By Mater Dolorosa.
I love to walk and I have made it part of my daily exercise. Very recently I moved from a suburban neighborhood to the country so I am exploring routes. I went for my third walk in the new area and got a few minutes away from the house when I realized I probably should have brought a flashlight. The sun was setting and it was going to start getting dark. I paused for a moment but decided to just continue on and take my chances.
I was heading West, towards the setting sun. The blues, purples and pinks were gorgeous and I enjoyed the view a great deal. The trees were bigger the further I walked and the blocked more of the light. The road was a bit dim but it was alright. I relished the exercise, freedom and fresh air.
After 10 minutes I decided to turn around and return home. But things were different in this direction. The view was hazy. I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at. I hoped there weren’t any snakes or dead animals in the road because I wouldn’t be able to see them. My eyes started playing tricks on me as I strained to see further ahead. Was something moving up there? If I tripped and sprained my ankle would anyone find me? If a car came, would it be safe to move out of the road or is it a ditch? If I hadn’t timed my walk and knew it would be 10 minutes back, I certainly would have wondered when (if!) I would arrive home.
This experience caused me to reflect upon darkness in prayer. There were times in the past where prayer was more difficult. For instance, I actually had a very hard time praying in the convent. But I had an idea of where I was headed and I trusted that He was leading me there. Things were a bit muddled on the outer edges, but I was still making my way along the path.
But when I returned to lay life things changed drastically and I felt plunged into darkness. Prayer was torture and I felt as though I didn’t really know how to pray. The streetlamps and porch lights that had previously guided me seemed to be extinguished and I grasped and stumbled as though I were blind. I had heard the analogy before about the spiritual life being like walking with simply a flashlight so that one can only see directly in front of oneself. But this was different; I had no flashlight.
How did I survive? The most helpful thing was hearing from other women who had been in the convent and realizing they had felt this way too. I wasn’t a terrible person for this darkness and I should not blame myself. It was difficult to learn this lesson but I begged Him to help me see the truth about my soul (in other words, how He sees me). The women I spoke with also encouraged me to persevere in prayer, even though it was torture.
A priest also helped me sort through expectations for my prayer. For example, he suggested I not try to keep up with the Breviary but that I should still attempt a daily rosary. Finally, being a part of the Leonie’s Longing community has been a lifesaver.
Knowing that I am not walking this path alone makes an indescribable difference. Reading blogs such as Park It (at All Costs)! helped normalize my experience and encouraged me to keep striving.
If you’re feeling this way, please keep praying! Talk to someone you trust about it and be assured that God is particularly close to you in this time. Tell Him honestly how you feel and allow Him in. Finally, know that everyone involved in Leonie’s Longing is praying for you. We can do this together!
One day earlier this month, with a few hours to spare after work, I wandered over to a little university museum in the city. In the first gallery was a modern art exhibition. In the second gallery, late-period Egyptian mummies. In the third, illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The contrasts were extraordinary… and even more so, I think, for someone who has been in the convent.
Take, for example, the modern art set-up, which the explanatory plaque described as “an ongoing project concerned with representations of the self and the body,” designed to investigate “the stereotype of the artist as a creative genius.” To that end, the room was full of sculptures of the artist’s hands, paintings of her silhouette reduced to an inch in height, replicated thousandfold and scattered across a canvas like confetti, and, most disturbingly, a giant video screen in which her eyes, magnified to hundreds of times their normal size and (according to the information plaque) “god-like in their intensity,” slowly turn from black to white and back, over and over. Without blinking. This vividly demonstrates what happens when an artist has no higher reference point than the self – the gaze turns totally inwards in fascination. Some of the installments were okay (freaky eyes excepted) but I can’t quite fathom why the museum would be convinced that a giant mixed-media selfie is something the public needs to see.
Upstairs, the Egyptian exhibition provided a very different view of the world. If the first display was a secular gaze inward, then this is an ancient, virtuous paganism with the gaze turned outward. Art for them was not merely decorative, but crucial to eternal survival: a cartonnage mask that covers the head of a young woman’s mummy may be the only way that her wandering soul can find its way back to her body, and so every detail must be beautiful, accurate, and perfect. The love that these people, long before Christ, poured out upon the bodies of those they had lost – one tiny hand has its linen bandages overlapped diagonally up the wrist like origami, while a mummified foot in a soft leather sandal has every toe individually wrapped – is deep and palpable. Without knowledge of the true God (the Hebrew Scriptures tend to be a little sour on the topic of Egypt and its deities), they knew of something greater than this present life, and prayed for the souls of their beloved dead according to the Natural Law written on their hearts (Romans 2:15).
