimited confidence in Thy compassionate, tender pity.
(From the Suscipe of Ven. Catherine McAuley)
The night of January 1st, I couldn’t fall asleep. My mind kept replaying things I’d done wrong in the convent. Over and over and over again. And then it hit me that it’s no longer 2015 and that I no longer have a prayer partner in the community, since their tradition is to assign a prayer partner for the year on New Year’s Eve. It felt as thought someone had punched me in the gut. My last real connection, the last concrete evidence of having belonged to the community was gone. It hurt so badly that I couldn’t breathe … so I asked the Lord to use my pain to bless someone who really needed it and wound up praying for a close friend of mine. And then I just curled up in Our Lord’s arms and sobbed.
“It hurts – IT HURTS – oh please make it stop hurting! …But until then, use my pain to help someone else.”
As I cried, an image of Jesus, beaten and bloody after the Scourging, came into my mind. And I realized that this pain, this feeling torn apart, this sorrow and mourning and loss, this is my cross right now. Here is where I am in union with the Lord. And it hurts terribly … but He is holding me. For:
“He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, to be holy and without blemish before Him. In love He destined us for adoption to Himself…” (Eph 1:4-5, emphasis added)
He loves me. His plan for me is love. And He is making me holy. He has chosen me, and the gift and the call of God are irrevocable.
I could’t have said that when I first returned home three months and three weeks ago. When I first came home, I wasn’t even sure I believed God had a plan for me at all, much less that it was good. When my spiritual director asked me back in November if I believed that God desired my happiness, I couldn’t answer him. I knew intellectually that, yes, God desires everyone’s happiness and that He has a plan for each person and that His plan is good. But I didn’t believe it for myself. Not really.
And when I admitted that to him, my spiritual director told me I needed to pray for an increase in faith. Faith?! I remember thinking at the time. But I have faith – I believe in God and I go to Mass and I pray. I don’t need an
increase in faith. But Father explained that faith, one of the theological virtues, wasn’t just belief in God: it was belief or trust that God has a plan for me, that He is good, that He loves and cares about me, that He truly listens to me. Oh. Well, that’s a little different. I guess I’d never thought about it like that.
He told me that I needed to begin my daily holy hour begging God for an increase of faith. He also reminded me that I had to put effort in, too – I had to hold up my end of the bargain by making acts of faith. He encouraged me to go back to times in my life where God answered my prayers and to actively call those to mind as I prayed.
“Okay, Lord, I don’t really feel this right now, but I’m going to choose to believe that You have a plan for me and that You love me and that You’re still calling me to follow You – and that You will answer my prayers for increased faith. You have answered my prayers in the past – as I tried to decide where to go to college, as I discerned with different religious communities, as I struggled with obedience in the convent, and even… even when I begged You to give me the grace to stay or to let me know clearly whether I should leave. You have answered my prayers, so I choose to believe that You will continue to do so. I do believe, Lord, help my unbelief.”
At the beginning, my acts of faith were hesitant and usually came only after I’d spent time crying over the Gospel reading or despairing of His love for me. But as I stuck with it, I was amazed to find my heart changing. Advent and Christmas were very difficult for me emotionally, as everything seemed to remind me of the convent and my former community. But somehow, even through the pain, the acts of faith became easier to make, and I suddenly found myself successfully fighting temptations to despair with faith. Not that the temptations stopped, but when they started, I had the strength to pull back and say “No! I’m not going to give in this time! I choose to run towards God, trusting in His mercy and compassion and His love for me. I choose not to believe the lie that He is no longer calling me, that He doesn’t want me, that He wants me to be in pain.”
The difference is incredible – it’s a level of faith and confidence that I have never had before. And it’s made the grief bearable. It’s made me able to look beyond my pain and recognize the opportunity to offer it in union with Our Lord on behalf of someone else. It’s turned depression and hopelessness into something constructive and life-giving. It’s given me a way to hope even while I suffer.
I share this praying that it might help lift someone else’s burden of sorrow just a little and that it might give hope to those of us (me included) who are still waking up crying in the middle of the night after having dreamt of the convent or those of us unable to fall asleep for grief over having left. I can’t say for sure that the pain will go away (I’m not there yet, although I think some of the other LL members may be able to attest to it), but it is possible to believe and hope again even while it hurts. And this faith, this hope truly can give us the strength to carry this cross in union with the Lord who loves us.
I guess the question is: Will you ask Him for faith?