In the third gallery, across the hallway, was the illuminated manuscript exhibition that had brought me to the museum in the first place. For a couple of hours, I wandered through several rooms full of intricately-decorated breviaries, giant books of chant notation that had been used by monks in choir, and laymen’s missals that would fit in the palm of one hand, tiny and bright as jewels.
Of course, it’s possible to admire these books as works of art, but that would be to miss the point of them: to those who drew them line by perfect line, they were an offering to God and a way of showing the reverence due to His word – the artist’s gaze turned upward. Having been in the religious life, I understood, too, that each breviary was to the monk or nun who held it what my own, much simpler breviary was to me during my life in the convent: a rope that anchored my soul to the life of the Church.
Incredibly, the exhibition also included a large fifteenth-century monastic choir book that visitors were permitted to touch – to turn the pages, to stroke the parchment, to lean in and breathe its dry, musty scent, and, in my case, to try and follow the rising and falling of the chant notations with half-remembered convent training. I asked the assistant why we were permitted to touch something so old without gloves, and she replied that parchment is much hardier than vellum and there’s no famous artist’s name attached to it to make it particularly important, and that for those reasons the coordinators of the exhibition had decided to take it out from behind the glass and put it into our hands as a tangible connection with the past.
It was more than that, however. I was holding many lifetimes’ worth of devotion: every line was a five-hundred-year-old prayer by someone who had dedicated his life to God. Every page had been turned for centuries by others, young and old, who had been called to the same path of monastic dedication that I had tried to follow, to serve the same God I love. It occurred to me that we who have been in religious life are, in our generation, what they were in theirs. We understand them as they, I think, would understand us. And so, with my hands resting lightly on an anchor of prayer that they once held, I reached out to them – pray for us. You glorious souls in heaven, who have received the reward of your devotion – pray for us. Pray for those of us who live in a world you would not recognize, but seek a vocation that you would – pray for us. You holy souls in purgatory, who chanted these same prayers long ago, and now seek our prayers for your release – we have not forgotten you. We hear the echoes of your prayers, and we pray for you. May your souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace. And when at last you see Christ face to face, remember us, too, and pray for us. Pray for us. All you holy men and women, pray for us. Amen.
September 8th, the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, was an important day for me in religious life. Not only was it the day that I had entered religious life, but it also became my personal feast day. Sisters discerned their feast days and I chose this one.
Reflecting on my time in religious life, I am struck by how Mary was interceding for me. I underwent a LOT of trials in the couple of years and especially the couple of months before entering religious life as well as during my time as a postulant and novice. WOW! I could focus on the cross or I could focus on how Jesus revealed His love for me more intimately during times of difficulty and how Mary became more of a mother to me.
When not “feelin’ much love” from one sister in particular whom I looked to for guidance and at times fearing that God would not love me in my many imperfections & weaknesses, Mother Mary at times gently stepped in to console me of God’s love for me, to remind me of the importance of prayer, and to stir into flame a desire more for motherhood, spiritual as well as perhaps physical. It was on two different Marian feast days that I had such a painful desire to have children. At the time I thought I was being asked to sacrifice this but now that I am no longer in religious life, perhaps my heart was really being prepared for something else: time will tell on that one! What I will speak to now is spiritual motherhood. This call grew in my heart while in religious life. I didn’t realize then that this is something all women are called to, not just religious sisters.
There is a quote about spiritual motherhood that I came across much later after leaving religious life. It’s from a book titled Discovering the Feminine Genius: Every Woman’s Journey by Katrina Zeno. The quote goes like this: “Spiritual motherhood…means nurturing the emotional, moral, cultural, and spiritual life in others. All women are called to give birth-physically and/or spiritually. All women are called to be Christ-bearers, to receive divine life in the womb of their souls and bear Christ to the world. All women are called to see in Mary’s spiritual motherhood a reflection of their own lives. If all women embraced the call to spiritual motherhood they would ignite a nuclear reaction that would spread the culture of life through the whole world. The feminine genius would set the world on fire!”
I felt the need to “just be” more after religious life and not get too involved with things. Slowly though through various life circumstances & even misunderstandings, I’ve found myself in different roles and involved in ministries where this call to spiritual motherhood could be further developed & lived out more. Keeping in mind that God could always re-open the door, I’ve shut the door to religious life and feel that I am in a sense “waiting”, perhaps waiting for my future spouse (while God is also still my Spouse!) while living life and allowing my heart to continue to heal & grow more. “God only knows” if one day I will give birth physically to children, but I have given birth to Mary more in my heart and she has helped me to give birth more to Christ in my own life & in the lives of others. This is all still very much a work in progress though!
There have been times when I’ve wondered if being in religious life for almost three years had any purpose. This may especially be true when I look back through the lens of all the personal sufferings I’ve experienced! However, I need to trust that a greater good came from suffering and that my time there bore fruit. Besides learning how to boil water and growing more in prayer, there was something that happened on my last day when taking a walk with the sisters in my “class” a couple of hours before leaving that struck me. Never had we seen anything like this before, but as we were walking (and it was a short walk in a residential area near the convent), we saw a set of little twins. We then walked a little further and saw another set of young twins. Near the end of our short walk, we came across three kids with their parents and one of my sisters stated that we should ask if two of them were twins. As it turns out, they were triplets! priest I shared this story with later seemed to think that this was God’s way of showing me that my time in religious life was not wasted. It gave life to others.
May we each give birth to Mary more in our hearts and ask for her intercession to help us carry Christ more & more inside of us and to bear Him to the world.
Oh good, I thought to myself when the words Regina Caeli appeared in the list of chants for choir practice before my one and only conventual Easter. I know how to sing the Regina Caeli. It’s easy. You just go –
Until, that is, everybody else sings:
Easter in the religious life came on in a heady rush of music: the Exultet sung by Father at the vigil on Saturday evening, the vibrant Invitatory Psalm at Morning Prayer, and the familiar (thank heavens!) words of “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus!” at Mass on Sunday. In the midst of it all, though, was one song that initially didn’t seem to fit.
Christ the Lord is ris’n again! Christ hath broken ev’ry chain!
Hark, the angels shout for joy, Singing evermore on high, Alleluia!
All those exclamation marks make it look lively enough, but the melody to which we sang it is something completely different; slow, subdued and with a plaintive tone that somehow seems better suited to Lent than Easter.
It was sung by the community every day throughout the Octave, and I loved it, but couldn’t quite grasp what it was doing there amongst all the cheerful music that surrounded it.
Then I left the convent, and the next Easter, the mixture of joy and sorrow was easier to understand. The words were written by German Protestant theologian Michael Weisse in the 16th century, a time of upheaval and confusion among the faithful as the rift between Catholicism and Protestantism grew deeper. For his optimistic words, he chose a haunting ancient chant tone that expressed something of the sense of loss that must have filled Christianity as theological conflicts tore families and monasteries like his own apart. We rejoice in a world that is redeemed by Jesus’ death and Resurrection, it says, but with a sense of loss and a yearning that cannot be filled until His return at the end of time. In an incomplete and imperfect world, even joy aches. Will there ever be an Easter that’s not shadowed by the wish that I were celebrating it in the convent?
And yet, even through the sober melody, the hymn reminds us that Christ hath broken every chain! – the chains of our grief included. For all the sorrow of our world, every Easter is a sign that the turning point of history has already occurred, and every celebration of the Resurrection brings us another year closer to the Kingdom of God.
Now He bids us tell abroad, How the lost may be restored,
How the penitent forgiv’n, How we, too, may enter heav’n, Alleluia.
And, from the breviary for the morning of Holy Saturday: Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces, but He will heal us; He has struck us down, but He will heal our wounds; after a day or two He will bring us back to life, on the third day He will raise us and we shall live in His Presence (Hosea 6:1-3a).
“I, in my old age, strive after that which I was hindered from learning in my youth… therefore I blush to-day and greatly dread to expose my ignorance, because I am not able to express myself briefly, with clear and well-arranged words, as the spirit desires and the mind and intellect point out.” – From The Confession of Saint Patrick.
He wasn’t joking, either: modern versions of Patrick’s Confession are frequently prefaced with complaints about the clunky and ungrammatical Latin with which the translators have had to work. Nonetheless, God called him to be a bishop and a missionary – raised him, in Patrick’s own words, like a stone from a deep mire – to confound the wise and learned.
Like the (much) later Saint John Vianney, Patrick had a strong and decisive vocation, but struggled to acquire the practical skills needed to fulfill it: unlike his companions in formation for the priesthood, Patrick had had his education interrupted at the age of fifteen by a six-year period of slavery in the hills of Ireland, and spent the rest of his life knowing that he could never really make up for what was lost in that time. Beneath the saccharine songs about his subsequent triumphant return to Ireland as a free man and a bishop lie several harder realities that Patrick does not try to gloss over:
– He was in his early twenties when, in a dream, he saw the pagan peoples of Ireland begging him to come and walk among them once more, but between this dream and its fulfillment lay over a decade of priestly and monastic formation in Gallia (modern France). Every day of those long years he must have ached to begin the work that God had given him, but understood that he wasn’t yet equal to the task set before him. If you ever feel as though your whole life is on hold, waiting for God to pick up the other end of the line and tell you when and where to go, this may be a comfort: one of the greatest missionaries who has ever lived was in exactly the same boat, hearing the voices of the Irish people calling to him across the sea and waiting to return to them. “Thanks be to God,” he writes as an old man, “that after very many years, the Lord has granted them their desire!”
– He experienced the same wrenching separation from his family as anyone whose loved ones don’t support their vocation. He thanks the Lord for “the great and salutary gift to know or love God, and to leave my country and my relations, although many gifts were offered to me with sorrow and tears. And I offended many of my seniors then against my will. But, guided by God, I yielded in no way to them, not to me, but to God be the glory, who conquered in me, and resisted them all.” The first time he left, he was snatched from them abruptly by slave traders, but the second time, he left of his own accord to follow a burning sense of vocation that they could neither perceive nor understand – and none escaped without pain.
– Even with a clear vocation, Patrick didn’t find the long separation from home and family easy. For decades afterward, “though I could have wished to leave (the Irish church), and had been ready and very desirous to go to Britannia, as if to my country and parents, and not that alone, but to go even to Gallia, to visit my brethren, and to see the face of my Lord’s saints; and God knows that I desired it greatly. But I am bound in the spirit, and he who witnesseth will account me guilty if I do it, and I fear to lose the labor which I have commenced, and not I, but the Lord Christ, who commanded me to come and be with them for the rest of my life.”
Patrick was a Saint who learned to wait for his calling from God to be fulfilled in its own time, to accept with true humility the shortcomings and failures that he experienced, and to cope day by day with loss and loneliness. On his Feast day, may we ask him to help us in our own struggles to come nearer to God.
“But I beseech those who believe in and fear God, whoever may condescend to look into or receive this writing, which Patrick, the ignorant sinner, has written in Ireland, that no one may ever say, if I have ever done or demonstrated anything, however little, that it was my ignorance. But do you judge, and let it be believed firmly, that it was the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die.”
Today, we’ve swapped posts with Blessed and Beloved, a blog about the single life for Catholic women! This article was written by Michelle, one of the blog’s four foundresses, and originally published on the 14th of November 2014.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29: 11-13
I make plans. I have always made plans. I enjoy and get excited planning. Whether it is what I am doing this weekend or my childhood plans of going to Africa, living in an orphanage, or going to graduate school on the East coast, plans have directed me in life and given me security. For the most part too I have followed these plans believing they too were God’s plans for me. Plans gave me control and following them made me feel successful. They allowed me to be able to share with people where I was heading in life and look like I knew what I was doing. If you know me I am always doing something and usually many somethings. Just having plans to have plans though is where things get dangerous.
But God’s plans are not our plans. Most people have heard the saying, “if you want to make God laugh tell Him your plans”. I think it is probably more of a little endearing chuckle followed by a big smile of a loving Father. His plans are sooooo much better, greater, and truly the only way for us to follow Him and be truly happy. As said in Jeremiah, His plans give us a full, rich and worthwhile life. It is a life where we are successful and not by the standards of the world but by His call to love and serve and glorify Him. It is a life where we can truly live as though we were created to do nothing more than love and be loved.
Figuring out those plans is not always easy especially when we put so much into planning and like me are stubborn and convinced we know best. It takes much discernment. It can take someone saying, “What are you doing?!” It can take everything lining up perfectly except certain things that we were convinced were never in God’s plan. It takes taking chances, trusting, and letting go of our pride, need for control, and lack of faith.
Yes, I went to live and work in an orphanage. Yes, it changed my life. Yes, it taught me in so very many ways that God’s plans are not ours. Looking back on my discernment process to join the Salesian Lay Missioners 2.5 years ago is when it all started. As my plans went I had to find an African orphanage. There were no other options and that is where I would be for the next year or more. But, when I found the Salesians God lead my heart first to their mission: seeing Christ in the Face of a Child first, and secondly to their specific sites. If you had asked me months before I applied to the program: do you see yourself going to South America? The answer most likely would have been probably not and secondly do you see yourself learning and becoming fluent in Spanish? The answer would have been “forget about it!” I took five years of French because I didn’t want to take Spanish with everyone else. While my friends would speak Spanish in front of me I would plug my ears and wait till they started speaking English again. Well as God likes to laugh at our plans and oh how much patience He has in our stubbornness. I ended up settling (I say that lightly) for an orphanage in Bolivia, where of course Spanish was the spoken language. Some would call it irony, but I call it God. Along with so many other aspects of my life in Bolivia, Spanish is now a part of my identity, my faith, my world, and my future.
From the moment of God leading me to Bolivia until now God taught me over and over that He was in charge and all I need to do was reach out, grab His hand, and let Him follow. My last few months in Bolivia were so very busy and as I started the New York job search, I thought, I’ve lived in an orphanage for the last two years: I can handle graduate school and working full time. I looked for a family that would be flexible, knowing my school schedule. Finally I was contacted by a woman who said my schedule wasn’t a problem for her. Everything seemed to start to fall together and then she started to help me think about my post-Bolivia perfect “plan.” Being in charge of the medical needs of the girls in the orphanage for the last year and a half had got me thinking about my vocation and what God wanted to teach me through this experience. The head sister, Hermana Rosy at one point looked at me and said “I think your work here shows that you might have a vocation in the medical field.” One of the doctors I often worked with told me that he could see God calling me to be a doctor. I thought perfect, the medical field that is where I am heading.
Heading to graduate school to study Child Life (supporting children in the hospitals) still seemed on track with what these wise people were suggesting. But, as I was advised by my future boss to look more into the graduate school I was heading towards things weren’t fitting. Financially, vocationally, and even practically I started doubting. It went from I am going because it’s my plan, to could God have a different plan for me? Should I be a nurse, PA, or even doctor? to ok, well I’ll go for at least a semester, to I’m moving to New York in one week and I don’t think God wants me to be attending this graduate school, to I have no housing but a job and I still believe God has something to show me, teach me, and for me to do in New York. It was a process that went rather quickly and I truly felt like my life and plans were falling apart and my life being turned upside down. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. But, it was also the most freeing realization letting go of the plans I had held onto and letting God show me that He has something so much better for me.
No matter where we are or what we are doing as long as we love and letting God lead us, we are His. We can find Him in any tabernacle of the world, in others we encounter, and in our own hearts. As I journey from one place to the next sometimes I feel that my heart is in so many places. I leave it in Kirkland anytime I leave home, I left it in Africa when I went there in college, I left it at Gonzaga where God formed my heart and led me to many wonderful people, I left it in Bolivia with my girls and the sisters, and so many other places and people that God has blessed me with the chance to encounter. But when I think about that the line “Let your goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee” from the song Come Thou Font of Every Blessing comes to mind. My heart has wandered from place to place, person to person, experience to experience but in His goodness He has always wandered with me. In feeling my heart being torn in many directions I always feel most at peace in Him and through Him home is wherever He is with me. Often we do so much searching in the world especially when it comes to our planning. God calls us to come back to Him, encounter Him in our hearts, and in that see what His plan is. As St. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” It is so easy to look in other places for that peace, in our plans, in our ideas, in our activities, etc. But, in the end we can only find that in Him, in His love, and in His plans for our lives.
As I continue on the adventure that God is taking me on I don’t know where He will lead me. I don’t know everything that is in His plan. I never will and that is alright. I choose to let Him bind my wandering heart to His and seek Him with all my heart. I know He has never led me astray before. In fact, His plans have always blown mine out of the water and given me the biggest gifts in my life. Although it’s not easy giving up that control it’s worth it always. He blesses each of us with our own story, our own journey with Him and back to Him. Help us Lord to remember You are in control, to trust in Your plan over ours, and find our home in You.